Photo by Steve Shay
Photographer and activist Samia El-Moslimany was raised in both Burien and the Middle East. She embraces Islam while fighting against cultural misogyny.

Samia El-Moslimany of Burien breaks with Muslim stereotypes

Samia El-Moslimany was raised both in Burien and the Middle East. Considered Saudi Arabia's most famous female photographer, she has photographed both princes and paupers. She also shot the Sept. 19, 2009 Time Magazine cover. That image, you might say, mirrors her own. Depicted are two very different female Arabs standing side by side. On the left is a chic, attractive woman clutching a soft black briefcase. On the right, her more traditional counterpart, who dons a black burkha covering her entire body except her eyes, and holds no briefcase.

The headline reads "Saudi Women's Quiet Revolution". Turns out both are the same woman, a model often used by El-Moslimany and her staff at Photography by Samia, her studio based in Jeddah, a city of over three million on the Red Sea.

El-Moslimany, 49, is a women's rights advocate in Saudi Arabia, and seems at ease articulating her modern social and political positions. Her frankness to speak out, in addition to her perspective, might surprise, if not shock, many from Saudi to Seahurst, her Burien digs. A citizen of both Saudi Arabia and America, she commutes from one to the other monthly. She maintains, however, that while she defies Islamic stereotypes, she lives a traditional, religious life faithful to the Qur'an.

"I'm covered up," she said, pointing to her hair wrap. "Islam 1,400 years ago was revolutionary. It did things for women that no other organized religion had ever done, like giving us the right to inheritance, and to participate in the political process."

She believes social repression in the Middle East has more to do with some males, not all, not willing to give up their social status, and that this is not Muslim-based.

"Saudi Arabia experienced a huge social justice revolution in the 7th Century, but then men who led did not want to become disenfranchised," she said. "This was a divine starting point God did to level the playing field and expected us as thinking, questioning human beings to take that and run with it. There's male privilege and who wants to upset that balance?"

This hits close to home as she is fighting a bitter battle with her estranged husband who lives in Saudi Arabia, where he was born, with another woman. According to El-Muslimany, in that country "their property" is generally considered "his property". Their two sons and daughter live here. They are grown and a custody battle did not occur.

El-Moslimany does not let American Muslim males off the hook.

"In our own mosques here in Seattle (men) should be the most enlightened and educated, but instead are so misogynistic and sexist," she complained.

She pointed out that an entire chapter in the Qur'an is named for Miriam, Arabic for Mary, the mother of Jesus, and she is revered. Asiya the wife of Pharaoh, is revered for her strength by the prophet Muhammad. She rescues the infant Moses from death.

On occasion she attends the Mus­lim Asso­ci­a­tion of Puget Sound, or MAPS, an Islamic orga­ni­za­tion and mosque in Redmond.

"By-laws at MAPS prevent women from holding leadership positions on their board of directors," she said. They have erected an 'un-Islamic' (physical) barrier between the women and men prayer spaces. I really am not comfortable anywhere in the greater Seattle area. I'll pray in the back, but don't put a wall between us. We are forming a Islamic center in the Central District, the Seattle Ummah Cultural Center."

Her late Egyptian-born father, Mohammad, a Boeing engineer, was an exception, she said. He and Samia's mother, Ann, who she lives with when in Burien, were political activists.

"My father was a very observant Muslim in the true sense of the word in that he was open-minded," she recalled. "He practiced. He worshipped. But he was always really ecumenical. He left Egypt as a political refugee because he was with the Muslim Brotherhood which was totally different then than it is today. (She said she is no fan of current Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi). They were against the imperial occupation of the British. They were more the social justice type organization. They wanted health care for everyone, and land reform because basically you had all these feudal peasants working the land."

Her parents met while teaching at New Mexico State University in Las Cruses. Ann, who was born in California, taught biology and Mohammad, electrical engineering. They were married and honeymooned at the Seattle World's Fair. They would later relocate to Burien to be close to his Boeing job. Ann converted to Islam in 1970.

