daily inspiration: the pleasure principles
It's not the first time I feature the work of Yumna Al Arashi on my blog - for as long as I can recall Yumna's work as been inspirational to me. As an Arab and as woman and as an aspiring documentarian her work touches me. Her latest project, "The Pleasure Principles", which she shot for topic.com, resonated with me on an other-worldly level. I thought it deserved a post of its own.
Although I have been aware of the project for over a month, Yumna's latest newsletter motivated me to write about it. I love that she shared her thought process behind the project, in the delicate, poignant way she does everything. The Pleasure Principles is a photo-essay that challenges the notion that the Middle East is devoid of sexuality and sensuality, and more specifically, that Islam is a religion that denounces sexual pleasure. I would love to go on about the project myself, but Yumna explains the concept more concinvingly than I ever could, so here is an excerpt from her newsletter:
"About a year ago, I attended a conference in London where I spoke about the work I create. A man there told me that making erotic art was a Western made concept - that I wasn’t respecting my culture and history because of my interests in human sensuality.
I immediately remembered a text translated by Sir Richard Burton, The Perfumed Garden. His introduction threw praises at the Arabs for their ability to please the senses and enjoy the delights of humanity; everything from incense, music, fabric and sexual desires. He specifically stated that without the influence of culture from the East, the West would be stuck in the dark ages... Soon after that conference, I found my way back to that book, but with a desire to find more like it. My treasure was overwhelming.
My ancestors were perverts.
Edward Said was famous for coining the term “orientalism,” the infamous ways in which we as non-white people, have been rendered in imagery, tales, and stereotypes. Orientalism has ultimately led to an unbudging view of who we are to the white man. This includes our sexualities. For long, the majority of artwork about my ancestors was made by white men, and still is. We have been fetishised and demonized, from images of harems as sex concubines for men, to Disney’s Aladdin, and even now, Sex with Refugees. Arab movements towards conservatism have left many of us who do wish to speak for our own bodies too scared to do so, or censored completely. I want to take ownership of our sensuality and the imagery that is created around it.
There are many heroes out there who are doing the work of reopening our worlds, and speaking on behalf of our sexualities for ourselves. Abdelwahab Bouhdiba, Shereen El Feki, and Hayv Karahman, are but a few in our contemporary world bringing sensual topics into the modern spheres of art and literature. They truly see the importance of reclaiming our sexualities and our sexual representations for ourselves.
This body of work hopes to breathe new life into these texts, to resurface them for those who may have forgotten the importance of sexuality and erotica in our culture. My goal is to remind myself and others that our culture and religion praises the importance of sexuality, in all of its forms. Many may not know that Islam holds sex as a sacred act, that which brings one closer to God. It insists that sex is a vital part of a relationship, not just to procreate, but also for pleasure - so much so that, a woman may legally leave her husband if he does not sexually please her."
Everything you've just read makes my heart beat so fast. I spent a good part of my life wondering why, as Arabs, we couldn't express our sexuality openly, and why our God didn't like the beautiful intimacy of human sexuality. I won't get into the geopolitical and historical complexity of the region - which Yumna touches on briefly in her writing above - but I am very much aware of its effect on how we see ourselves sexually. It is work like this that makes me feel less "othered" by my own culture. The Pleasure Principles make me proud of my heritage and sensuality while taking ownership of it. This is how one reclaims their own sense of empowerment.
Above all, I think Yumna's concluding thoughts that motivated me to share all the above with you. She finishes by saying:
"I've been thinking and talking a lot about privilege these days. Mainly about my own, and my duty to take full advantage of every privilege I have. So many Muslim women approach me regularly asking how I can do what I do without fear of consequence from my family or community. The reality is that my family is my support system. They have always been my biggest cheerleaders, especially my father.
In much of the Muslim world, most things can't happen in a woman's life without the approval of her father - even small things like going to school to study. Since day one, my father has had my back and supported all of my artistic endeavors, and continues to feed me inspiration and knowledge. He not only accepts what I do, but he is an active part of it. That is one of the greatest privileges of my entire existence, and because of it, I can continue to allow so many other women to be inspired to do more. All because my father's choice to not raise me with restriction solely based on my gender.
Because I know my privilege, I try my best to make full use of it during my time on this planet. It also has made me realize that there is such an important role we as women take in raising our sons to be supportive men, either as fathers or in the communities that they will exist. Please remember this. And please always remind yourself of your privilege, and that your greatest contributions to society will exist solely due to your awareness of your privilege, whatever it may be.
Be good, you all. Think for yourself. Don't let the machine think for you. Learn about the importance of securing your data and your free will. And for god's sake, get the fuck off the internet. Make your own food, be good to the people you love, don't drink too much, use your hands for more than just scrolling, and speak your mind."
I think getting the fuck off the internet is my favourite part of the whole newsletter, and the advice of raising our sons to be supportive, active individuals to be great contributors to society. As women that is how we empower ourselves and one another, and how we empower future generations. I cannot get enough of women like Yumna, who continue to produce cultural work that breaks boundaries and influence women like myself to be who we want to be. Hats off to Yumna and all the other female creators out there who inspire me and my peers.
The future is fiercely female.
Darah (for follow the halo issue #5 - reclaiming empowerment).