Sparked in 2009 by a report about female illiteracy in Arab countries, Laura Boushnak’s ongoing documentary project I Read I Write has taken her on a profound journey through six countries and into the daily lives of countless women.
Motivated by her own experience, the project weaves together the personal and the collective, exploring the very different obstacles that these inspirational women have overcome to get an education. Between 2009 and 2016, Boushnak travelled to Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Gaza to take portraits of women who have faced barriers to their education—from learning to read late in life or sidestepping family objections to pursue their studies.
Born to Palestinian refugee parents in Kuwait, Boushnak is now based in Sarajevo in Bosnia. In this interview for LensCulture, she speaks to Eefje Ludwig from her home about how her own desire to change and improve her life motivated her to start this project and drives her continued focus on the importance of quality in education.
Eefje Ludwig: In the introduction to your book, you tell the reader how obtaining a degree and enjoying education as a younger girl did not come naturally to you for many different reasons. Can you tell me more about that and how this experience shaped you as a person and photographer?
Laura Boushnak: After I graduated from high school in Kuwait, it was difficult for me to go to university. For one, foreigners in Kuwait at the time were not allowed to go to the public university, and private universities were not available. Secondly, my dad was unfortunately not so keen on our education because he believed that a woman should end up getting married and then her husband would take care of her. Thirdly, at that time I did not have a passport. I had a Lebanese travel document for Palestinian refugees, which makes travel quite difficult. Plus there was the financial part—my dad couldn’t afford education. At that time, the internet, where you could apply to grants or scholarships, wasn’t as widely spread as now. Basically, there was not much direction I could turn to where I could create new and educational possibilities for myself.
So I ended up working as a receptionist for an American school for two years, saving up money. During that time, I also began to think about studying photography because I liked carrying a camera around, taking photos of my friends and family. Then a friend of mine, who was studying sociology at the Lebanese University, told me that attendance was not obligatory. So you could study, read the material and then just come at the end of the year to apply for the exams. And that is what I did for two years, while I worked at the school in Kuwait. And I fell in love with the social sciences, sociology, psychology, anthropology… They are so close to our daily life and to what is happening around us.
At the same time I enrolled in a distance-learning course at the New York Institute of Photography, that I found while flipping through a photography magazine I had bought. There was no internet at the time, so they would send me the materials by post. Each unit I had to finish and send it back to my tutor and he would send me back his comments by post again, recorded on a cassette. It sounds prehistoric right?
EL: It does! Then what happened?
LB: After two years of working in Kuwait and passing my exams in Lebanon, at the age of 22, I decided to go live with my sister in Beirut and start my new life. Through a friend I met a former Agence France Press photographer, who covered the civil war in Lebanon, and I asked if I could train with him. It all began there—I did field training as well as learning to edit, develop and scan film. I then moved to Cyprus to work at the AFP HQ for six years as an editor and photographer, then after applying for a French passport, I learnt French and moved to Paris for another two years with AFP.
Slowly, you discover that it’s a male dominated profession… and you learn that there are so many reasons for why you don’t get a job, not simply because you are not good enough
EL: How did you start the project I Read I Write?
LB: I Read I Write as a project is linked to how I started in photography. Early on in my research, in 2009, I learnt in a UN report from 2005 that Arab countries collectively had one of the highest rates of female illiteracy in the world. I was astounded! Along the way, I found out about many other constraints that women in the region face. These include: difficulties or interruptions in access to school and/or higher education, curricula devoid of real learning, low political awareness and activism, scarcity of jobs for highly-educated women, as well as wars and internal strife. All these factors, and many more, hinder a large portion of the people in Arab societies—their women—and hamper developmental efforts for the entire region.
EL: How would you describe the core concern at the heart of the project?
LB: A lot of people think that it’s about illiteracy—but that is just a small part of it. One of the reasons why women are not involved in the process of changing their countries is illiteracy. But if you take the Gulf Countries, for example, there is no illiteracy. On the contrary, education is quite high for women. Saudi Arabia: thousands of women go abroad to study. They come back highly educated, with PhDs. But the problem is that there is no work.
And then, if you take the example of Yemen: at the moment, it’s the war that is interrupting education. This also happens in Syria, Libya, Iraq. It’s not just because parents don’t want to send their children to school: the war is interrupting education.
I was on assignment on Samos in January this year, and on the boat from Samos to Athens they were transferring 200 families. One of them was a young Iraqi women, married with three kids. She showed me the tattoo on her hand, which she had got the night before they left to celebrate the fact that they were finally leaving the camp on Samos. I asked her if she had finished school. She had dropped-out at the age of 10, because her dad was scared to send her to school when the suicide bombings were happening in Baghdad. And now, the Syrian war, which has been going for almost 10 years. You have a whole generation of young boys and girls who never went to school for that reason.
