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Nuclear Nuqta and the Politics of Identity

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The uprisings of 2011 in the Middle East and North Africa heralded a new fascination among the British media with Arab women, who were part of the street protests that broke out across the region. Journalists then produced a steady stream of stories about these same women that later gave way to debate about whether their hopes had been realised.

For many Arab women, however, this constant assessment of their lives and experiences within the revolution raises old questions about who gets to speak for them.

While media-savvy, English speaking women are given a platform, there are many women who not only feel excluded by their analysis, but are angered that the views of one woman are somehow taken to reflect the views of women across the country, if not the region.

Visual communicator Muiz, whose Nuclear Nuqta exhibition is headlining the Nour Arts Festival at Leighton House Museum in London this month, focuses on the Muslim and Arab identity in the post 9/11 and revolutionary era.

Among his work is an Arabic morse code series which gives a prominent position to Khadija, the first wife of Muhammad. By doing so, he not only reinterprets Arabic in a way that is different to how people are used to seeing it, but also to how women are perceived.

At a pre-Islamic time when women were characterised as being very low status, Khadija the first wife, was significantly older than Muhammad, a widow who had inherited a business and gone on to become a very successful businesswoman. She was not only affluent, but well-respected in society, independent and wise.

"I felt it was important to include her in the series to make a statement," says Muiz. "Arguably, she was the first Muslim because she accepted the first revelation that was revealed to Muhammad, at a time when he was too traumatised to even accept it himself, which was a sign of her strength, compassion and intelligence. It was important to have her name placed alongside the others in the series."

Women in the Middle East now face men in and outside the Middle East telling them what they should be doing, says Muiz. On the flip side, there are women outside the Middle East, including those who originate from there, who are attempting to force an identity onto the women actually living in the region, by saying what they should be doing, including how they should dress.

"The only people that really have a right to say who the women in the Middle East are and what they should be doing are the women actually in the Middle East, who have grown up within that culture, and who have been life long members of that region, who understand the nuances of the community make up and how it has shifted and conflicted over the decades. They are the only ones we should be listening to regarding this issue, in my opinion."

As well as challenging the issue of how Arab women are perceived, Muiz also raises the question of who is in a position to address the Arab woman's identity, with a magazine that examines women's cultural and theological interpretation of the head scarf.

With a striking photo of a woman wearing a hijab on the cover, Intellectual Lifestyle Magazine, or ILM, which also means 'knowledge' in Arabic, featured largely un-edited, firsthand commentary from women that allowed them to tell their story to counteract the "contesting" of Arab women's identity that goes on both within the communities and globally.

"The idea was to give women from various backgrounds an opportunity to share their experiences and perspectives on the issue," says Muiz. "The 'Arab Muslim woman' isn't a singular entity, they are not a homogeneous group."

The magazine featured women who grew up in families where the veil was worn and took it off in later life, and also to those who adopted the veil later. There were also features examining how wearing the veil differs throughout the region and the issue of covering the hair with a Christian nun and a Jewish woman.

"When we hear about the Middle Eastern women, who do we hear about them from, mainly?
We rarely hear from women actually in the Middle East and that's not because they don't have a voice, that they are repressed to the point of becoming mute clichés requiring a 'voice for the voiceless'," he says.

"They are just not given a prominent enough platform to say what they want to say, because often what they have to say is too raw for most people to accept and doesn't fit into most politically branded narratives that exist in the mainstream media discourse today."