The Arabic Alphabet in the Words of Women

When spoken discourse becomes text, words somehow become an object, with their won tridimensionality, unfolding over three axes: the linguistic, the iconic and the symbolic one. Speaking about the work for the Olivetti logotype, designed by Walter Ballmer, recently passed away, Franco Lattes Fortini adds: “not simply a word any longer, but a word object, in fact a word-person, which is the expression of an identity” (Fiorentino, 2009, p. 24). Going on from the typographic to the calligraphic script, in 1949, Madhia Omar basically affirmed the same in Arabic Calligraphy: an Element of Inspiration in Abstract Art, claiming that the letters carry a meaning per se and that they have their own personality, which is dependent on the artist, his imagination, his vision (Rovere, 2010).

Madhia Omar, the first Arabic female artist who had a personal exhibition in Washington D.C., USA, born in Iraq and a pioneer of the calligraphic art, she contributed in cutting the strong link between the Arabic language and the Koran and played a fundamental role in the return of the Arabic alphabet in the arts, thus freeing it from the mannerisms of the classical calligraphic art [1] .
During the ‘50s, among the artists of Arabic origin who worked both in the West and in their own countries, a need for an art that could be Arabic and modern at the same time arose, based on the aesthetic potential of the Islamic calligraphy. The classical Carmina Figurata, Apollinaire’s calligrams, the break of the linearity of writing in XX century European avanguards, or the experimentations of Poesia Concreta and contemporary typography were known by the young Arabic artists, who put together the western contaminations with their Arabic-Islamic School of Calligraphy [2] .
Once removed the burden of the sacredness of the Arabic language and released the alphabet from the yoke of the classical calligraphy stylistic features (Rovere, 2010, p. 65), the Islamic calligraphic shapes, that had so far stood up against the serialized printed characters, and generally speaking, the Arabic alphabet overflew on any kind of media and device, from photography to video art, to computer graphics to the point of becoming three-dimensional.

In the works of Shahrzad Changalvaee, a young Iranian photographer, who studied as a graphic designer, some people randomly chosen are filmed , at sunset, while holding in their hands one of these three words, made of flexiglass, glowing with little lights: ‘I’, the geography of the mind; ‘Body’, the geography of the flesh; ‘Motherland’, the geography of the place where we live.
The alphabet then is transformed into any kind of fashion object or piece of furnishing, not necessarily “religious”, taking on more and more secular and aesthetic shapes [3].
Calligraphy is also adopted as an instrument of fight against the westernization of society or as an instrument of emancipation, as well as the veil that has become, for the women, both a symbol of a struggle for identity against the Imperialist Capitalism, and the emblem of a denied self.
Identity has to be denied even in women’s first names, so well represented in the work of the Saudi artist Manal Al Dowayan [4] entitled Esmi (My Name is) (2o11), an installation made of big rosaries hanging in space, on the beads of which, different women from Saudi Arabia wrote their names, those names that the men either inside the family or in public find offensive or shameful to pronounce, those names given up by the women in order not to offend their family members.
Women hidden behind the filigree of an embroidered fabric or made into shadows by chiseled –wooden mashrabiyyas (the old screens of the Arabic architecture), revived by the Egyptian artist Susan Efuna, inlaid with sentence or single words such as Ana – ‘I’ (10 x Ana, 2007) repeated 10 times or Hulm – ‘Dream’ (Hulm, 2009); a desperate craving for freedom, a sexy message to the observer, but also, possibly, a subtle revenge of somebody preparing to sabotage any project of pleasure, looking without being seen, well aware of the fact that being unable to control one’s sexuality and self-doubting lead the men to demand that the women hide themselves behind a screen and keep their eyes down.
But the so-called “modesty of the Arabic women is in fact a war strategy” warns Fatema Mernissi (2000, p. 13), and precisely these women, active and ready for the struggle (not Ingre, Matisse, Delcroix or Picasso’s naked and passive odalisques) are represented in Women of Allah (1993-97) the first work by Shirin Neshat [5].
Neshat, born in Quazvin, Iran, “a huge country in between the Arab and the Asian world, but belonging to none of them” (Petrillo, 2008, p. 9), got herself photographed in black and white with a rifle glimpsing those parts of a woman’s body that the Islamic law does not allow to uncover, on her face, hands and feet one can read the verse of poets such as, Forough Farokhzad and Tahereh Saffarzadeh, revivng the absurdities of society: woman and man, the individual and society, sexuality and submission. In Heshat’s opinion ‘the written words are the voice of the photo, a voice breaking the silence of the woman portrayed’, a voice that wants to stay away from bias, both the Eastern and the Western world’s ones; that shows and tells what cannot be shown and told, still without infringing and Islamic woman’s body’s codes, taking us away from the patency of such speeches on not very well known cultures.
The juxtaposition of weapons and the female body represents violence as a symbol of the stereotyped image of Islam by the western world, but also “the female body as a militant body, making choices, seen as a fighting body”, a body veiled with Pharsi words (where the Arabic characters predominate), written with henna, the herb with which the Arabic women make their tattoos.
A similar symbolic short-fuse, between henna, an instrument of beauty and seduction and calligraphy, the sacred art, historically a prerogative of men, is produced by Lalla Essaydi, a Moroccan artist of birth, and American of adoption, in her series of photos Harem and Les Femmes du Maroc, that quotes Eugène Delacroix’s Les Femmes d’Algiers.
Lalla Essaydi’s women, sisters, cousins and relatives, every year gather at their house in Morocco, a XVI century building, to spend some weeks together, in one special room of the house, a room which was once to be used only by men; the space is covered with a white cloth and the artist starts transcribing on the canvas, on the walls, on the women themselves, who will end up merging into the endless stream of words, the free flow of the conversations going on throughout the day.
The former men’s room in the harem, thus becomes the room of the women, once odalisques, a Turkish word, not an Arabic one, that has a spatial connotation, oda means room, woman/room, that contains/is contained, a slave and a servant, ğāriyya in Arabic, in the room.
It is precisely the violent expulsion of unsaid words, kept inside for too long by many women, that the American artist with Pakistani origins, Simeen Ishaque Farhat decided to stage; in Quatre Générations de Femmes (1997), other generations of women can be seen, together with English and French texts, camouflaged in little miniatures, among the silk-screened arabesques of the geometrically patterned majolica tiles, in the rooms decorated by the French-Algerian artist, residing in London, Zineb Sedira.
In another of her video-installations, Autobiographical Patterns (1996), Zineb Sedira films herself while writing her autobiography on her hand’s breadth and back, in French, Arabic and English, swapping from the left to the right the sense of the Arabic text, thus dissolving her multifold identities in the mix of words that cannot disentangle the knot of a life lived in a brand new universe in Allah in the West (Kepel, 1996).

