Photo exhibition depicting the lives of British Muslim women tours the globe

A touring photographic exhibition depicting the lives of British Muslim women is shaking up attitudes in the Middle East. Arifa Akbar gauges the reaction in Riyadh

An Arab man dressed in a chequered dishdash looks quizzically at a picture of an Asian "rap artist" from Leeds, wearing a basketball vest and a diamante medallion with the word "Allah" inscribed in Arabic. Nearby hangs a portrait of two British-Asian girls, wearing headscarves and jeans, playing a game of pool; one chalks her cue as the other lines up a shot. The photograph is met with expressions of surprise by a huddle of Arab journalists.

These everyday images of Muslim life in Britain are to the Arab audience at the British Council's Common Ground exhibition in Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh, nothing short of groundbreaking. In many of the strict Islamic Gulf states where it is touring - and where the concept of figurative art is still contested by orthodox scholars - the show is a sign that the region is nudging towards greater liberalisation. The exhibition has already been to Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, and is moving on to Oman before reaching Yemen in September. Its impact on Arab viewers cannot be overestimated. For Saudi Arabia, it is the first significant collection to be imported from the West in more than three decades.

The Common Ground project, consisting of 280 works by 21 artists, began in 2001 as commissions for UK artists on issues relating to Muslim identity. Two years later, artists in Malaysia and Indonesia joined, followed by the Gulf states and Middle East. The aim is to provide a platform for the "exchange of experiences, ideas and concepts among photographers", according to the British Council. In reality, it is the first significant creative exchange between the West and the Middle East. Iyad Madani, the kingdom's Minister of Culture and Information, believes the country is loosening up after two decades of austerity, and "regaining part of the real soul that Saudis have always had".

According to Alan Smart, the director of the British Council in Saudi Arabia, the images present a challenge to Middle Eastern audiences, but not necessarily in an inflammatory manner. "The picture of the woman holding the steering wheel [part of Manal Al Dowayan's set of eight photographs, entitled Looking Beyond the Veil] is very significant in terms of being a big issue in Saudi Arabia," he says. "But I would be interested to see the reaction to some of the British pictures across the Gulf."

Some of the subjects chosen by the photographers will already be familiar to Arab audiences, such as the various portraits of veiled Arab women. Others, however, promise to be utterly revelatory. It is hoped that "culturally hybrid" images - which include those of a mixed-race couple standing fondly next to each other in a council flat; Asian women draped in Union Jack flags and colourful saris; as well as East London artist Rehan Jamil's gritty portrait of an Asian heroin addict wearing a shalwar kameez - will present a less monolithic version of Muslim identity to Arab viewers.

Suki Dhanda, a photographer from Hackney, in London, who has created a picture-diary of a 14-year-old Muslim girl from Whitechapel (variously shown praying with her mother, playing pool and chatting in a chip shop with friends, in her many "cultural manifestations"), says the response from Saudi visitors has so far been encouraging, with the reaction one of curiosity rather than outrage - one man asks Dhanda whether the independent Asian girl she has photographed "is happy or not".

"My work is all about one girl, Shapna," says Dhanda. "She wears the hijab and she also wears trainers, mixing her cultural heritage with aspects from the West. She is independent and making her own choices. The Arab women who saw her images really like her."

A group of men debate women's position in Arab society with Manal Al Dowayan, who is exhibiting portraits of half-veiled women, as well as photographs of a henna-painted arm draped over a steering wheel. These could be particularly sensitive: women are allowed to drive in many Gulf states, but the issue has come to symbolise the clash between the progressive and conservative factions in the nation.

For Al Dowayan, who was born in the eastern province of Dehran and has exhibited in London, it was a chance to celebrate her Arab identity as well as challenge traditional notions embedded within it. "This collection is really about my life as a woman, a Saudi, a Muslim, and all the frustrations and happy moments that encapsulates," she says.

The image of the steering wheel, she says, has "caught a lot of people's attention. It means a lot to our country. My work takes me to many areas and I need to move from one area to another. I'm not speaking on behalf of all Saudi women. This is just one aspect of being me."

Another portrait of a veiled woman wearing ornate gold chains and a head-dress, traditional dress in the Eastern province, was meant as a metaphor for the limits on women's freedoms in the kingdom, reveals the artist. "When these chains turn into a cage, when they hold you down, as beautiful as they might appear on women, I'm just saying we need to question them.

"The Saudis who have seen my work have come up to me and they have said they want to understand it. Some of it is about traditions that don't make sense and I am ready to talk to them about this," says Al Dowayan, adding, "I like to think it has inspired some reaction. I am very optimistic, this is a time of hope in the kingdom."

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