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An 88-year-old Syrian refugee brushes her vibrant dyed hair, once her crowning glory. © Tanya Habjouqa, Tomorrow there will be Apricots

The Photography Collective Documenting the True Reality of the Middle East

Sammy Maine

Sammy Maine

Put aside everything you know about the Middle East—the Rawiya Collective are an all-female crew of photojournalists looking to change how the world sees their home.

An 88-year-old Syrian refugee brushes her vibrant dyed hair, once her crowning glory. © Tanya Habjouqa, Tomorrow there will be Apricots

Founded in 2009, the Rawiya Collective are the first all-women photographic collective hailing from the Middle East. The four-person group came together after their paths crossed while covering news stories in the region. As member Tanya Habjouqa explains, the women found that their unplanned meet-ups soon turned into professional relationships and personal friendships. "Both our friendships and work relationships straddle many cities—Amman, Beirut, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Dubai, Cairo—and many major news events," she says. "The Israel war on Lebanon in 2006 was one of the definitive moments that brought a lot of photographers together from our region."

Besides Habjouqa, the Rawiya Collective comprises of Myriam Abdelaziz, Tamara Abdul Hadi, and Laura Boushnak. A range of influences has inspired their love of photography. Hadi has a background in graphic design and moved to Dubai in early 2005, where she began her photography career at Reuters. "Living in a place like Dubai, with all its over the top glitz and opulence on one side, and migrant workers who basically build the city on the other side, really spoke to the documentarian in me," she explains. "It was there that I really understood the importance of documenting social issues, tackling underrepresented communities and misrepresentation in the region."

Habjouqa began her career as a writer, landing her first job at the Jordan Times in Amman. "I still consider myself a writer, and indeed see us as storytellers with various mediums.... not solely as photographers," she says. "My Jordanian and Texan background utilizes a lot of rich stories, narratives, folklore, black humor, and hospitality... As well as darker sides of society that are often misinterpreted by media and utilized to paint entire populations. So for me photography (and storytelling in general) was always a way to push back against stereotypes and explore social issues."

The collective aims to put the viewer's preconceived notions of the region to one side, welcoming them to take a closer look at the human nature of their subjects, inviting them to see more than their subconscious bias may initially observe. Touching on issues of gender, education, occupation and child labour, their work aims to bring about an alternative visual representation of the societies in which they live.

Read more: The Young Women Standing Up to Extremism in the Middle East

These issues are not exclusive to the Middle East. One of Habjouqa's learning curves came when she was working for an alternative paper in Texas, covering an assignment about the local black community. "[They] had fallen out of the tax brackets of surrounding municipalities and were living in shocking poverty," she explains. "Some had no running water. In 2000."But it was about how to go beyond the 'shocking poverty' and tell the story anew with urgency but dignity."

Shams, an English literature student and member of the university's students union, poses for a picture in Tunis, near the interior ministry where many protests took place in the past. © Laura Boushnak, I Read I Write

The collective began tackling stereotypes with their work, focusing on the depiction of social and political issues that they found lacking nuance and context in media coverage of the Middle East. "One thing we joke as a collective is that we will leap off a building the next time a piece is titled 'Beyond the Veil,'" laughs Habjouqa. "The stereotyping of women is one major problem. There is also reason to believe that Western media (unwittingly) played a role in perpetuating a divide after the US invasion of Iraq along the Sunni and Shiite divides, which was not part of our dialogue [or] so pronounced prior. This has led to grave geo-political shifts."

Working as women in the region has not hindered their photography—on the contrary, they say that their gender has actually helped their work. "There was no challenge specifically because we were women in Middle East. On contrary it probably helped us gain access to a multitude of stories," Habjouqa explains. "If anything, banding together as female photographers helped us gain attention and platforms. Partially because there are a lot of stereotypes and misinformation about the role of women in Arab society.

Trashtails: a metaphoric portrait of contemporary Egypt. © Myriam Abdelaziz, Trashtails

"It is a far more diverse society than people assume. And there are secular pockets," she continues. "Rawiya is comprised of vast ethnic and national backgrounds but we are all staunchly secular with deep respect for the various faiths and communities we have been raised with. There is no denying there are egregious human rights issues (for men and women) across the region, and specifically issues women face in hypocritical legislation and (in cases) cultural treatment. But there are also fiercely independent, beautiful, successful women making strides. And women (and men) working to protect women's rights."

Hadi explains that showcasing the collective's work across Sweden, Kuwait, Lebanon, the UK, and the US has been "incredible," allowing them to exhibit their work and talk about the issues they've explored via the medium of photography. From May 7 to May 28, the group will be exhibiting their show In Her Absence I Created Her Image at the Open Source gallery in New York.

Going through these experiences together also means that when projects get intense, they're able to support each other. One of Habjouqa's biggest projects led to a World Press Photo prize as well as a Kickstarter-funded photography book, Occupied Pleasures.

Egyptian belly dancers are an endangered species, on the road to extinction. That is, if there isn't a belly dance renaissance in Egypt sometime soon. © Myriam Abdelaziz, Cairo Dances

Described as a "testimony to Palestinian resilience as they pursue simple pleasures in the face of an endless occupation," it features sublime but everyday images of Palestinians who live under occupation in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Habjouqa says she couldn't have done it without the Rawiya Collective's support. "During periods of uncertainty with projects or ideas, we give each other critique and support. Brutally honest at times, which is what is needed," she explains.

Read more: The Illegal, Underground Ballerinas of Iran

"I think we see it as an honor when any one of us asks another's opinion. And, beyond just friendship, I have a deep respect for the work that my colleagues produce. In countless lectures and teaching opportunities, I refer to their work when covering critical gender, social, and political issues."

Bader, Kuwaiti. Started in 2009, this portrait series is part of a large body of work capturing semi-nude Arab men of diverse backgrounds. © Tamara Abdul Hadi, Picture an Arab Man

Shams (left), who won the Student Union elections at her university, sits with her colleagues at her favorite spot, which is graffitied with an image of Lebanese thinker Mahdi Amel. © Laura Boushnak, I Read I Write

Wadi As-Salam ("Valley of Peace), is a cemetery located in Najaf, a province in the Western part of Central Iraq. This vast cemetery (over 5 million people are buried here) is considered to be the second largest and oldest cemetery in the world. © Tamara Abdul Hadi, Valley of Peace

West Bank: Portrait of a young man. After grueling traffic at the Qalandia check point, a young man enjoys a cigarette in his car as traffic finally clears on the last evening of Ramadan. © Tanya Habjouqa, Occupied Pleasures