Interviews

Lina Hashim photographed the secret places young Muslim couples arrange to meet

Images from the series No Wind - With Hijab and Unlawful Meetings © Lina Hashim, courtesy East Wing Gallery

Lina Hashim, a Muslim woman living in Denmark, photographs suicide bombers, elicit sexual encounters and hair usually covered in public by headscarves.

Lina Hashim’s photography has its roots in her own childhood, in which the grand themes of family, conflict, exile and migration read like a checklist of documentary topics.

Born in Kuwait to Iraqi parents, Hashim was 10 years old when Iraq invaded in 1991.

“When the Iraqis came into Kuwait, my father, who had been imprisoned in Iraq for his communist activities, was on the list of people they wanted to take to jail. He was frightened, so he ran,” she tells BJP.

For the family left behind, exile in Jordan, a failed attempt to claim asylum in Sweden, and deportation followed, before they finally gained refugee status in Denmark. They lost contact with the father, then found him again through pure chance and a Red Cross postcard scheme, but the stress of the intervening years took their toll. “My mother thought it was awful being alone on this trip, so awful that she had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalised upon their arrival in Denmark. So they got divorced. But they loved each other, so after a break of 10 years, they remarried. And now they enjoy life and everything is good,” says Hashim, with an ironic laugh.

With this direct experience of the ways in which political and religious decisions can play out in real life, Hashim has set out to question denial and selective interpretations in the communities of which she is a part.

This is especially true of her project, Unlawful Meetings, a series of surreptitious surveillance pictures of young Muslim couples and the public places in which they meet to talk, touch, kiss and, sometimes, have sex.

“When I was a teenager, I wasn’t allowed to have boyfriends or intimacy with anyone before getting married, and it was the same thing with my sisters and my brothers and everyone in the community,” says Hashim. “But my friends told me about places where they could go to meet their boyfriends, and they said I could go there with them, just to join them, and then I could maybe meet somebody there. It was always in parking lots, or by the sea, or the forest, or the kind of places where you take a dog for a walk. That’s actually how the project started.”

Hashim says these meetings are an open secret in Denmark and elsewhere, but denied – whether consciously or unconsciously – to uphold an unrealistic ideal of modest behaviour. “Everyone knows about it, but I don’t think the imams and the older people and parents believe it could be true,” she says. “My parents, for example, really don’t believe it. They say, ‘No, they can’t be Muslims.’ They think it’s more because of Danish society that people do these things.”

Hashim’s pictures are an evidential aide-de-memoire, literally making these meetings visible with a basic night vision camera. At their most detailed all you can see are blurry trees, blurry knees and blurry breasts, the grainy quality of the shots lending them a furtive but convincing air. “Now that I have made the work, people have another perspective,” says Hashim. “They recognise the phenomenon because they see it.”

Hashim is now in her 30s but says she recognised exactly what was going on in these locations when she drove past some of them; other places she needed help to track down, contacting people she knew who used them, or going online and feigning an interest. Once she found a good spot, she would photograph the couples without their knowledge, sometimes waiting in her car with all the lights turned off so that she was hidden. Often she was clicking her shutter without being able to see exactly what was going on; sometimes she would find she hadn’t captured anything at all.

But while she was often quite literally working in the dark, Hashim is confident her subjects were Muslim, because of their clothes, their faces, the music they were playing, and the word-of-mouth nature of these places. And to her this aspect is critical, because her project specifically Muslim codes and infractions. Anyone who has seen The Park will be reminded of Kohei Yoshiyuki’s infrared-lit photographs from the 1970s, which capture Japanese couples engaged in night-time sex, surrounded by spectators hidden in pitch-dark public parks. But Hashim believes Unlawful Meetings is quite different, because of the community it depicts.

“Yoshiyuki’s work is more about watching, and the man’s role in sex, and how they almost go to girls like animals,” she explains. “I’m more interested in the phenomena, and actually confirming that this is happening, because people didn’t believe it. So I was chasing the truth, which is something I always do.”

