Gender roles in Saudi society come from the Sharia (Islamic law) which contains various derivatives stemming from the Quran and supplementary Hadith (various reports describing the words, actions, or habits of the Islamic prophet Muhammad). In Saudi culture, the Sharia is interpreted according to a strict Sunni form known as the way of the Salaf (righteous predecessors) or Wahhabism. The law is mostly unwritten in an official sense and is quite culturally impaired which allows judges with significant discretionary power to have sway over matters regarding gender which often result in tumultuous dispute and controversy.
According to the Encyclopedia of Human Rights, two conservative Islamic concepts that shape women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are; sex segregation; justified under the Sharia legal notion of ‘shielding from corruption’ (dar al-fasaad), and women’s alleged ‘lack of capacity’ (adam al-kifaa’ah) which is the basis of the necessity of a male guardian (mahram) whose permission must be granted for travel, medical procedures, obtaining permits, etc.
To a Western outsider this would seem like severe suppression of a gender for obvious reasons but many conservative Saudi women do not support the potential loosening of ‘traditional gender roles and restrictions’ as they endorse the notion that Saudi Arabia is the closest thing to an ‘ideal and pure Islamic nation,’ and instead consider it to be under threat from ‘imported’ Western values and loose morals. This may sound archaic and oppressive but it’s how Saudi Arabia operates and has been operating, fairly successfully, for generations. Although these are traits that are deeply rooted in Saudi society – there has been a gradual shift, a loosening of the rules that dictate what a woman can and can’t do. This is, in some sense, progress to the Western ideal but it is by means a leap towards adopting a more authentic teaching of Islam.
As recently as this year for example King Salman ordered that women be allowed access to government services such as education and healthcare as well as travel without the need for the consent of their appointed guardian – a step in what could be considered ‘the right direction’. You could also argue that with a society placing such heavy emphasis on the belief that a person’s gender dictates what they can and can’t do – it would come as some surprise to see any sort of female driven art form emerging from Saudi Arabia, let alone anything fully realised and accomplished. The argument against this would be that: some of the greatest works of art that we celebrate and enjoy are born out of an individual’s need to refute oppression and make a point heard, and in turn, appreciated. By that logic Saudi Arabia has every chance of being a veritable hotbed for emerging, artistic female talent and Lahd Gallery has the enviable pleasure of being the first gallery in the region offering a platform as well as, more recently, representing three women whose work proves that the latter argument of the two is very much a reality.
Om Kalthoom Majed Al-Alawi is an artist born in Al-Dammam, Saudi Arabia. Having acquired a Bachelor degree in Microbiology in 2007 at Al-Dammam University, she decided to follow it up with a Diploma in Visual Arts, achieving it just two years later, at the Arts and Skills Institute in Riyadh. Al-Alawi has gone on to win an array of awards as well as having work exhibited in her native Saudi Arabia. The mediums utilised in her work vary drastically but most notably she uses acrylic paint and mixed media for her two dimensional pieces while favouring paper for her sculptural work. Al-Alawi’s inspiration is found in simple human form but more in what the form and its’ movement symbolizes or what it can be abstracted to suggest. Her piece entitled No Sitting Down After Today is a perfect representation of this style and showcases Al-Alawi’s knowledge of how a simple shape, repeated and changed only slightly can build an incredibly moving and insightful piece that touches on Saudi culture in a way that is both celebratory and damning in equal measure.
Anan Al-Olayan was born in 1976 and is Saudi Arabian by birth. She is a self-taught artist who creates digital composite images using insertions of drawings and photographs. Her work is termed ‘digital fine art.’ In addition to this Al-Olayan is also adept at utilising mixed media, painting and collage on both wood and canvas in other areas of her creative output, also to great success. Originally a highly educated microbiologist; at the behest of her parents’ wishes Al-Olayan decided to pursue her artistic desires and leave scientific pursuits to those more inclined. However, work like I Hear, I See, I Speak which is composed of close-up views of flowers, eye balls and letter box shaped croppings of female eyes looking back at viewer (a bid to show what lies under the concealed visage of the average Saudi woman) suggests that the analytical, investigative mind of the scientist is still very much a part of how Al-Olayan interprets the world and a key part of her creative practice.
Hend Al-Mansour, a veteran of ten years exhibiting her work everywhere from Saudi Arabia to Minneapolis utilises a unique blend of screen-printing, drawing and painting onto large sheets of fabric or paper. With so many of the Saudi customs pertaining to women concerning how, and in what, they dress – perhaps the use of fabric within Al-Mansour’s work is the most daring aspect of her style overall. Her style explores social values and cultural ideals, the veiled spaces of Saudi Arabia in which Arab women exist with characters often actively moving the fabric away and revealing more of a piece to the viewer. This sounds like the artist is being somewhat accusatory towards Saudi culture, and perhaps that’s true, but Al-Mansour’s work executes it all in a very open and celebratory manner which shows an adoration for traditional Arab aesthetic and heritage. For an example of this in action I would implore you to seek out Al-Mansour’s piece The Secret, which is a perfect representation of all of these factors coalescing into one very successful and harmonious piece.