Behind Closed Doors With the Women of Saudi Arabia

The Photo Blog
Nov. 30 2013 10:32 AM

Behind Closed Doors With the Women of Saudi Arabia

1
Prayer Gown

Copyright Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos

In 2009, the British Council invited Olivia Arthur to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to teach a two-week photography workshop for women. She agreed with the hope that she would also have the chance to make some work of her own. Her photos from that time, as well as two subsequent trips, are collected in her book, Jeddah Diary, published by Fishbar. “I wanted to make a series that would open up some of this strange world to people who don't know about it,” Arthur said via email.

But being a photographer in an ultraconservative country with strict rules on what women can and can’t do could be frustrating, Arthur found. Arthur was once berated in the street by a woman whose photo she hadn’t even been taking. And it was even harder for the students in her class. “They wouldn't all be allowed out by their families to go and shoot as they wanted, but most of them managed to overcome this. One girl took her husband along on her shoots after he finished work,” she said. Arthur said the issue of people being generally suspicious about photography in Saudi was also an issue: One woman was banned from the workshop for taking pictures of her female cousin, and another was arrested for taking pictures out in public.

10
Walaa's Baby

Copyright Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos

4
Daytime TV

Copyright Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos

Arthur said many foreigners who have lived in the country for years are never invited into a Saudi home. Teaching her workshop, however, earned Arthur friends and ultimately got her behind closed doors. But that was only the first step. Arthur then had to find a way to take photos without upsetting her subjects for violating their sense of modesty. In Saudi Arabia, women are required by law to wear long black abayas and head coverings in public, and some of her subjects did not feel comfortable being photographed without one, especially with their faces visible. Sometimes, that meant watching many amazing scenes unfold without picking up her camera. Other times, it meant getting creative to work around social boundaries: capturing only a woman’s legs peeking from behind a wall, for instance, or rephotographing some of her prints with a flash to obscure a face.

Advertisement

“In the beginning it was frustrating. I thought I had all these pictures that I wouldn't be able to use, and it took me a really long time to figure out how to use them. But in the end I think it helps the work. It represents the strangeness, the facelessness of so much of life there,” she said.

7
Diana's Islamic Swimsuit

Copyright Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos

ARO2009005Z133-09

Copyright Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos

3
Lighty's Bedroom Tent

Copyright Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos

Although Arthur certainly experienced the restrictive side of Saudi life—where women aren’t allowed to drive and must seek permission from a male guardian to do the most basic things, like attend school or travel—she said she also experienced pockets of a more liberal lifestyle, one in which girlfriends and boyfriends existed and women went to parties in compounds or private beach houses. In fact, Arthur said, many of her students didn’t see their lives as negative or oppressed. “They were often very defensive, saying, ‘We have our freedoms. We do what we like.’ They were almost entirely from middle to upper-middle class families. They mostly didn't have to worry about money or work at all,” she said.

Arthur’s students often surprised her. After Arthur’s repeated encouragement, one of her least experienced students went to take pictures of Indian workers. One day, the police picked her up, and her father had to come to get her. “I was amazed when the next day she went back because there was a particular picture she wanted,” Arthur said. “They do lead very sheltered lives, but some of the women are quite tough despite it.”

To find out more about Arthur’s work or to order a copy of her book, Jeddah Diary, visit her website.

8
Durrat-Al-Arous

Copyright Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos

9
Durrat-Al-Arous

Copyright Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos

presentation-paraty60

Copyright Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

The Ludicrous Claims Women Are Pitched at “Egg Freezing Parties”

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Behold
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 1:11 PM This Company Wants to Fight World Hunger With Flies 
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 1 2014 1:04 PM An Architectural Crusade Against the Tyranny of Straight Lines
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 1:01 PM Can Activists Save Reyhaneh Jabbari?  
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 10:54 AM “I Need a Pair of Pants That Won’t Bore Me to Death” Troy Patterson talks about looking sharp, flat-top fades, and being Slate’s Gentleman Scholar.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 1:13 PM The Essence of Gender Roles in Action Movies, in One Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM Watch a Crowd Go Wild When Steve Jobs Moves a Laptop in This 1999 Demonstration of WiFi
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 12:01 PM Rocky Snow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.