These are verbatim transcripts of interviews, reflecting spoken rather than written language.
INTERVIEWER: So it’s the 29th of January 2022. And this is a story interview for Out and About: Queering the Museum Project, at RAMM. And my name is Natalie McGrath, and today I am interviewing Sharifa Hashem Al Hashemy. Welcome, Sharifa.
PARTICIPANT 1: Thank you very much. I am very excited about this.
INTERVIEWER: It’s great to have you here. So we’re starting by… we’re asking everyone to choose and object from RAMM’s collections that they connect to. So can you tell us which object you have chosen, and can you describe it to us?
PARTICIPANT 1: Yes. So the object that caught my eye is a handheld mirror with wooden handle. And it’s an Egyptian sort of mirror. So it’s very old. [Laughs] And I think the thing… in terms of descriptions, it’s got a wooden handle. It just looks like a very fancy handheld mirror, but also not a mirror unless you knew that it was. It’s old, it’s a little bit rusty, but it looks like it’s been love. Which I liked about it. [Laughs]
INTERVIEWER: That’s lovely. So why this object, Sharifa? What drew you to it?
PARTICIPANT 1: So whenever I go to museums, I always look for something that feels like it’s close to home. And home is the Middle East. And so, I looked at sort of North Africa and the Middle East collection, to begin with. And one of the first things that caught my eye wasn’t actually the mirror, it was some photographs that were taken in Iraq. And that was, you know, I went to Iraq when I was a little girl, with my family, and I thought that was quite interesting to look at. But I felt really uncomfortable with those, because they were taken by a white person, a British person, at the time. And there was something about the foreign gaze on a local space, particularly with photos of women who were wearing abayas and covered up. And knowing the culture, I know that those women wouldn’t have wanted those photos to be taken and shared of them. So although I was really drawn to that as an object, I didn’t really like the gaze that it was used from, if that makes sense.
And then as for the mirror, and again there was something about the gaze, but the gaze was inverted, because it’s about, you are looking at yourself in the mirror. But also imagining who would have looked at themselves at the time. And mirrors are primarily used, this is a handheld mirror, that’s use in the toilet or the bathroom. And so it would’ve been primarily used, I imagine, for vanity. And there is just something really human about checking yourself out in the mirror before you leave the house. That whole, like, have I got smudged eyeliner? Is my hair okay? Do I look wild? You know. Do I look respect… is my hair clean? That kind of thing. And I just also wondered, what does that idea of beauty look like then? And what does it look like now? And who decides what looks beautiful? You know, this idea of what is… is eyeliner for men or women? And actually, eyeliner has a long history in the Middle East and North Africa. So it just got my brain thinking about all kinds of things, even though it was just from this little mirror.
INTERVIEWER: That’s wonderful, thank you. I wondered if you could say a bit more about that history of eyeliner, if you don’t mind?
PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah, so I can tell you from a Bahraini point of view, or the Gulf point of view. So that’s a particular part in the Middle East. So growing up, eyeliner, or ‘kahal’ [Sometimes romanised as ‘kuḥl’ or ‘kohl’. Arabic: كُحْل] as we called it, would be used for both men and women, and it’s a sign of beauty. So men would also use it, from when they were babies actually. There’s photos of me as a baby with kahal eyeliner all around my eyes. Which looking back looks absolutely hilarious. I just… oh, you know. And because it’s… so kahal eyeliner’s also a particular type of powder that was used, and it’s contained… and I remember my grandmother still uses, contained within this brass kind of object, with a handle that you pull out. And it was purely about beauty, and it was an accepted form of beauty across all genders. Which is why I always found it really interesting, because even until now, men would use eyeliner as a sign of beauty. And it’s not a gendered kind of beauty.
Similarly, like thinks like henna, so although we think of henna probably as these intricate designs, in the Gulf and the Middle East it’s used for its healing properties. So if you’ve got cracked feet or hands that are dry, you would put henna on because it would soften them. And so again it’s another thing that, across the kind of binary of what gender looks like and what beauty is, and how we present ourselves, but when you look at it with a Western gaze – and I recognise a lot of this is about gaze and power for me – but when you look at it from a Western gaze, and I imagine that is what it must have been like when colonial times sort of started… it was like, ‘oh, these are men wearing eyeliner, which is not meant to be for them’. And this idea of exotifying something. And also they believe that it has healing properties or antibacterial properties, and that’s probably likely to do with the kind of kahal that was used, or the powder that was used. So yeah.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you so much. I mean, that’s fascinating. And I wonder then, I didn’t know any of that so thank you. I mean, it’s hugely… you know, as a kind of knowledge nerd, that is… but also that has illuminated a whole different world to me. So thank you, that was beautiful.
PARTICIPANT 1: My pleasure.
INTERVIEWER: So do you think that another LGBTQ person could connect to the object that you have chosen?