EL: So, with the project you’re trying to communicate that, that there are many obstacles that stand in the way to women’s education.
LB: Yes, so in each chapter in the book I tackle different problems. And those problems are shared through the stories of these women whom I met and photographed. The book is about what problems and issues there are with women and education. And how these women overcome these problems. They kind of present the solution, if you will. Or if they are given the chance to change, here is what women can do; here is their potential. That is what I am trying to tell and show.
EL: Which countries did you go to and with which angle and question in mind?
LB: If you follow the structure of my book, I start by tackling illiteracy. In Egypt, I went through an NGO for women who were attending a nine-months literacy program to learn how to read and write. My question to them was, why did you decide to learn how to read and write? Through their answers, we learn the simple things that change their lives. One doesn’t want to get lost in public transportation, the other wants to help her kids with homework.
The next country I went to was Jordan. Despite the relatively high rate of elementary school enrolment, a considerable number of girls drop out in secondary school. They do so for various reasons, but mainly due to the low economic status of their parents. The official couldn’t provide an exact number of those who interrupted or ended their schooling, but I couldn’t stop wondering what happens to these girls. The quest for an answer led me to the suburbs of Amman, where the Social Support Centre run by Nihaya Dabdub provides a two-year programme for dropout girls eager to resume their education. My question to the girls was: what do you wish to achieve with the program? Their answers lay between hope of what they want to do and realizing the difficulties that they face.
The third country was Yemen, which has the highest illiteracy, in the region, for many different reasons. As it is the least developed country in the Arab world, access to education is one of the biggest challenges facing girls. Two thirds of Yemeni women are illiterate. Considering that a mere 27% of girls make it to secondary school, I wondered about the rate of those reaching high school or even university. So, through a friend, I was introduced to this lady who runs this amazing NGO YERO, and I took portraits of women who were the first members in their family to go to university. Through the stories of these women, I focused on tackling how these women overcome the many obstacles in their way.
Then, Tunisia. I am fascinated by Tunisia because it is the most advanced of the Arab countries in terms of laws that have to do with women’s rights. Again, here there are no illiteracy problems. So I wondered, what would be my focus for women and education there? I was intrigued by the student unions at university that came out of the revolution. That’s where change comes from: the young people, the universities. So I decided to find activists, young members at the student union to see what they think is happening in the post revolution and what they want to achieve. How do they imagine their country and the region? I asked the women I photographed: what message would you like to send to young women your age?
I had an amazing time there. They are young, they stay up late, they are full of energy. They believe they can change the whole world. Compared to the previous countries I visited, in Tunisia I moved out of the classroom to accompany these women in several aspects of their lives. I wanted to see how they hustled to retain their rights under the growing shadow of ultra-conservative Islamists.
So after Tunisia came Saudi Arabia. My project could not have been complete without a visit to this major regional power with a deeply religious and patriarchal society. This oil-rich country’s sphere of influence spreads far beyond its borders. Again, the issue here is not education. There are many people with PhDs. This made me focus on unemployment. In a report I read it said that 96% of women work in education and a lot of men prefer that they work there because it’s easier and safer. What about the 4% that doesn’t work in the sector?
I started looking for women who do different jobs. I spent time with five highly-educated women who allowed me a closer look into their personal and professional lives, and showed me how they managed to bridge the gap between the jobs available to them and their high-level skills. I asked them: what does work mean to you? I worked with the only certified female ocularist in the whole of the Arab region, a career coach, a film director and actress, a woman who writes educational curriculums, running her own company, and a chemical engineer.
Then, the last location was Gaza. I was talking to a friend of mine who was stuck in Jordan, staying there illegally—she had been accepted to study at a university in the UK, and was waiting for her visa. Because of the Israeli military occupation in Gaza, a lot of students, men and women, receive scholarships but end up losing them because they cannot leave Gaza on time. They cannot cross through Jordan or Egypt. Among the universal basic human rights, the right to education and freedom of movement are particularly important for me. In Gaza, most people are deprived of both. During my stay, I met four women dealing with the complicated process of getting travel permits. Their stories reflect how they patiently dealt with the uncertainty of their situation in a place that barely has time to breathe between wars, and how they handled the anxiety and anguish inherent in these unpredictable contexts. I asked them: why is it important to continue your education? Through all of these women, you get a sense of hope, of solutions. Women need to be more involved and, when you give them the opportunity, they can do a lot.
EL: At the start of your book, you write: “I’m in awe of all the women who opened their homes and hearts to me so that I could share their stories. This book is for them, and to all the women who took it upon themselves to clear the path for others.” Can you share a story of one women who made a big impression on you?
