When I was asked to write a piece for JAN Trust, I wanted to look at how art can give marginalised women in society a voice. JAN Trust strives for empowering and providing leadership for women in order to create positive and active citizens of society and art is one of the platforms this can be implemented in. I have only recently been introduced to the award-winning international photographer Yousef Khanfar’s work on incarcerated women in the United States. Yousef spent nearly four years creating his collection, Invisible Eve, in hopes of giving these women a voice.
Yousef’s work is inspired by his own life experience of being unable to speak until he was given a camera by his father. ‘Of Palestinian origin…he grew up exposed to images of war and violence. He needed a voice to express his inner turbulence, and photography gave him that voice.’ His experience allows us to see that different modes of expression come through different mediums such as photography and this can be an advantage to others who face barriers with language and in turn find it difficult to contribute to mainstream society.
Yousef and JAN Trust’s work is similar in that both put an emphasis on education. Yousef stresses, ‘innovative actions and education are a sure way to rebuild one and all. Society should never avenge, only educate to build better citizens.’ Through JAN Trusts programmes, women’s own success stories directly attribute education as a key factor in becoming active members of society. By empowering and educating women, we can help them rebuild their lives, which is a positive message and one to be supported. It reminds us that any women can fulfil their potential of being active members of society, no matter what their circumstances or background.
When women’s narratives are excluded from mainstream art and literature, it constructs a false image of our society where women’s experiences are invisible. To represent the true reality of these women Yousef ‘refused to digitally manipulate’ the photos in Invisible Eve. He also gave these women a chance to speak as he, ‘asked each woman, after taking her portrait, to write a few words of wisdom for the next generation.’ By giving these women a chance to comment on their disposition, Yousef hopes that they may contribute to ‘the salvation of another’, allowing their voices to be heard and for them to be included in society.
Narratives in society tend to follow stereotypes. This may be because it is easier to place people in groups which in return alienates them from mainstream society. It distances them and creates divisions where people may feel like their contributions aren’t important or recognised. As Yousef states, ‘my art is always attracted to the low-frequency cries, castaway souls, and unfortunate voices of humanity that need our attention.’ Art allows for there to be a different story, an individual voice or image, so marginalised groups can be seen and heard. It has the benefit of being able to provide women with an alternative narrative that they may be able to relate to. This allows for different perspectives of marginalised groups to be heard and seen. It may also mean the difference between a woman feeling that she is represented enough to seek help through projects such as those run by JAN Trust, or staying in isolation on the sidelines of society.
Shereen Malherbe is a writer & author. Join in the conversation on Twitter @malherbegirl