Thinking about Fatimah in America

This Arabic calligraphy translates to "Allah." It circles a platform on which the artist represents Islam's holy family.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

"Fatimah in America" is an installation of four rooms. Each space is designed to reflect a specific Arab woman Hend Al-Mansour admires. The walls are red, gold, and sky blue with silkscreen prints. One room has Somali architecture, another Moroccan and Iranian.

"It is a kind of refuge for me. I see part of myself in those women. It is like a mirror," she says.

Al-Mansour also sees it as a mirror held up to Muslim women. She sits at her sewing machine, stitching blue fabric for the exhibit.

Hend Al-Mansour prepares one of the wall coverings for her show "Fatimah in America."
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

She grew up in Saudi Arabia. She was a doctor, unmarried and deeply unhappy. On one hand she was a respected physician in an international hospital. On the other, she was a woman, and under Saudi law, needed a guardian to do anything, from renting an apartment to getting a passport.

Al-Mansour says her guardian was her father.

"My father was very liberal. He gave me carte blanche. But if I marry to somebody, he might not," she explains.

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I'm a Muslim. I love Islam. But I don't want to be deceived or blinded. I want Islam to move, to change.

At age 40, she decided to move to the U.S. Now she's an artist creating work about women and religion. Al-Mansour walks over to one of her silk screens and explains this print was inspired by an Iranian choreographer. In the center of the print is a queen on a horse.

"I have a dancer who also has a mustache," she giggles. "A mother with her daughter carrying flowers, and this is Koran."

When asked what part of the Koran, she is blunt.

"This is the woman chapter."

The silkscreen bears Koranic script on how a man should treat a woman. Whatever the Koran says is Allah's law, and can't be changed. This verse leaves a sour taste in her mouth.

"Like the parts that say marry your choice of women. Two and three and four! A woman inherits half of what a man inherits. And, one very offensive part that says, 'Beat them! Beat them!' Like if they don't obey them, Koran allows men to beat women," she says.

Al-Mansour says she's angry that some cultures still practice those laws and treat women as second class citizens. But she acknowledges not all Muslim women are mistreated.

Silkscreen detail
Silkscreen detail
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

"When Muslim women come to my show they say you don't represent us. This is not our experiences. But this is my experience, and I'm sure it is not only my individual experience it is many women from where I came," Al-Mansour says.

"I'm a Muslim. I love Islam. But I don't want to be deceived or blinded. I want Islam to move, to change."

The symbols and images that saturate Al-Mansour's work will likely fly over the heads of most Americans unless they are familiar with Islam and the Arab world. Then the work could be controversial. Al-Mansour is aiming to start a dialogue about Islam within the Muslim community.

She points out one piece. It's a blue circular platform surrounded by three pillars. The platform has Arabic script around its edge. In the middle are six faces each surrounded by flames.

The script is the word "Allah." The faces are of Mohammed and the holy family.

The entryway for Al-Mansour's exhibit under construction. Al-Mansour designed and made all of the materials in the exhibit.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Al-Mansour says she has never seen an image of Mohammed in Saudi Arabia. It is forbidden. But she always wanted to draw his face.

"I wanted to make them beautiful and sacred and respectful. I didn't want to evoke any negative feelings in anybody," she says.

She also points out that images of Mohammed are not forbidden in all Muslim countries or by all Islamic scholars. And whether or not some people are offended by it, she says she won't change her work.

"They can't do anything to me," she pauses. "So far. You know? And I was in the Middle East and I had suffered a lot from that mentality and that attitude. The reason I came here was to have a space to talk. "

And a space for others to talk about their reaction to her work.