Comprised of five girls—founder and curator Sara Bin Safwan, Eman Bahrani, Aliyah Al Awadhi, Farrah Fray and Fatema Nooh—Banat Collective is an art platform showcasing emerging artists from the MENA region. With an aim to bring critical and intersectional thinking to the region, Banat serves as a point of connection between different backgrounds that are closely related, but can geographically feel far away.
On February 11, the collective released their first book entitled In the Middle of It All, which—over five chapters—utilised 31 collaborators to visually narrate the intricacies of growing up as a girl.
Puberty is a strong overarching theme of the book that uncovers personal histories and cultural intricacies, in order to give authentic representation of women from across the region, as well as to humanise them, rather than objectify them by exposing topics of stigma and deliberation.
Upon the release of the book, MILLE spoke to founder Sara Bin Safwan about media, representation and womanhood.
How did the collective and platform emerge?
Banat is really a response to the need for more accommodating spaces for grassroots movements to grow. After living in London for so long, I grew apart from the UAE, so it was a desire to reconnect with my country and culture that personally inspired me to start the collective. I took the independent, DIY spirit that I had fallen in love with while living in London and applied it to a project in the UAE.
How do you feel the world and mainstream media depicts Arab women? Do you feel stigmatised?
The topic of ‘coming of age’ is overlooked in the Arab world, being rebranded and constructed by centuries of cultural and social tradition. Despite this, the trials of womanhood uncover happiness, resilience and independence. In The Middle of It All reveals diverse and authentic experiences of growing up and hopefully demystify the stereotypical notion of the Arab woman.
As young Arab women, what are some of the challenges you are confronted by?
The agenda of most news outlets is heavily conditioned by their revenue model, which relies on politicizing and sensationalizing and in the process spreading ignorance. The reality—and a reality that Banat allows women to show—is that we experience the same physical insecurities, the same fears and the same boredom of a 9 to 5 job or stress of moving home.
Communicating and showing are part of Banat’s aim to break down these artificial barriers created by misinformation and to educate those that don’t know any better. We of course experience suppression, abuse and manipulation that we fight with degrees of success and failure but this is no different from women the world over.
Do you believe it’s harder to be a woman in the region than in the West? Do you think that Western feminism works for us?
I believe that there are different modes of feminism and not just one model to follow. This is why we would rather focus on intersectionality, a model that showcases the diversity of women and the traits that come along with them. We think that this is an effective means of accomplishing the broader goals of any feminist project: Equality. Banat hopes to be a platform for women of MENA to lend their voice to what must be a global conversation, not just a Western one. Like any region in the world we have our own problems and norms that we try to change and improve all the time.
Do you think Arab art is inherently political?
We cannot ignore that there is some political instability in some parts of the region but we also can’t subject all Arab artists to be inherently political because of that. Many artists, Arab or not, comment on their political, social or economical environment, which I believe is the right of any human. However, there are also artists showing the mundane everyday way of life that we live. The diverse ideas and art that come out of the region shows us that Arab artists are capable of being more than just political.
In what ways do you want to see the region and its relationship with the rest of the world progress?
Through the art that we showcase and articles we share, we hope to see more critical discussions about contemporary art and writing in the region. We hope to eliminate the stereotypical view of Arab women and replace it with an image of smart and creative artists who have important worldviews to share. By doing so, we believe we can add to the progress of the world and region changing to a more accepting place.