PARTICIPANT 1: I think so. You know, it’s hard to know, isn’t it? I would hope that they would. There is something about being introspective when, you know, coming out happens, right? For you, if you’re a queer person, you don’t just… because it is something that we’re still getting to accept as a society. So it’s not something that’s just ‘oh yeah, I’m gay, and that’s who I am’, right? Or ‘I’m LGBTQ+ and that’s who I am’. We have to go through that introspective space, and you also have to go through that, what do I look like? Because there’s an expectation from society around how you present yourself, what does queer look like to the world? And you know, then there’s also a period which I certainly went through, and I think a lot of people go through, of how do I then respond to society’s expectations of my representation? And there is that quite literal visual bit of, you know, where do I fit in? And I think we’re now in a nice space where we’ve probably got more options than before. But certainly when I was coming out, the representation of what a lesbian woman looks like is that she’s going to be butch, and she’s going to look like this or that. And so, I didn’t want to identify as being feminine, and I spent a few years working really hard to be masculine. And it took a lot of thinking.
And again, there’s visualisation of me going, I’m not masculine, I’m just who I am. I’ve got masculine traits, but actually I’m quite a feminine person. And that’s okay, and I can still be a lesbian with it. And so, I imagine and I hope that other LGBTQ+ people would have gone through, hopefully not too similar, because that wasn’t always a positive experience, but yeah, there is something about, visually how am I expected to present myself? Visually how do I present myself? And as we move forward, the options of presenting yourself whichever way you want.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, that’s fascinating. And there is a pull, isn’t there? There’s that wider framework of how we think we should be, yes knowing that probably somewhere is part of some patriarchal capitalist construct. [Laughs]
PARTICIPANT 1: [Laughs] Yes. Yeah, exactly. And it is, you know. Nothing… humans and linked, it doesn’t happen without consequence or without, you know, thinking. Or without influence from somewhere. You know. And I still wear eyeliner today. But that influence came from somewhere. You know, I love red lipstick. That influence comes from somewhere. There’s a… you know, as much as I say I’m girly, yeah, I do like to wear stuff that I think looks nice now. And what my fashion looked like a little while ago will be very different than five years ago. And you know, we all kind of look at photos of ourselves and go ‘oh, what was that?’ [Laughs] But it does come from… again, it’s this whole gaze. Whose gaze is it? You know, who’s looking? Who’s got the power? Whose voice are we hearing more of? Because certainly… so I came to the UK when I was 12 with my family, and I was a refugee. And the clothes that I brought with me were very different to the clothes of the people around me. And as a young teenager, I really wanted to fit in. And there was something around the gaze again. So whose power is it? And it’s not my power. I was young, I was a woman, I was Arab, I was an immigrant. I didn’t speak English, right?
So I wanted to have the same clothes as my friends did. Because then I can fit in. But we couldn’t afford them, because we were immigrants and we didn’t have the money. So that also influences who I am today, and who I present to the world today. Because I often think about it, and I think, actually, my choice to sound a particular way, like I tried to lose my accent. And that’s okay, because I think there’s something about communication that’s important to me. But I find myself so embarrassed when I catch myself getting a word wrong, because that reminds me of again, that gaze of who I look like and who I was, and what that, you know, what people’s expectations are of me. We don’t have the letter P in Arabic. We have more letters than English, but we don’t have P. So occasionally, I’d just drop it, because I don’t know that it’s in a word. And I do laugh about it, but actually it does catch me out, because it’s that gaze thing again. It’s that, like, who’s looking? How does that feel? So… I mean, I didn’t realise that the mirror would be quite so… [Laughs] would get me to think so deeply about it. But I think it has. It’s that whole introspection thing.
INTERVIEWER: I think it’s fascinating, how the objects from the museum, that just given the opportunity for LGBTQIA people to spend time, to make a choice, to an object that they identify with, to kind of unpack something about their own story. And I think that, you know, there’s something really important that you’re saying about, and you know, our identities, which are so varied and fluid and wonderful. And yet, there’s that tension with the wider world, and you have navigated that in so many intersectional kind of ways. And you know, so I mean, thank you for sharing that story with us. And you know, that’s wonderful. And I wondered if there’s anything else that you think has crossed your mind, about that tension between how we… and I’m not a fan of this word, but how we are expected or should present as a queer or trans person. Or what those expectations are. They can be terrible to navigate.
PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah. I think, I absolutely have to own my privilege here, in that I’m a cisgendered woman. And there is absolute privilege that comes with that, in terms of being able to have a choice over what my bodies feels and looks like. And that I have the parts that make sense to me. And that I identify with. And so being able to dress them, I imagine is much easier, than if I had body parts that I just didn’t feel right, and didn’t fit right. And you know, even like as a big woman, right, how do I fit into this world? And the gaze of what the expectation of me as a woman must look like. The expectation of health, and what health looks like, and wellness, and what that looks like. There’s a lot of it, and there’s a lot of it everywhere. But even like, as a brown woman, how am I expected to be in a space? And what space I take, and what voice I use. And you know, what people’s understanding of me is.
