Sarah Bahbah is an Australian raised Jordanian Palestinian Christian woman. As she is currently based in LA. Her works of art are notorious for implementing yellow subtitles on her photographs and videos. We all at one point have seen her works centering voices like Noah Centineno and Dylan Sprouse talk about love and identity through witty and heartbreaking subtitles. However, during the summer of 2020, Bahbah took a new route in centering herself in her artworks. For the first time, we see Bahbah as her own muse. As an artist, she positions herself as an Arab Christian feminist through a series called 3eib! (shame!) that demolishes the taboos associated with Arab women.
Growing as an Arab woman, I’ve heard the word 3eib (pronounced ay-eb) on a daily basis. 3eib means shame in Arabic and is used when someone is not acting according to the societal norm, cultural values, and gender roles. If I don’t sit properly when guests come, its 3eib, if I mention my period in front of boys, it’s 3eib, if I go out raise my voice too loud, its 3eib, if I mention the word sex, I don’t want to know what happens. I’ve heard this word more than I can count, and for that, I became desensitized, yet often forced to conform. 3eib is meant to make you feel guilty. It’s meant to silence and restrict you. I’ve heard 3eib mostly from women rather than men, which says a lot about how shame and guilt are cultivated from internalized misogyny. This becomes a violent cycle affecting generations of women.
In this case, the word 3eib! became a framework for Bahbah’s art. This deep, personal, and beautifully crafted series takes the shape of a story of emotional liberation, resurgence, and healing from trauma and identity loss. In an interview with Forbes, Bahbah shares her feelings of feeling forced to repress childhood trauma from sexual violence. She articulates a common experience that many first-generation Arab immigrants and ex-pats resonate with, “In the Arab world, I was too westernized, and in the white world, I was too Arab and conservative.”
She breaks down barriers and taboos in this series by putting her thought processes as a form of subtitles with photographs portraying her daily life depicting her sexual, mental, and cultural aspects that shape her life. She is notorious for using the male lens in her past works to show that vulnerability and mental health in men should be normalized. Each photograph is part of a mini-series in a specific scene. From the bathtub to the bedroom, to even the chapel. Each of Bahbah’s photographs is a form of liberation from emotional and cultural restraints against 3eib culture directed at women. She shows that as an Arab westernized woman, she can still be sexual and talk about mental health, both things that women are often scrutinized for.
3eib! can comment on the simplest of conversation to even extreme circumstances. Arab women have been subjected to shame from their own culture to fit the standard social norm of what a woman should represent. Honour, pride, and integrity are important to every Arab family, but one begins to question the sexual double standards when it comes to gender and its existence in the Arab community. Sarah Bahbah uses her ever famous subtitled photographs and videos to position herself as a woman who does not stand for 3eib culture by using Arab and English quotes discussing, sex, mental health, and even Arab humor. Through her provocative images, Bahbah challenges this idea of 3eib! within her own visual narrative. I would like to highlight how this series resonated with my experience as an Iraqi expat in Jordan who refused to assimilate to western culture. However, I also want to highlight how everyone should view this series as a work of personal storytelling and not degrade Arab women’s experiences who don’t necessarily share Bahbah’s journey of sexual liberation. The moral of the story is inclusivity, strength, liberty, and it’s important to acknowledge that before assuming what all Arab women’s experiences should look like. This in itself is not only empowering but necessary to start the conversation of the double standard that unfortunately exists in the Middle East and beyond.
I am in awe of Bahbah’s series and her openness to share a part of herself that intertwines with her dark trauma and liberation. She uses her own aesthetics, weaving in her authentic touch of yellow subtitles in Arabic and English to reach a wider audience, and centers her narrative as an Arab Christian woman. This series is every Arab mom’s nightmare from its personal and sexual exposure, but it’s a form of liberation not from her culture, but from the constructed gender violence that Arab communities weave in.
This series is so vital not only because it is provocative, but because Bahbah positions herself in such a vulnerable fashion by depicting sexual desire, gender autonomy, and mental health. Her outspokenness is what Arab women are fighting for. Bahbah’s strength in sharing her story of child abuse and being subjected to 3eib! Culture is a testament to the oppression of women of color. This work of personal storytelling is also a way to unify women rather than put them against each other. Each image, in all its controversy, empowers you to own your desires and sexuality. With each photograph, Bahbah breaks down taboos by exposing her vulnerability with witty remarks, Her subtitles include remarks such as “inhale falafel”, or “I’m your habibti, your just my dick”, or “bring me knafeh and sex”. All these references allude to Arab culture and her way of weaving in her female sexuality in it.
It’s important to note that although Arab women face a lot of scrutiny in their community, I urge you to be careful when calling them “oppressed” considering it fits the Western rhetoric of white saviorism in which Arab women have to be “saved”. We don’t need saving. We need to be heard and be our authentic selves.
All sources are Sarah Bahbah’s work from: www.sarahbahbah.com/3eib
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: www.sarahbahbah.com/3eib