It is rare to come across a book that leaves you thinking, long after you are done reading it. This book was one of those.
“In the Middle of it All” is a heart-wrenching collection of coming-of-age experiences of thirty one women, penned down in various forms, ranging from essays, photographs and illustrations. This book has been put together by Banat Collective, a creative community founded in response to a lack of artistic spaces and absence of discussions of womanhood within the arts in the Middle East and North Africa.
Concerning the theme, Sara Bin Safwan, Banat Collective’s Emirati-Honduran founder, said in an interview for Sekka Mag, “The idea came to fruition through a brainstorming session between myself and a few artists (This was before the official team came together). There was pressure because it’s our first collaborative project to share with the world, and we wanted to make sure that we presented an idea that hasn’t been run over many times in the Arab art community, or came across as ‘overly feminist.’ Ultimately, we agreed that we wanted to present something universal and authentic. This led to the theme of coming-of-age.”
There is a certain rawness and honesty that reflects across the pages of the book and makes it a poignant read. Growing up as a woman, in any part of the world, is never easy. The constant references to our physical appearances, the reminders about the need to get married, copulate and have kids, and the ever-absent emotion of not being good enough for anything except taking care of our homes and families, are all omnipresent in various forms. This book makes those feelings come alive, in a manner that they get a voice of their own.
Some of the artwork in the book startled me. Not because of its depiction, but because of the fact that it made me wonder why I never thought of things like this. The underlying theme across the pieces is “coming-of-age,” where women begin to understand the real facets of the society in which they live. It was alarming to see all the similarities across societies, when it comes to the feminine gender.
These experiences of being a woman in the Arab world were an eye-opener for me in many ways. Though in the past I have read a lot of books on this theme, including The Princess Trilogy by Jean Sasson, which left me sobbing for months after I was done reading it, this book was different. It felt more relatable, maybe because the women sharing those stories sounded like me. The degree of oppression of women might vary from one piece to another, but the uniformity of oppression is enough to connect us all in solidarity. At the end of the book, I wished I could give a huge and warm group hug to all these lovely ladies. Baring your heart out, be it in any shape or form, is not easy. It is a thing of courage. And these beautiful women were courageous enough to do so. Kudos to them and Banat Collective for such a wonderful initiative!
I love how each of these pieces are silent crusaders of hope, strength and resilience in their own way. In a lot of ways, they redefine the image of the Arab woman, or, to put it in Sara Bin Safwan’s words, “hopefully demystify the stereotypical notion of the Arab woman.”
The experiences are real and diverse, bringing authenticity to all the works. I am sure that after reading this book, all the stigmas associated with these stories will be erased. It won’t be wrong to call this book an attempt at demystifying the real meaning of feminism. Feminism, more often than not, has been misinterpreted by many people, leading them to believe that South Asian women in general are not feminists, or worse, feminism is not for them. It is for the more advanced countries. This book goes on to prove that feminism is much more than just about burning bras. It is about equality and basic human rights. Once I finished the book, I was engulfed with a deeply satisfied feeling, similar to what you feel after having a long heartfelt conversation with a close friend. I can try to put it in words, but might not be able to do full justice to what I felt.
The book has been divided into five chapters, capturing some important junctures of their lives while growing up, with topics ranging from self-acceptance to individuality. I admired the interpretations of some of the artwork longer than the others, for they gave me a glimpse of a mind that was ready to spread its wings and soar high in the sky.
I would recommend this book to both men and women. Women, this is a window for your soul, and men, this might just help you to understand women’s world a bit better.