‘Scratched Identities’: Shatha Altowai on Creating Art in Yemen

Image reproduced with permission of artist: (c) Sara Othman.

“Because I am a woman, I had to hide my own identity for a very long time. I fought with all my strength to get it back, and to be proud of it.”

So says Shatha Altowai, Yemeni artist and IASH/IIE Artist Protection Fund Fellow. Creating art in a war-torn country like Yemen, with heavily patriarchal values, is not a simple task. As a result, Shatha has previously avoided touching on sensitive political and social topics through her art. Now that she is in Edinburgh, Shatha says she has the courage and confidence to express the ideas she has kept secret for so long.

Shatha’s upcoming exhibition, ‘Scratched Identities’, will feature photographs and paintings of women whose faces are obscured, replicating the common Yemeni practice of hiding women’s faces in photos. To Shatha, and to women in Yemen, this practice is an extremely personal one that affects their relationships with their own identities. It is also often a pivotal moment in young Yemeni girls’ reckoning with gender inequality.

Shatha recalls the moment she came to realise she was destined to be treated differently to men. At the age of ten, Shatha was shown her friend’s grade-school certificate. Stapled to this certificate was her friend’s photograph, on which a floral sticker had been placed to hide her face. Shocked, Shatha questioned why this was the case and was told that now that her eleven-year-old friend was a grown woman, her face was not to be seen.

Since that interaction, the societal pressure to hide her identity and womanhood has deeply affected Shatha’s life. From the age of twelve, Shatha was forbidden from sharing her personal photos on the internet and with her female friends. She was forced to be very cautious handling and sharing her pictures, to the extent that she had to keep the photos on her phone a secret. She fought to show her hands and eyes to the public, taking gradual steps towards her freedom. Upon graduating from university, Shatha was forced to keep her veil on in her graduation photos.

According to Shatha and her husband Saber Bamatraf, the practice of hiding women’s faces in photos occurs because these photos are seen as shameful. They’re frequently hidden because of the fear of what those outwith the nuclear family will say, and what scandals they may ignite. As such, the practice is justified as a “protective measure” from the criticism of wider society. The fear of the shame those photographs may bring is so powerful that when the Yemeni civil war began, families were quick to pore through photo albums and scratch, burn, or dispose of photos depicting the women in the family, out of fear that these photos would be found by individuals in their community if an airstrike were to target and devastate their homes.

Image reproduced with permission of artist: (c) Sara Othman.

Shatha began challenging the norm of hiding her face when she met her husband, Saber. The first photos she shared were ones in which she was pictured alongside him. At the end of the day, she says, Saber’s masculinity would act as a barrier to criticism or threats. However, Shatha and Saber express serious anxiety at how long this deterrent might last – according to the pair, the photos Shatha shares possess so much power that they have to think twice before posting pictures online, even while they reside in Edinburgh.

This control of women’s identities and autonomy isn’t restricted to physical photographs – with the rise of the internet, it has expanded to encompass social media. Scrolling through her Facebook feed, Shatha shows me an array of profile pictures uploaded to women’s Facebook accounts, in which emojis have been used to hide their facial features. The evolution of the practice of hiding women’s faces in photos shows the power that photos, and particularly photos of women, hold in Yemen.

In this context, Shatha presents her second exhibition in Scotland, ‘Scratched Identities.’ It will feature photographs of both Yemeni women and women local to Edinburgh, whose faces will be scratched or hidden by stickers. Alongside the exhibition, Shatha and Saber present ‘Saber Came to Tea’, a play highlighting the Yemeni tradition of segregating women from men in family homes, and how breaking this tradition challenges social practices.

Through ‘Scratched Identities’, Shatha grapples with the pain of seeing women cover their own faces without questioning why they do so. She hopes that through her exhibition, the Edinburgh community will come face-to-face with, and begin to understand, the lived realities of Yemeni women.

Image reproduced with permission of artist: (c) Sara Othman.

The ‘Scratched Identities’ Exhibition will be open for viewing between the 11h of October and the 11th of November 2021 inclusive at the Southside Community Gallery. Read more about the exhibition, and reserve tickets, here.

Shatha and Saber’s play ‘Saber Came to Tea’ runs on the 8th and 9th of October 2021. Tickets may be purchased here.

Read more about Shatha and her husband Saber on their personal websites.

Read more about the IIE Artist Protection Fund here, and IASH here.