And a lot of my kind of presentations to the world are a reaction sometimes I think to a loss of power, that comes with that. So again, if I’m speaking English and I can articulate myself very well, then within a space I have a voice. And I’ve seen what happens to brown women who don’t have a voice and don’t have any power. You know, economically, I worked really hard to be in a space, to be independent. Because I know what it’s like to be a brown woman without power, and without money. And the reliance on other people in society and what that feels like. So yeah, there is something about how we’re expected or should present, and there’s definitely a tension with… I find myself being a bit rebellious, and kind of playing with things, and going ‘well what do I want to present? How do I react to that?’ And it took me a long time to get to a place where I accepted that this is what feels right for me. Because probably what… when someone sees me, and particularly when I’m not with Jas, my partner, is that I might not look stereotypically gay. And actually that’s okay. And it took me a long time to get to that place. It took me a lot of playing around with what my body looks like, what my hair looks like, how I talk, how I walk.
So yeah, so I think through a lot of fighting against what society wanted me to look like, just being happier in my skin, feels like itself is rebellious and good. And nice, just to accept it.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you. Thank you very much. How do you feel about having your voice represented in the museum?
PARTICIPANT 1: Really pleased. Really happy. I have a strange relationship with museums, in that I visit them everywhere I go in the world, at every opportunity. But being an Arab queer woman walking into a space that… where you see objects that you know belong elsewhere, can be really difficult. You know. I remember seeing gravestones in a museum before, and I think that was in Germany. And I was so upset because I thought, gosh, you have literally taken everything, even someone’s final resting place. And that was a holy space. So you know… so I was born Muslim, and then there’s a whole thing around ritual. So most religions are ritualised, and there’s whole rituals around what happens when you visit the graveyard and what part of the Qur’an you might recite. And the greeting you may say to the dead, and there’s a whole thing around, you don’t step on the stones, and you know, you walk around them. And you get rosewater and put it on the grave, and you knock to say hello. There’s a whole thing around it. And I looked at this grave, and I thought, goodness me. That’s someone’s final resting place, that’s someone’s family that might have visited. And it just is not that.
So I have a very, very strange relationship with museums. But having projects like this is really, really important, because it’s about reclaiming that space. It’s about revisiting an object, or a story, and retelling it. You know, if we always look at history and if we always look at things from one point of view, then we miss out the rest. And it’s often who’s… it goes back to what I said earlier about, whose voice is not in the room? Who’s not there? So putting the voices back in the room, and the faces back in the room, just allows it to be richer. Is my hope. So I’m happy, in a very roundabout way of me talking, I’m very pleased. [Laughs]
INTERVIEWER: We’re really thrilled that you’re part of the collection. So thank you. And I think you’ve touched upon the importance of this project, or the value of the project. I wondered if you had anything more to say about the importance of the project for you? You’ve said some things so sweetly already, but if there was anything else that… just from a Sharifa point of view, you know?
PARTICIPANT 1: I’m just very happy to be given the opportunity to be involved. And I think, you know, it goes back to that power thing again, doesn’t it? Who has the power? And actually being able to reclaim that and being able to be in a space that looks like you, and it’s that importance of representation. So I can’t be that person if I can’t see someone necessarily in that. And so, being able to have a collection that’s being looked at by queer and LGBTQ+ people, you’d hope that a young person comes in who’s trying to find out where they fit in, in the spectrum of anywhere, and they go ‘huh! I can be here, this place is also mine’. So it’s almost decolonising a space that exists. And I don’t think you can put a price on that. So to be part of something like that is just incredible to me, because I think, that’s all I would want. Is I would want the next generation to have a different experience than I did.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you, yeah. Yeah, that’s wonderful. If there anything that you haven’t said that you would like to share with us? Or that you think ‘oh, I wish I’d said that’? Or ‘I’d like to say that’?
PARTICIPANT 1: I suppose maybe the last bit for me is, and maybe why this object is also important, is… so I’ve got an eye condition, and it’s hopefully self-limiting. But we’ll find out in a few years. And I really struggle if I don’t have my corrective lenses or glasses, to look at myself or understand, or do my makeup, or do my hair. And I think mirrors sometimes represent that to me. Like, where am I on this journey of my eyesight? And what I see in this world, and how I see myself? And hopefully, touch wood, I won’t lose my sight. But if I was to, I often have conversations at home and go ‘will you do my makeup?’ Because I don’t want to go out into the world looking different than I would want. So… I guess mirrors are personal in loads of different ways, and maybe I haven’t appreciated just how personal this object is until I started talking about it.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you. Thank you so much Sharifa, that was a real privilege, to listen to you today. Thank you.
PARTICIPANT 1: Thank you for giving me the opportunity.
[00:20:39] End of Transcript.