‘Free to Be’ Exhibition

pic: Hala Elnahas

The “artists”, young Muslim girls from East London, stand next to their artwork, smiling proudly as the crowd admires their effort.

Paintings, light installations and photographic material hang on the walls, each piece telling a story and representing a reality that is only known to the girls.

A lot of people have turned up for the Muslim arts exhibition ‘Free To Be’, led by the Kiran Project, which focuses on confidence-building, empowerment and personal development.

“Let’s be honest, young Muslim girls in this country have got a lot of problems that need to be dealt with. We try to help them out but there’s so much they go through and nobody realises it”, says Fiaz Akhtar, a coordinator working for the Kiran Project.

Between putting Islam under a microscope and sensationalising any issue that has to do with ‘Muslim’, our society hardly has any time to think about the pressures young female Muslims seem to be facing today.

According to the Kiran Project, a voluntary, non-sectarian organisation that deals mainly with domestic violence and forced marriage within ethnic minorities, many Muslim girls find trouble adapting to Western society while still being attached to their cultural background.

Nilaab Ayoubi, pic: Hala Elnahas

The negative stereotypes and misrepresentations surrounding Muslim women in modern-day Western media are, to an extent, inhibiting these women’s successful integration into society.

“Because they have trouble adapting to both worlds, there’s a major identity crisis among many young Muslim girls. After having worked with them, it’s obvious that they are not always confident in who they are or where they come from” says Akhtar.

“We see girls suffering from bulimia and anorexia and none have got access to a support system. Some are even afraid to reach out for help because they’ll feel even more judged and discriminated against.”

The Kiran Project, however, doesn’t only help these girls stand up to society’s closed-mindedness, but aims to raise their awareness of dangers that often emerge from their homes.

Akhtar explains that the issue of forced marriage, for example, is a constant threat that has many girls considering running away, if ever faced with it.

pic: Hala Elnahas

“When we went to a secondary school to talk about forced marriage, we found out that 88% of the girls had extra clothes in their lockers because they feared they could quickly be dragged into a marriage.” she said.

“It’s quite scary because at that age marriage isn’t even something you should be thinking about.”

There is often the notion that the father or the main dominant male figure is behind such oppressive arrangements.

Because it is tradition to marry young among many Eastern cultures, there is often pressure on the girl to find a husband. Sometimes the fathers within the community step in and arrange the marriage for their children to ensure their security, despite the possibility that this might not be in the girls’, or even boys’, best interest.

“It’s deeply unfortunate that, despite our efforts to include parents in family sessions, some parents are very set in their ways and carry a lot of cultural baggage from back home.” Akhtar says.

pic: Hala Elnahas

However, there are those who are not easily discouraged. Nilaab Ayoubi, is a 19-year-old who came to the UK 10 years ago from Afghanistan. Nilaab found an interest in psychology while still in school and is now a second year student at the University of East London.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to feel miserable and sorry for yourself. I believe you have to do something with your life”, she said.

“I’m not saying that the stereotype of the dominant man of the house doesn’t exist because it does. It is found in much of the Muslim society and in the Middle East. But people shouldn’t confuse culture with religion because religion has nothing to do with parents forcing their children to do anything” says Ayoubi.

“I come from a Muslim background and my family is very open-minded and supportive and encourages my education and decisions. There are just as many men who want the best for their wives and daughters and sisters” she adds.

Ayoubi says she is hopeful and “very optimistic” about the future of Muslim women.

pic: Hala Elnahas

“I have definitely been affected by the Arab Spring. It’s very empowering. I believe that more and more people should rise up and express what they want.  There’s a saying which goes: ‘If you don’t like a rule, follow it at the time, but when you get to a position where you can change it, then do so’” says Ayoubi.

The Free to Be exhibition is open till October 29th from 6-9pm at the Mile end Art Pavilion, Clinton Road, London.

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