The hijabi photographer whose self-portraits are en vogue  

Jodie Bateman
7 min read
05 November, 2021
Driven by a mission to humanise and normalise images of Muslim women, British-Muslim photographer Jodie Bateman will be exhibiting her series of portraits at Vogue Italia’s Photo Festival this month.

“I am not below a man. I am not beaten. I do not need saving.” These are the phrases that adorn the lower half of a blue maxi dress worn by a barefooted, hijabi woman as she sits on the toilet next to the bathtub that contains her young son. In another photo, she wears a burgundy version of the dress and headscarf and stands amid her child’s toys.

The woman in these photos is Jodie Bateman, a British-Muslim photographer whose series titled My Hijab has a Voice: Revisited will be on display at Vogue Italia’s Vogue Photo Festival in Milan from November 18 to 21.

"It’s a fitting theme for Bateman’s work, since throughout history, Muslim women have been framed by both Orientalist stereotypes on one hand, and patriarchal dogma preached by male leaders of Muslim communities, on the other"

As one of 35 artists selected by an international jury from over 2,500 photographers, her work will appear at the prestigious publication’s Reframing History exhibition.

It’s a fitting theme for Bateman’s work, since throughout history, Muslim women have been framed by both Orientalist stereotypes on one hand, and patriarchal dogma preached by male leaders of Muslim communities, on the other.

Bateman’s self-portraits are a breath of fresh air, giving power, control and a voice back to Muslim women.

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Bateman and her sister Hannah are the subjects of the photos in this series. “They show my character and humanise me, with bits of my belongings like my son’s toys and my kitchen, to show who I am,” she says.  

Muslim women are misunderstood, to say the least, in the mainstream Western media, and Bateman says that since veiling, she has dealt with her fair share of prejudiced stereotypes: “That I’m oppressed, that I’m forced, that I wear it for my husband, that I’m not modern, that I can’t mix into society and be an artist. Especially in England anyway, people think that Muslim women can’t be more than a bit of cloth,” she explains.

Jodie Bateman
Laying on her back in khimar [Jodie Bateman]

Bateman, who currently lives in Surrey, converted to Islam in 2017 and has worn the hijab since 2018. She says that she has always been passionate about photography, ever since she first began clicking photos on her Sony Erickson camera phone.

“When I was applying to college, I was told to do something that makes me happy, and I just thought, ‘what makes me happy? Taking pictures makes me happy.’ So I just pursued it, and I’m so glad that I did because it blossomed into something so great,” she says.

After earning her undergraduate degree in photography, Bateman completed her master’s in fine arts photography. Now, her work is attracting an international audience, and will continue to do so with her inclusion in Vogue Italia’s upcoming Photo Festival – an opportunity which Bateman says still feels surreal: “I really didn’t expect it, I literally felt weak when I found out. It’s really huge publicity.”

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The fashion magazine’s interest in Bateman’s work could be an extension of the industry’s newfound fascination with modesty and veiling.

Over the past decade, designers have been increasingly catering to Muslim women, making modest silhouettes and marketing them through partnerships with hijabi models and influencers, in attempts to tick diversity boxes while also attracting Muslim spending power.

This movement towards modest fashion has helped shine a light on the fact that Muslim women who cover their skin for faith-based reasons can be just as “modern”, “empowered” and “fashionable” as their Western, non-religious peers.

"The fashion magazine’s interest in Bateman’s work could be an extension of the industry’s newfound fascination with modesty and veiling"

It’s important for this movement to translate in the art world too, especially since the Western lens often focuses on the Muslim women who “de-veil”, or portray the hijab as a stifling symbol of repressive patriarchy.

“There’s a lot of art that I’ve seen that’s about the women who don’t want to wear it, and how they’re pushing it in places like Iran and I think that’s really important as well, but I haven’t seen something like this, that celebrates women who are wearing it,” says Bateman.

Celebratory stories about hijabs are often overshadowed by gloomier news pieces, like the banning of hijabs and niqabs, the Islamophobic attacks on visibly-Muslim women, the exclusion of hijabi athletes, the “white-saviour” teachers telling their students to take off their headscarves – the list goes on. This seemingly simple piece of cloth is imbued with politics, but the heated discourse it provokes often excludes those who relate to it most – Muslim women. 

Jodie Bateman
Laying with books on the floor [Jodie Bateman]

Too often are Muslim women spoken about by those who don’t share their diverse lived experiences, and Bateman hopes that her work will help change the mainstream narrative about Muslim women who choose to cover.

Bateman holds the shutter release cable in plain sight of her self-portrait photos when she could have easily edited it away. Symbolising autonomy and empowerment, it’s important for her to own her work in this way, to show that the gaze from which she’s capturing images, is in fact her own.

Her activist motivations have artistic roots: many of her photos are influenced by paintings, and how female figures were historically objectified for the viewing pleasure of men. They were portrayed nude and vain, often holding mirrors, and Bateman juxtaposes this theme with symbols that offer more coverage – and more substance.

"Her activist motivations have artistic roots: many of her photos are influenced by paintings, and how female figures were historically objectified for the viewing pleasure of men"

“Instead of having mirrors I had books,” she says of an image she recreated with her sister, Hannah. The bodies of both women are fully covered, save for their faces and hands, and in the corner of the image is a pile of books, trading in a timeworn focus on female beauty, for female education and empowerment.  

Bateman says that John Berger’s popular book, Ways of Seeing, which analyses the hidden messages in visual images and explores the history of artists’ fascination with nude females as the subjects of their own idealisation and desires, deeply impacted her photography approach. “It honestly changed my whole perception on painting and women in art,” she says.

Jodie Bateman
Like a painting [Jodie Bateman]

Bateman also recreates an 1895 painting called Flaming June by Sir Frederic Leighton, which features a woman with long, auburn hair, robed in an orange dress, sleeping decadently on an armchair. Her photo inspired by this iconic painting shows her sister Hannah in a pink dress and beige shawl lounging on a sofa covered in sheets. “Instead of having her hair flow I used a hijab to bring emphasis to the hijab in a state of beauty, elegance and power,” stated Bateman in the photo’s caption on Instagram.

Bateman hopes to now capture more Muslim women from her lens, this time combining photography with interviews. “It’ll be more collaborative, not just my experience but the experience of others too,” she says, adding that she is currently seeking participants for this project.

Will it set the stage for another photography exhibition? Perhaps, but Bateman believes the project even has the potential to become a book.

The platform she gains through Vogue Italia’s Photo Festival is incredibly opportune. Muslim women are in the spotlight, with the perception of their veils at stake, as evidenced through Western governments’ prejudiced policies regarding hijabs.

And on the other side of the world in Afghanistan, Muslim women remain uncertain of their role in society, barred from attending schools and excluded from government cabinet positions under the Taliban’s repressive rule.

Stock images of burka-clad Afghan women, faceless, and identity-less, have consequently become the go-to images to represent Muslim women.

As a storyteller with unique, feminine and faith-inspired insight, Bateman is changing the narrative, allowing the women, their faces, fashions and surroundings, to speak for themselves.

Hafsa Lodi is an American-Muslim journalist who has been covering fashion and culture in the Middle East for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in The Independent, Refinery29, Business Insider, Teen Vogue, Vogue Arabia, The National, Luxury, Mojeh, Grazia Middle East, GQ Middle East, gal-dem and more. Hafsa’s debut non-fiction book Modesty: A Fashion Paradox, launched at the 2020 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. 

Follow her on Twitter: @HafsaLodi