This Photographer’s Bathhouse Nudes Are Challenging Perceptions of Arab Women

Part of the message in photographer Yumna Al-Arashi’s latest project, called “Shedding Skin,” is conveyed simply by the fact that it exists. To those on the periphery of the culture, the idea of a group of Arab women allowing themselves to be photographed nude, in a hammam, or communal bath, in the Middle East seems unlikely. The stereotypical image of Arab women assumes they are devoutly practicing Muslims, wearing hijabs and long skirts and conducting themselves with religious modesty, exposing their bodies exclusively to their husbands, and perhaps to female relatives or friends behind the closed doors of a hammam. Would they allow themselves to be captured in such an environment by a boundary-pushing 28-year-old American artist, for a gallery show? In the Western imagination, probably not.

But here’s the thing: Not only did the Arab women whom Al-Arashi photographed in a hammam in Beirut agree to be photographed nude—they also didn’t look like any sort of preconceived stereotype, comprising instead a scene that could have been in Paris or New York. On a Saturday in April, they filed into the hammam’s waiting area wearing casual clothes and chatting animatedly, checking their iPhones and smoking slim cigarettes between sips of coffee and tea. A group of three friends began to thread each other’s eyebrows and upper lips, bringing each other to knee-slapping tears as they cracked jokes. Later, Al-Arashi would estimate that only about half of them were Muslim. Al-Arashi, who grew up in Washington, D.C., the daughter of a Yemeni diplomat father and an Egyptian mother, is of the faith herself, and has made a name for herself photographing women in the Arab world and its diaspora. But, she explains, “I don’t only photograph Muslim women. A Muslim country isn’t necessarily closed off to other religions.”

When Al-Arashi had originally conceived of the photos—inspired by a visit to hammam in Tunis, where she was working on another project, documenting the last generation of Muslim women with facial tattoos—she imagined finding a beautiful, ancient-looking bathhouse for the setting. She scouted in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, and found some contenders, but quickly struck out; none of the owners were comfortable with the idea. When she came across the hammam in Beirut, which is perhaps the most liberal city in the Middle East, and where she had lived for a stretch, she had some hesitation: It was contemporary, a sort of 1980s interpretation of antiquity, “kind of tacky,” even. “It’s not what I was envisioning, initially,” she said. “And then I was like, you know what? Why am I trying to replicate the old hammams? I want it to be today.”

This conscientiousness was exactly what had made the project possible in the first place: The shoot, along with exhibitions of the finished photos and a short film in New York and Los Angeles, was funded by ASOS, the British online fashion and beauty superstore, as part of the company’s ASOS Supports Talent program, which sponsors up-and-coming young artists whose work has as an aspect of social justice to it. When the company had first reached out to her, she wasn’t sure that they would embrace the concept: “A lot of people aren’t willing to go down the route of turning off people’s opinions about the Muslim woman,” she said. When they signed on, “I was just amazed,” she recalled. Al-Arashi has been similarly encouraged by a growing number of corporations with global reach who she sees as opening a window into the Arab experience, including Nike’s recent campaign depicting powerful Hijabi athletes. “It didn’t say, ‘Hey, don’t ban Muslims,’” she noted. “It said, ‘Hey, she’s one of us.’”

At the shoot, Al-Arashi was radiant with excitement, dressed in black jeans over a black leotard with a chic silk scarf tied around her neck, her long curly hair piled into a bun on top of her head, her skin dewy from the building steam of the bath. She was thrilled to have managed to pull together an entirely female crew, who had been working nonstop for a week to organize the set and gather willing friends and acquaintances to be models. The women, who ranged in age from early 20s to mid-60s, seemed comfortable and relaxed as they undressed and wrapped towels around their waists, revealing breasts and bodies of all shapes and sizes, many with tattoos and piercings. In the bath, they arranged themselves on a pedestal in the center of the room, and on the steps leading up to a hot tub, and along a stone wall with spouts from which warm water gently trickled out. As Al-Arashi began to take photographs, offering occasional direction, they used bowls to pour water over themselves and each other. One woman combed another’s hair, while nearby hammam attendants began to scrub another woman vigorously, sloughing off dead skin. A murmuring din filled the space. The light was dreamy and golden, giving the scene the air of a Renaissance painting.

“I really want to show these spaces for what they are, because they’re important to so many people in this culture,” Al-Arashi said. “I remember, growing up, seeing how these scenes were depicted in art and that was always powerful. Why don’t we ever see this anymore? Why is this a closed-off space to the rest of the world? Because really, when you’re in these spaces you’re just a body. It’s not about how you’re sitting or how many rolls you have or how hairy your legs are, there’s no difference between pretty and ugly. They’re places where people just laugh and talk about everything. It’s really beautiful, and really normalizing.”