Samia attended Lake Burien School in kindergarten and 1st, 5th and 6th grades at Lake Burien, and 7th at Seahurst. (Her dad took a leave of absence to teach in Saudi Arabia where she attended 2nd to 4th grades.) After her year at Seahurst, he retired from Boeing and they moved to Kuwait for another teaching position.

While Mohammad worked at Boeing, where he became an anti-smoking advocate, Ann ran the Islamic School of Seattle she opened in 1980 with 120 students, at 720 25th Av. It closed last year. Some Muslim families who could afford tuition moved out of the Central District over time, and some of those who stayed could not afford the tuition without scholarships.

Ann, and Lake Burien grad, Beth Williams, who lived just down from them on the beach, were friends. They used to walk together every day and their kids were similar ages. Williams is a volunteer for the Highline Historical Society.

Samia and her mother said the family never received negativity in Burien for being Muslims. They both graduated UW in 1983. Ann earned her PhD in paleoecology and Samia, her bachelor of arts in television production and film making, followed by her masters in education. She took photos since age 6, and her father loved taking pictures. She said that while a huge part of her life remains in Jeddah, she does not embrace all aspects of their culture.

"Muslims need to be much more supportive of human rights for all because we are out there now screaming that we want to be treated properly, and then Muslims want to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation," El-Moslimany said. "I think that is wrong and I will stand with you if you are persecuted. Homosexuality is definitely completely criminalized in Saudi Arabia. They even released an official statement warning that 'Women will become lesbians if allowed to drive.'"

To clarify, last year academics at the Majlis al-Ifta' al-A'ala, Saudi Arabia's highest religious council, warned that allowing women to drive would "provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce". Within 10 years of the ban being lifted, it claimed, there would be "no more virgins" in the country.

She pointed out women are permitted to drive in other Muslim nations, and therefore the taboo is politically-based. It is a taboo she has broken, although her photo studio has a driver.

She recalled, "I drove for thrills, and out of necessity. My husband and his family are from Mecca. When we were first married and went from Jeddah to Mecca, it was a stretch of empty road, a new freeway then. I'd drive for fun when we were coming back late at night. Another time, I had a cat that jumped or fell from the roof and broke its back in the middle of the night. I was alone so I got in the car and drove to the vet. The vet was Scottish and didn't care how I got there. The cat didn't live."

Some areas of Saudi Arabia have permitted women to drive for some time, for practical reasons, including both the Saudi Aramco (Oil Company) Residential Camp, and Dhahran King Fahd University, both in Dhahran.

"When the (university) campus got big enough to drive a car around instead of roller-skating, they allowed women to drive," she said.

She does not object to the over-used American term "tourist Mecca" when it appears on ads to promote picturesque locations like the Grand Canyon or Venice, but, she said with a slight grin, "It bothers me when ads promote a 'hoochie coochie Mecca' like Las Vegas." She refers to such slogans as "Come to Las Vegas, the tourist mecca of the west."

El-Moslimany believes the Muslim community overreacts with protests when their profit is depicted in unflattering ways, like in political and religious cartoons.

"I think it is absolutely crazy," she said. "We are shooting ourselves in the foot. I think it's good to respect our prophet, and I'm going to respect the people you venerate, but it's not my highest priority to protest these things. If he is disrespected by them, so what? This doesn't detract from the respect we have for him."

On a lighter note, El-Moslimany said she doesn't dine much at Seattle-area Middle Eastern establishments.

"I prefer Ethiopian restaurants in the Central District," she said.

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Due to a technical glitch this story was accidentally removed, and has just been reposted. Immediately below are four "rescued" comments. Thank you.

Fan Awesome article!

Brenda Gant I am a long-time (friend) of Samia's and also managed her photography studio in Jeddah. Samia is an outstanding role model and well-loved and -respected by all who know her. I am glad to see such a positive article focusing on her stances for Islam, women, and justice.

Faith You rock, Samia! What a beautiful article bringing the balance and focus where it should be! I'm proud to know you!

Papiers Excellent presentation of a real-life modern Muslim woman whose capacities for clear thinking and leadership are unbounded. I'm proud to know and respect this woman who is equally at home in the Saudi landscape and on the 21st Century American scene.

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