LB: Aisha is a teacher. She went to University, and on her picture is written: “I got educated because I don’t want to count on any men and I want to see my independence.” She was supporting the family and her husband was unemployed. This is in Yemen, one of the most conservative countries in the region. But the women I met there were so strong. It’s a conservative country, but not segregated, so you see women on the streets and in the market.
EL: How did you manage to find the right people and tell the stories that show what you want to tell?
LB: I had to do a lot of research through reading before I arrived in each of the countries I worked in. I follow the news a lot, so I am already familiar with what is happening but still you need to dig in deeper. Then I start talking to people living in these countries, through friends mostly. Once I decide what angle I want to take and what I want to focus on—even if it may change—I need to find the people I will work with. So that is when I start getting in touch with NGOs, although I am a bit sceptical. I ask around before if they have a good reputation or not. I speak the language and I follow the politics which makes things a lot easier.
EL: Was it difficult to get people involved in the project? Did you have to convince them to be photographed?
LB: Well, it’s not so much the photographing itself; it’s more difficult to have them agree to being published. But because this story is kind of positive—it shows success stories—then they are proud to share their stories. Most of the women accept it, but then again, you need to find the interesting ones. Social media helps, you get quite a lot of reactions. Then it’s a process of selecting the most interesting stories, though I do believe that every person has an interesting story to tell if it’s put in the larger context.
During the first meeting, I do not take photos. It is just to introduce myself, explain to them what I am doing, be very transparent about the project and where I am going to publish the work. I know there are a lot of photographers who are against this, but I am entering their private lives, their private spaces: they trust me and allow me to take photos of their lives, to be shared on the internet. The minimum I can do is share those images and the text before I publish them. I don’t want anyone to feel they are being misrepresented.
EL: Tell me a bit more about your decision to include the voices of these women through their own writing. How and why did you decide on this participatory approach?
LB: I was talking at the time with a friend and photographer Dalia Khamissy, we were brainstorming and I was telling her that I wanted to find a different approach to this project, not a straightforward documentary approach. I was just starting in Egypt on illiteracy and she brought my attention to a well known photographer who uses the method of the people writing texts on the images. I discovered that a lot of photographers actually use that method… It’s not like I have invented something! But it made sense to get the women involved in the project, to show their newly acquired skills they have. It was a perfect way to display their achievements.
Those who can read Arabic immediately can tell that the handwriting of women from Egypt is the writing of someone who just learned recently. The handwriting is shaky, full of spelling mistakes. And it is also evident with the women in Yemen, though they go to university, but in their pictures there are a lot of grammar and spelling mistakes. This also reflects how the education system is weak. It needs to be reformed and improved. And actually that I think is going to be my next focus. As a continuation of my passion with education.
EL: What are your next steps? I’m curious!
LB: Well, there is something to be done about curriculums in schools. Yes, I have tackled the issue that we need more women in schools, and more women graduating from universities. But there is a huge problem with what is being taught at schools; the how and the what. This is often disastrous. More money needs to be invested in education.
A lot of the government budgets go to Defense. Imagine if that money was used for education. For me, the next move would be to tackle the issue of educational reforms and what is being taught and how. This doesn’t have to be in a purely documentary approach—I am going to be more creative and be free in whatever concepts I want to use.
EL: After working on this project for 7 years, you decided to present it in a book. Why?
LB: From the very beginning, I felt that this should be a book. Along the way I published the work in different publications, and I also exhibited the work with the final aim to publish a book. I feel that it’s a space where you can keep everything in and have control over what I want to say and how I want to say it.
The book is published by Rimal Books, owned by a Palestinian family based in Cyprus. and printed here in Bosnia. The foreword was written by one of my favorite Lebanese authors, Hanan Al Shaykh. She is a novelist based in London. One of her most successful novels is the story of her mother, who was illiterate. She accepted the offer, I printed the book for her, sent it to her and within four days she sent me back the foreword. She is amazing.
EL: Was it difficult to find a form for such a long and layered project?
LB: You will see in the book that my style changes. It would have been impossible to stick to one style. Many things happened and changed during these years—events like the Arab Spring, but also personal changes: how I look at and see things. It was a whole learning process. In parallel, it turned out to be a transformative journey for me, professionally and personally; one that changed my work, my perspective on things, and what I was looking for.
I started by photographing mainly portraits and in classrooms, but then I decided to go outside and get more involved in the daily lives of the women to get a sense of the places they live in. So it’s a work that is layered. The background you see also tells the story, not just the women, their portraits, their faces and quotes.
My hope for the book is to get as many young people as possible to see it. Especially from the region. I get messages saying that it is an inspiration; emails from young Arab women who, also after seeing the TED talk I gave, tell me how they relate to the topic and how it gives them hope, motivation and inspiration. And ultimately that is what I’m aiming for.