Elena Sheppard
Updated April 06, 2016
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Courtesy of the artist and East Wing Contemporary Gallery

Take a moment and think about being a woman in the Arab world. Chances are that the thoughts running through your mind are influenced by headlines, possibly inflected by stereotypes, perhaps even charged with a current that says women in Arab countries are oppressed, powerless. Now take a moment to consider the word Rayiwa, an Arabic word meaning “She who tells a story;” a word that evokes all the women’s stories we have heard and all those we have left to discover.

“She Who Tells a Story” also happens to be the name of a photography exhibit opening April 8 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. The exhibit focuses on work by women who have roots in Iran and the Arab world, and it uses their photographs to illustrate their lives and perspectives. The photographs range from portraits, to photojournalism, to staged narratives, and what they reveal is that all those stereotypes we’ve heard are unsurprisingly untrue.

Featuring work from 12 photographers, the exhibit showcases the complexities of the region, and of being a woman within it. National Museum of Women in the Arts chief curator Kathryn Wat commented on the depth of the photographs to HelloGiggles, saying they “contemplate issues of gender, history, and the changing cultural landscapes in their home regions.”

Kristen Gresh, the curator who first organized the exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, spoke about the backlash that even just the very idea of the exhibit faced. “One prominent Iranian artist warned me that focusing on a group of women photographers was ‘alarming’ because it would confirm the stereotype of Arab and Iranian women as ‘oppressed and powerless,'” she said in a statement. She contests that the exhibit has the opposite effect, “On the contrary, the works on view do just the opposite — they challenge that viewpoint, beckoning us to confront our own preconceptions and to explore new cultural landscapes.” In fact, the exhibit shows that female photographers are creating some of the region’s most important contemporary work.

The exhibit, running through July, is dedicated to starting a cultural conversation about what it really means to be a woman in the Arab world. What better way to do that than by looking through another woman’s lens, and seeing the world as she does.

Learn more about the exhibit here.