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Humaira Abid: Standing Up For Women's Rights Under Islam and Around the World

Updated: Dec 23, 2022

Women’s rights are front and center as Iran erupts in anger at its oppressive extremely conservative government. The protests started after Mahsa Amini died from being beaten by the so-called morality police. Two 16 year old girls Sarina Esmailzadeh and Nika Shakrami, have also died in the protests.

Pakistani-born artist Humaira Abid created all of the work in “Fight like a Girl,” her most recent Seattle exhibition at Greg Kucera Gallery, before the current protests. But throughout her career she has taken a stand to speak out about issues pertaining to women that are rarely discussed.

Abid points out that the term “Fight Like a Girl” has been used to denigrate girls, suggesting that they don’t fight as well as boys, but her point of view is that girls are strong, determined, and fight for everything they get. In Iran women by the thousands are leading the nation-wide protests, and they persist in the defiance of widespread violence against them by the government.

Iran, as Resa Aslan points out in his essay “From Here to Mullahcracy” has a democratic constitution that clerics discarded: “ what had begun as a vibrant experiment in Islamic democracy…” turned into a “state ruled by an inept clerical oligarchy with absolute religious power.” Iran is not a theocracy, Aslan explains, because of that constitution which “enshrined fundamental freedoms of speech, religion, education, and peaceful assembly.“ It is those discarded rights that the people of Iran, both men and women, are demanding.

Abid’s trajectory through art schools in Lahore included overcoming a lot of sexism. She studied two completely different techniques, woodworking, and miniature painting. The teachers there would not let her study woodworking or sculpture in art school, it was believed that only men could make sculpture, so she went to traditional wood carvers to learn.

Along the first wall of Abid’s exhibition are protest posters rendered on meticulously carved pine that replicate the cardboard of protest signs. Carved on each one is a protest: “Blame Rapist not Victim,” “Enough,” “Tolerating Racism is Racism.”

Woman With a Breast Pump 2022 carved and 24k gilded pine wood, gouache and pigments on handmade wasli paper and tru-vu museum acrylic

Abid first seduces us with aesthetics and beauty, then gives us a punch in the face with specific imagery that speaks to the “issues people are afraid to talk about” in women’s lives both with respect to Islam and with respect to the concerns facing all women. This exhibition includes works that address incestuous rape, miscarriages, breast feeding, and the fate of migrant women and children.

“Woman with a Breast Pump” outrageously connects the breast pump with the faucets for ablutions outside of mosques, in a tondo shape (as in a Renaissance Mother and Child): she surrounds a detailed painting of a breastfeeding mother (based on a photograph) with a halo of faucets in gilded wood.

Tempting Eyes XV, 2021, carved and stained pine wood, pigments on handmade wasli paper and plexiglass

In the series “Tempting Eyes” woman’s eyes look assertively from various Islamic head coverings on rear view mirrors (simulated in wood): the works comment on the driving ban for women in Saudi Arabia (lifted in 2017, but with other severe restrictions on women still in place). The law stands that declares that the eyes alone are dangerous and can violate the law with too much makeup. But these eyes defiantly stare right at us.

In “Woman in Black,” 2022, a small oval miniature painting of a woman covered in black and holding a white rose, suggests a miscarriage. The stem of the white rose connects to a long chain (carved in wood) leading to a child’s head lying on the floor with a black bird sitting on it. In some ways this is the most frightening image in the exhibition: the long chain both restrains the woman and suggests an umbilical cord leading to the baby. The black bird suggest death. With the repeal of Roe v Wade the possibility of death from miscarriages has escalated.

This World is Beautiful and Dangerous Too IV, detail, carved pine wood with stain, pigment on handmade wasli paper and plexiglass

Abid has long addressed refugees and migration, particularly the suffering of women and children, who experience rape and kidnapping. That theme appears here in three swings titled “This world is beautiful and dangerous Too.” On the seat is a miniature painting of a child happily swinging in what appears to be a fantasy land. But underneath threatening looking cactus grow. Abid explained that this series began when the Taliban killed 140 children in a slaughter in 2014 in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Finally “Honor” written in carved wood chains says it all: the prison, the misuse of language, the oppression all in the name of ‘Honor.’”

Abid’s beautifully crafted wood sculptures with their direct messages have never been more timely.

~Susan Platt, PhD


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