by Roszeen Afsar
“The hijab is much more than the external solid scarf, but it is worn as an internal spiritual means of faith, these collections depict that so well.” – Nargis Akhter
The above quote is the feedback I received from a friend after I showed her the piece I’d painted of her [above] based on one of her photographs. The photo I saw showed her with a peaceful yet sombre expression I would imagine of a Victorian woman saving her smile, but looking satisfied and elegant in her pose, confident in her femininity, dignified as a woman. The collection of mine she was referring to was not only the painting I did of her or the plans I’d shared with her of my future work, but also another piece I’d made previously which was inspired in the same light; by the expression of another friend whose hijab was also intrinsically melded into her closed eyes and subtle smile. I painted what struck me, inspired by their essence, and with the sole purpose of trying to capture peace. Peace is feminine in my eyes. And so is spirituality.
Artistic depictions of Muslim women in history have consisted of Orientalist ideas mostly, often portraying the Arabian (which is the only ethnicity of the Muslim woman in Western stereotype) female ‘other’ as an erotic being, an object hidden behind a veil. Discussion of the Islamic woman is concrete, black and white. As material, physical and solid as the scarf around her head – just as my friend referred to in the above quote. Although I may in future discuss something I’ve painted or drawn as a response to secular opinion or critique of female autonomy in Islam, I didn’t begin my work that way and it is not what inspires me. First and foremost my inspirations come by way of…the innocence of the unguarded moment, the natural beauty of the created, the split second of a peaceful smile, a feminine confidence, the image of the soul materialised. It is therefore the painted or drawn face itself which takes precedence above whatever opinion or stereotype others may have, which speaks for itself, which stands on its own before whatever follows from it and not vice versa.
Knowledge or appreciation of spirituality in this age is naïve at most and non-existent at least. It is not surprising that female spirituality is never brought up in discussions regarding Islam, but Rabia al Basri is the woman who immediately comes to mind when I think of it. Rabia’s earlier life was very much concrete; poverty placed her into slavery. She was a woman tied to her circumstances and could have become the helpless victim Muslim women are often depicted as. However, her hardships and worship led to her rising spiritually, they led to her certainness of being, so much so that she freed herself of her circumstances and was seen as a saint. I would give a great deal to be able to witness the way she was and the aura surrounding her as a woman in oneness with God.
Without even intending to seek, I believe I have come across drops from such an ocean of spiritualism and being, cast upon the faces of women around me. Though the moments are fleeting, they exist. The expressions which have inspired me are from the lives of real women. And what strikes me about them is that their expressions are both close and distant, just as every single soul is both alive in the physical, immediate realm, as well as in the metaphysical, experiential one. I believe that what inspires me to paint and create is witnessing the presence of being at peace – something I have seen in its purest in the feminine.