The same discourse is revisited by Ghada Amer, an Egyptian artist, grown up in France, who moved to New York. In her works she interweaves on monochrome canvases the interior, rather than social, conflict, between the liberal aspect of the acquired western culture and the oppressive integralism of an unacceptable interpretation of Islam – hers are meditations on the spoken and the written word, eroticism, or on the condition of women; they are philosophical enquiries, studies of semiotics and language philosophy.
Ghada Amer links sewing to painting, because since the start, she wanted to paint without paint, which is a language created by men, using a female tool instead, so as to transform the act of painting.
In Barbie Loves Ken, Ken Loves Barbie (1995-2004), Ghada Amer completely embroiders two tracksuits, a male and a female one, with the sentence providing the title to this work, that by the calligraphic repetition of the sentence “Barbie Loves Ken, Ken Loves Barbie” underline a still raw relationship, a childish one, between two visions of the world. Looking at the work in detail one can notice that the threads are not cut, but only brought outwards with the knots. “Amer takes outwards what usually lays inwards, she turns the batin (what is hidden) into the zahir (what is visible)” (Rovere, 2010, p. 73).
What Ghada Amer defines as double inference, and other artists in their secular spirituality experiment with their works, seems to be the result of a (artistic) life hanging between the experimentations on simultaneous, non-linear, reading and the Arabic essence of writing itself, khatt al-yad, literally “the line of the hand”. Everything happens then on an ideal horizontal line, from which tops and curls are drawn upwards and downwards (Mandel, 2007), Thus allowing to keep at the same time the letter (zâhir) and its hidden meaning (bâtin), the values of the external world, materialistic and visible and those of the inner one, intimate and spiritual.

The most dramatic and up-to-date representation of these concepts is perhaps contained in the work Smell by the Tunisian artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke, described by Timo Kaabi Linke, who organized together with Khadija Hamdi “Contemporary Carthage 2012”[6] , with these words: “The fresh smell of jasmine flowers was missing in those days, because jasmine does not blossom before May and the real smell of revolution came from the cars and houses combustion. A year later people keep walking the streets of Tunisia protesting for freedom and human rights. Now, the protest is not addressed to an autocratic regime but to the retrograde salafi movements, that represent the extreme wing of the Islam in Northern Africa. Their ‘flag’ with the white calligraphy of Shahada, the Muslim faith, on a black background, has become the new symbol for the political repression. Smell consists of embroidered jasmine flowers sewn on a black cloth representing the Islamic faith. As the repression goes on, the flowers wither and the smell of jasmine fades away”.


On 1 June, the 10th edition of “Printemps des Arts” was opened at the Palais Abdellia in the Tunis suburb of  La Marsa. Contemporary works from Tunisian and foreign artists were displayed for 10 days of exhibitions, but this year the closing ceremony was characterised by violence. The artistic community in La Marsa was accused by Islamist extremists of exhibiting works deemed to be morally offensive and “un-Islamic”. On 10 June, in the night, the ultra-conservatives succeeded in invading Palais Abdellia and they burned and destroyed a number of artworks considered “blasphemous”. Other groups across the country attacked police posts, union headquarters, and other art galleries. The Minister of Religious Affairs has suspended from service Sheikh Houcine Laâbidi, Imam at Zitouna Mosque, he said, during Friday prayers, which the artists were “infidels” and had to be put to death.


