Seeing Sooraya

This blog post is about art and religion. And a brave woman photographer who is standing her ground.

Art is something different to just about everyone. Groups may agree on theoretical aspects of a work or genre, but the emotional response to a photograph, a play or a piece of music is personal and unique to everyone who experiences it.

Religion on the other hand is a collective experience. Not only is every person of a particular faith expected to feel exactly the same way about a set of principles, ideals or beliefs, all religions are pretty much based on the same premise—controlling people in this life with the promise of something better in the next.

The photo below was taken by Sooraya Graham, a Fine Arts student at Thompson Rivers University in BC. Sooraya is a Canadian-born Muslim, fiercely proud of her freedoms as a Canadian woman and not about to let anyone censor her. Oh, but they tried.

Read the CBC story and you’ll learn that the photo was unofficially removed from public exhibit at her school by a teacher because some students complained (an act that would count, I believe, as vandalism, since an unauthorized person removed it). The officials at the school said “no way” and displayed it in another location.

Now the Saudi Embassy is getting involved. As if they have any legitimate right to comment on or censor any act of a Canadian citizen in Canada.

I’m not going to get into the “Muslim’s are trying to take over the world” thing. That’s hate-baiting and it makes me feel like I need a shower. I’m not going to labour into how women are treated by countries ruled by Islamic fundamentalists. We know all about it. The problem is we don’t know what to do about it.

But I know that in Canada, artists of both (all?) genders are free to express their perspective on the world and no Canadian, regardless of religion or gender should ever need to watch over their shoulder, fearing censorship from anyone.

That means you Saudi Embassy. And you Trad Bahabri, the (male) president of the Saudi Education Centre in Kamloops, funded by the Saudi Arabian government. You don’t get to censor a Canadian artist. You don’t get to lecture her on professionalism or context. You don’t get even the tiniest bit of control over what this Canadian woman decides to do with what she sees in her lens. So back off.

Personally, I get what Sooraya is saying. At least what her photograph says to me. That despite the niqab, a veil covering the face, and an abaya, a full-body cloak—and the beliefs that instruct in the wearing of such garments—we women are all the same underneath. That we have undeniable connections with each other that may not be always visible.

And that’s important. Because a lot of Canadian women—me included—have been creeped out by the sight of a woman wearing these items. To many, they’re a symbol of silence, invisibility, marginalization—all the things we’ve fought against for so long. The sight of them somehow reduces the wins we’ve achieved.

But hearing Sooraya speak about her art, defending her right to freedom as a Canadian woman—it’s clear that while the niqab and abaya might cover up her face and body—her vision, her strength and her pride in who she is, is fully revealed.

The photograph in question


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