This Woman-Led Photography Exhibition Showcases the Diversity of Middle Eastern Femininity

The Middle East Institute show, “Louder Than Hearts,” explores portraits of Arab and Iranian women through the lens of ten celebrated female artists

Rania Matar Photo
Rania Matar, Farah, 2020 Courtesy of Rania Matar

The Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington, D.C. is hosting a new exhibition, "Louder Than Hearts: Women Photographers from the Arab World and Iran," highlighting the work of ten different Egyptian, Iranian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Saudi and Yemeni artists capturing portraits of women in their regions.

The show borrows its title from a poetry collection on love and loss by the Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck. According to MEI, the photographs selected for the exhibition are profoundly personal to their makers, reflecting their diverse experiences, and yet they also convey this sense of shared humanity among women.

Award-winning Lebanese photographer Rania Matar curated the exhibition, which includes some of her own work. “I’m not a curator. I’m a photographer. It’s my first time being on the other side of things,” Matar says in a MEI video. “I feel like with the situation in the Middle East right now, it's such a bright spot to look at art and beauty and humanity and all coming from women.”

Matar was born in Lebanon. In 1984, at age 20, she moved to the United States due to the ongoing civil war in her country. Kicking off "Louder Than Hearts," her six-photo series, “Where Do I Go? 50 Years Later,” depicts women who left Lebanon in the aftermath of the 2020 Beirut port explosion—mirroring the artist's own experience 40 years ago.

“I see my younger self in these women, but I also see their power, their beauty, their creativity and their love of this place,” Matar says in a curatorial video. “This work is my love letter to the women of Lebanon.”

Instead of just portraying Middle Eastern women during hardship or trauma, the photographers present portraits imbued with a range of emotions, from defiance to strength to serenity to joy.

Photographer Shiva Khademi’s series, “The Smarties,” consists of portraits of Iranian women who choose to forgo hijabs, showcasing their individuality through vibrantly dyed hair. Their pink, blue and orange strands are a political statement against the Islamic republic that comes at great risk to their own personal safety.

Tanya Habjouqa, a Jordanian-American photographer showcased in the exhibition, photographed Palestinian women in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza for her series "Occupied Pleasures." Despite threats of violence that loom in their lives every day, the women in the photographs are presented as free spirits. In one photo, young women laugh on a boat flying a Palestinian flag off the Gaza coast. In another, two women practicing yoga stand in tree pose in a natural landscape.

“There’s something so powerful and personal about this show,” says Kate Seelye, MEI’s vice president for arts and culture and communications in the video. She adds, “It’s hard to walk away without being deeply touched by the stories of these women.”

In addition to Matar, Khademi and Habjouqa, the exhibition includes female photographers Rehaf Al Batniji, Tasneem Alsultan, Thana Faroq, Heba Khalifa, Safaa Khatib, Newsha Tavakolian and Carmen Yahchouchi.

“I feel like very often when we define the area, it’s all about war, and despair and catastrophes, and this is when it’s in the news,” Matar tells the Washington Post’s Vanessa H. Larson. “So for me to make something beautiful, about women, about humanity, about resilience… it felt like it couldn’t be a better time.”

"Louder Than Hearts" will run through October 4, 2024. All of the photographs from the exhibition are for sale, and 70 percent of the proceeds will go directly to the photographers.

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