ReBirth: Women in Iraq blend feminism with digital art

ReBirth: Women in Iraq blend feminism with digital art
5 min read
13 April, 2021
Burcu Ozcelik uncovers the creative practices of reBirth, a visual arts project in Erbil that unapologetically showcases womanhood and femininity in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Photographer and mixed media artist Raz is known as 'The 'Darling Beast' [Instagram]
 
 
 
The Kurds have endured hardship in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East for generations, their unique identity and language denied by powerful states.

Although their dream of independence has stalled, the next generation of Kurds are buzzing with unstoppable inspiration, determined to take control of their future.

Kurdish women artists are fighting back against erasure with inspiring creativity and showcasing the boundless energy of Middle Eastern womanhood.

ReBirth is a first of its kind visual arts project based in the city of Erbil in the Kurdistan Region, hailed as a 'narration of power, resilience and diverse femininity.'

It is co-founded by Raz Xaidan, a Kurdish Londoner, born in Sweden and raised at the juncture of Brixton Hill and Streatham Hill in South London. She returned to Iraqi Kurdistan from Europe in 2014, swept up by the winds of change blowing in her motherland.

I first met Raz, a photographer and mixed media artist, a few years ago in Erbil and reconnected recently via Zoom. She is the epitome of Gen-Z cool, a bigger than life personality with roots in a strong sense of self. She is known both on and offline as 'The 'Darling Beast'.

An homage to the days of her early girlhood in London when she was toxically teased as being 'too ethnic, too Middle Eastern' for her unruly mass of black locks and thick eyebrows. 

  Our goal was to represent these women as who they are, strong, opinionated, resilient, but also at the crossroads of hybrid identities  

"I made that insult my own, I became the darling beast," she tells me.

Instagram Post
Instagram Post

Alongside Ya Khadijah, an Iraqi-Tunisian creative who also grew up outside Iraq, (Raz calls her 'Khadijah from the Bronx') the two women created reBirth to showcase the new, modern face of feminism flowering in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the wider Middle East.

Raz puts it this way, "I am a hybrid. I straddle two worlds, my Londoner self and my proud Kurdish heritage. I can blend and fuse both cultures at once and on my own terms. Who is to tell me otherwise?"

ReBirth is the culmination of a two-year collaborative project that showcases womanhood and femininity through a series of choreographed photographs of twelve diverse women who call Iraqi Kurdistan home. Among them are a Zimbabwean teacher, Chaldean, Assyrian and Pakistani women, and two Kurdish sisters.

For the project, Raz rummaged for vintage clothes from the thrift mega-store in Erbil and shot the women across vivid, stirring locations, ranging from the site of a demolished neighbourhood, a dried up riverbed, and the laundry aisle of a florescent-lit grocery store.

"Our goal was to represent these women as who they are, strong, opinionated, resilient, but also at the crossroads of hybrid identities. And embracing their difference and heritage, taking charge of their destinies rather than being portrayed as victims."

The result is a stunning portfolio of photographs that captures the complex prism of what it means to be a woman in the Middle East today.

The images are clustered into four seasons, each representing a chapter in a woman's life as she navigates her place in the world.

Women like Raz are increasingly undeterred by the constraints of cultural and political convention.

"Some people here say I am too assertive or aggressive," Raz explains from her arts studio in Erbil. "I think people say I have some masculine traits. I call it feminine masculinity; I unapologetically speak up for my heritage."

  Struggling against oppression can mean more than taking up a gun and going into battle... I am fighting against the absence of female led creative work in Kurdish society  

In addition to reBirth, Raz experiments with other artistic mediums like archival digital imaging. Recasting the past through telling her story, she picks through Kurdish folklore, poetry and art to create images with playful pops of colour.

 
   
 
  ReBirth is the culmination of a two-year collaborative project that showcases womanhood
and femininity through a series of choreographed photographs of twelve diverse women
who call Iraqi Kurdistan home

Her goal is to write back the women who are misunderstood, written out and forgotten. To remind the world that ancient Kurdish culture was a matriarchal one. With a rhythmic pace and boundless colour, her creative work spurs her followers on a self-discovery trail, dotted with portraits of Kurdish heroines and mythologies of female power that rattle the stereotype of Muslim women in need of saving.

The individual women in her images are often faceless, representing both the multitude of women joined up against repression and the timelessness of the women's struggle across generations.

"Struggling against oppression can mean more than taking up a gun and going into battle," she says. "I am fighting against the absence of female led creative work in Kurdish society. A woman's revolution cannot be run by men in suits!"

Gendered expectations around the role of women are entrenched in the region, but slowly, this is beginning to change. Projects like reBirth show girls and women that it is possible to be authentic to one's culture and a resilient woman at once. 

Through creative reimagining, a political resistance to gendered oppression in the region is looking possible, one step at a time.

Burcu Ozcelik is a lecturer at the University of Cambridge. She received her PhD from Cambridge's Department of Politics and International Studies, where she was subsequently a teaching fellow in Conflict, Peacebuilding and the Politics of the Middle East (2015-2017). Her current book project examines women's right-wing political activism, political Islam and the gendered response to the rise of populist religious nationalism across many parts of the world.

Follow her on Twitter: @BurcuAOzcelik