"At the heart of our project lies an instinctive claim to our voice."
We take a feminist and deeply subjective approach to create our own history of the “now” that enables us to tell it with much more nuance, strength, emotion, and sentimentality compared to the hegemonic versions of history written by others. We explore the narratives of women both as individual stories and as a collective, engulfed by dominant representations about them created by others.
Despite the diversity of experiences, locations, and realities of the storytellers we encountered we learned that navigating discourses means power.
I decided to embark on this project when I started to question what it means to have a place one calls home. For the better part of my life, the question of home was visceral and emotive. Home was the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, specifically Dhahran. I grew up on the campus of King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (KFUPM) in the 1980s and 1990s where my father was a Professor of Geology. During Eid breaks, he took us to Taif near Makkah, where he had grown up, where my grandfather had lived, and his father before him. Home was the smell of bakhoor, the KFUPM library at the “rec center,” my locker at Dhahran Ahliyya School covered in stickers, and the car ride home in the scorching sun. Home was the pistachio colored couch in my mother’s bedroom that I sat on every afternoon at four thirty sharp so I can read to her (out loud) the handwritten article for her daily column that she would fax to the editor of Al-Riyadh newspaper later that same evening. Home was a place that I called my own, regardless of where I later studied or lived. It is no coincidence that almost all of my academic research and writing has emerged out of this sense of belonging: Saudi women’s work, their voices, and engagement with public/private worlds.
In 2011, I gave birth to my son which, in hindsight, turned out to be an inflection point in my life. In Saudi Arabia, a mother cannot automatically pass her nationality on to her children. So for the first time in my life, I started to experience, in new ways, the liminal space I occupied as a Saudi woman. I felt compelled to tell my son stories about “my home” and get him to imagine what it was like growing up there. I had to explain why the representations of Saudis we were surrounded with did not reflect my own experience of what it was/is to be a Saudi. I struggled to find ways of passing on to him what I felt was a big part of who I am as a person. How can you belong to a place that has the ability to make you feel alienated? So I decided to work on a project that would allow me to narrate that emotional space. I wanted to hear from other women I knew about their own journeys of belonging and their negotiations in their own voices. I wanted to explore the notion of what it means to speak and to be spoken for simultaneously. Through many conversations both with my collaborator and with the women we met throughout this project, by crossing many borders both imagined and real, I now feel I have reclaimed my voice. I feel, I am becoming myself, again.
- May Al-Dabbagh
“It's time that you move away from the subject of women in Saudi Arabia. It is very limiting to your practice” Someone said this to me before I started this project. Doubt in ones belief can be like a weed that can grow and suffocate everything around it. I started this project with doubt and ended it with a newfound belief. I started this project with a focus on other women and ended it with a focus on me. I started this project with turbulent debate and ended it with wholesome understanding.
In the end I did not achieve what I set out to do for this project, instead I reaffirmed my belief in the power of friendship, collaboration and art. Sahar Khalifa wrote in her book, A Memoire of an Unrealistic Woman “And when I breath, they suffocate”. It is liberating when you face your doubts and own your thoughts. It is empowering when you navigate the noise and reclaim your voice.
- Manal Aldowayan
To tell a story of one’s life is to give meaning to one’s existence. Storytelling is powerful because it orders the chaos of events, people, memories, times, and places encountered. It allows the narrator to assert: I was there! I lived. I triumphed. I cried. I saw. And perhaps most importantly: the story is mine to be told. Looking back at one’s life means actively reconstructing what has happened in the past and imbuing it with a logic of coherence experienced in the present. Story telling is, in fact, the purest form of conversation. The women we interviewed were women we knew. Women who’s stories were familiar to us. Through hearing their stories our own stories became increasingly clear.
Saudi women’s voices are underrepresented in history. Even when they are represented by others (the West/Media/Official Narratives) they either exist as a collective monolith in the form of "oppressed Saudi women” or pitted individually as exceptional "heroines" or spoken for as a symbol of morality. The result is that Saudi women are, collectively, in a state of being "hyper-visible": they are simultaneously present yet mystified; constantly talked about as a subject yet objectified and misunderstood at the same time.
We started this project with a desire to build an archive of women’s stories. As our journey evolved, we became enchanted with the notion of critiquing the archive itself: A project to mock false representations of others through deceptive truth, power, and objectivity. Yet here we are returning full circle and putting women’s voices first. We come back to our initial starting point changed by the experience of border crossing and the liminality of conversations between us to create something new. Here are the stories of women’s voices amidst the cacophony. Here is a story we can call our own.
Voice (re) Claimed
The circle in its most basic definitions represents the Self or the origin while the cyclical movement has been described as the symbol of time. “Voice (re) Claimed” was realized only through the process of self-discovery over time.
Placing the circle within another circle starts to create a situation that resembles the ripple effect, where an effect from an initial state can be followed outwards incrementally. Can our personal narratives ever move beyond the center of a ripple? Can the incrementally expanding circles carry our message of self-realization outwards?
Videos, text and photograph—Manal Aldowayan, FIND Fellow