Fiorentino, C. C. (2009, gennaio). Storia di una firma: carattere Olivetti | Historia de una firma: caractere Olivetti. I+DISEÑO. Revista Internacional de Investigaciòn, Desarollo e Innovacion del Diseño: teoria, estetica, historia y proyectos,1, 21-26. ISSN: 1889-4333X.

Mandel, G. (2007). Otto lezioni all’Accademia di Brera Arte islamica, Arte Buddhista, Arte dell’Africa nera. Milano, IT: Arcipelago Edizioni.

Mernissi, F. (2000). L’harem e l’Occidente. Firenze, IT: Giunti p. 13.

Kepel, G. (1996). A ovest di Allah. Sofri, G. (Ed). Palermo, IT: Sellerio Editore.

Petrillo, P. L. (2008). Iran. Bologna, IT: il Mulino, p. 9

Rovere, C. (2010). I gesti dell’alfabeto. Artiste arabe contemporanee dalla tradizione al design. In De Cecco, E. (Ed). Arte-mondo. Storia dell’arte, storie dell’arte (p. 65, p. 73). Milano, IT: Postmedia Books.

Caraffini, F. (1998, novembre). Shirin Neshat. Virus, 14. Estratto da

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. This scaling work seems to unveil itself in At the Concert (1948), where Madiha Omar inks in a paper and then scrapes off the surface with the scratchboard technique to let the white background emerge.
  2. The results of these artistic developments are well represented in the permanent collection of the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, recently shown in Rome at the exhibition “Riflessioni dal Cielo, Meditazioni in Terra: Arte Moderna Calligrafica del Mondo Arabo”, Mercati di Traiano Museo dei Fori Imperiali, 22 march/10 june 2012.
    In the Arabic Calligraphic School, so far not thoroughly analysed and classified, there are two themes: the Holy, of religious nature, is expressed through quotations from the Koran or classical moral proverbs; the Profane, of secular nature, is divided into the socio-political, the literary and decorative theme. The socio-political theme, new for the Arab world, introduces elements of social critique in the artistic aesthetics or conveys nationalistic messages. The literary subjects of the calligraphic works are modeled on the classical and modern literature or on poetry, the main means of artistic expression for the Arabians, since pre-Islamic times, that becomes the base of any work of art, be it a painting, etch, sculpture or pottery. The decorative theme, instead, revisits the aesthetic configuration of the Arabic characters in such an abstract way as to become a graphical element of the composition. Analyzing the panorama of the calligraphic works, we find three styles: pure calligraphy (from which the Neoclassical, the Classical and the Modern style, the Calligraffiti and Calligrafia Freeform originated), in which only the letters are drawn, where every single letter of the alphabet has its meaning, even if isolated from the rest. Abstract Calligraphy (from two currents sprang out: the Readable Writing and the Pseudowriting) in which the artist manipulates the visible, aesthetic aspect of the Arabic letters, taking away from the characters both the shape and the meaning. Calligraphic combinations (giving life to the central and marginal Calligraphy), where the calligraphy and other elements are mixed together to create a work of art: the Arabic writing is part of the composition, but the rest is made of figurative and painted pictures or revealing symbols.
  3. With regard to the Arabic typography one needs to bear in mind the fundamental work of divulgation by Huda Smitshuijzen Abi Farès, a graphic designer who studied at Yale University of Art and at the Rhode Island School of Design, specialized in bilingual typographic design and research, writer (Arabic typography. A comprehensive sourcebook, Saqi Books, Londra, 2001), creator of Khatt Foundation, a centre for Arabic typography fonde in Amsterdam in 2004, that guides the talent of many young designers.
  4. “Simply Words?” Is the title of a collective exhibition held in Lucerna, in Switzerland, at AB GALLERY, from 5th February to 10th March 2012, where Manal Al Dowayan, with Simeen Farhat, Farideh Lashai and Claudia Meyer, exhibited some of recent works. The Swiss gallery AB with premises in Zurich and Lucerna, has been focusing for a long time on cultural exchanges between Switzerland, Europe and the Islamic world. “Simply Words?” Initially meant to start ameditation on the universal nature of the word and the power of art to overcome the cultural and linguistic barriers.
  5. An Iranian photographer and video artist who studied and grew up in America, she won the Leone d’Argento in Venice as best director for the film Women without Men (2009).
  6. “Cartagine Contemporary 2012”: “Chkoun Ahna. Sur la piste de l’histoire”, National Museum of Carthage, Tunisia,12 May/15 July 2012

One thought on “The Arabic Alphabet in the Words of Women”

  1. “… La cosiddetta modestia delle donne arabe è in realtà una tattica di guerra” Una visione della donna araba, che condivido, e che ho avuto modo di sperimentarla personalmente, durante la mia pratica professionale (medica). La donna, come è ben noto, è un universo da esplorare ma il mondo arabo, per noi occidentali, è ancora “una foresta vergine”. Complimenti al’autore dell’articolo, che ha saputo fare una mirabile sintesi e ha fornito tanti spunti meditativi, che partendo dall’arte, si possono proiettare in tutte le direzioni!

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