For Umm Ahmad from Jordan, the street where she lived in for the past thirty years started to have a different meaning the day she was able to read and write.
My on-going project titled “I Read I Write”, which took me so far to five Arab countries -Yemen, Tunis, Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait- explores the role of literacy in the enrichment of Arab women’s lives. From illiterate Sanaa in Egypt, who decided to learn how to read and write because she would get lost using public transportation, to Tunisian university student Shams, who is politically active and a key player in mobilizing her fellow students.
With the ongoing waves of protests and social upheaval in the Arab World, I wonder, as an Arab woman myself: how can the “Arab Spring” bring about change in the region when a full half of its human potential is often neglected? According to the UNDP’s Arab Human Development Report, Arab countries collectively have one of the highest rates of female illiteracy in the world. Half of all Arab women are illiterate compared to a third of the men.
When I initially started the project in 2009, I aimed to focus on illiteracy. But since I wanted to cover as many Arab countries as possible, I had to keep in mind the great variations in literacy rates between Arab states. Consequently, each country I covered I tackled a specific issue surrounding women’s education, while maintaining that these problems are common throughout the Arab World. I concentrated on locally predominant issues such as illiteracy in Egypt, educational reforms in Kuwait, drop-out students in Jordan, access to education in Yemen and political activism among university students in Tunis.
My idea was for the women I photographed to become active participants in the final photograph. Their hand-written words, which complement the images they are portrayed in, are a tribute to their success. They wrote ostensibly about their achievements and dreams. But their words served a higher purpose of bringing attention to the major barriers which stood in their way, most notably poverty and cultural constraints where many still believe that women are destined for marriage in order to protect their chastity. And that their role is solely in the home.