Hashim’s work often involves research into Islamic laws, questioning how specific communities interpret the rules, and how everyday life actually plays out against them. She is also interested in how these laws are mediated, claiming many Muslims don’t make their own understanding of them from the Koran because they rely on interpretations of its ideas. “I really carefully read the Islamic books, especially the Koran, and I try to follow some rules,” says Hashim. “But I also need to know how these rules work. So I go to the Koran with lots of questions, and I need to get some answers.”

With that in mind, she searches for local imams who are willing to discuss the issues. “Some are very nice and open and can talk to me for hours,: she says. “Others refuse and just don’t want to discuss anything”.

After going through this process for Unlawful Meetings, she concluded that the strict conventions on modesty were originally designed to help women. What I found out is that it was written, as I understand it, to help and protect women; because at the time it was very bad for women if, for example, they got pregnant with nobody to provide for them…The prophet Mohammed wanted to protect them and said, ‘You have to be married before having sex’.

“So I discussed that with an imam, and I said that now there is another way of living, and women are protected with contraception. He was very open and said, yes, maybe you’re right but at the same time we have to live within the rules of the Koran. But this is impossible. It’s a long time ago [that the text was first put in place].”

This consultative process is even more evident in No wind – with hijab, an earlier project in which Hashim photographed women’s hair usually covered with headscarves in public. “Hijab was one of the first works I made,” she says. “My mother wears the hijab, and when I was maybe 10 years old, she had tea parties with all these other women. I would sit and watch them come into the house with hijab, and just a few minutes later the transformation was incredible. The hijab would come off and they’d colour their hair and they’d put on make-up, and sometimes it was impossible to believe it was really the same person.”

Hashim saw the same transformation taking place with teenage girls, and was fascinated by the dynamics of disguise and reinvention. And it was while thinking about how to approach the subject, having searched the Koran for answers, that she first started approaching imams. She admits to initial trepidation: “I wasn’t trained, I was young, I was very afraid,” she says. “It’s not easy being a woman in this society, even in Denmark.

“The imams I was talking to didn’t really get it and didn’t want to answer my questions, so I found a young imam on Facebook; he was very kind and understanding and we started to discuss the issue. He told me that if I photographed this work I would be committing a sin, and so would the people I photographed. So I was trying to find a way to make it not a sin; to make my work, but also to examine the contemporary meanings and applications of the words in the Koran.

“I suggested, ‘What if I took some hair that’s been cut in the hairdressers and is on the floor? Is that a sin?’ And he said, “No, no, of course not.” So I made an arrangement where I showed only the hair and nothing of the self. Then he said, ‘Well, if you do it like this, then I can say that it is not a sin’.”

Hashim cut and pasted what the imam had said into a document, which she showed to critics who questioned the virtue of her work. The resulting images are as described; pictures of hair shot from the back with no other identifying features visible. It’s a curious irony to see luxuriant hair that has been tinted, conditioned and oiled until it shines, shown without either the headscarf or face visible, a recognition of an identity that is hidden, which is simultaneously a stripping of identity. It’s this kind of irony that lies at the centre of Hashim’s work and gives it a multilayered feel that is hard to pin down.

In her most recent project, Hashim collects and modifies pictures of dead suicide bombers. By doing so she examines the cult of martyrdom, asking how that martyrdom is established, and looking at the contradictions between religious laws, the acts of killing and the fetishisation of the bombers’ remains through images. “The Koran says that committing suicide is the biggest sin, and killing somebody is the next biggest sin,” she states, adding that martyrs are supposed to be created on the battlefield, and only if you are fighting soldiers.

“These people are not on a battlefield and they are killing everyone. And they are especially killing other Muslims and making their own rules. It’s very interesting because we don’t know where this fiction comes from. It’s definitely not from the Koran.”

Hashim’s main focus is on the blood of the bombers. “When they die, only the imam can take the decision of who is a martyr and who is a killer. And when they make the decision, they make it with blood. If the body gets washed, the body gets sent to the grave as a normal person, which in this case means as a killer. And if they don’t wash the blood, they send the body into the grave as a martyr. That means they are honouring him. They want to show he is going to God with the sign of blood to show the clearness of his heart in defending Islam.”

She brings up the recent shootings in Copenhagen, in which a gunman first fired on a group discussing Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression at a cultural centre – killing one and wounding three police officers – then murdering a Jewish man working security for a bar mitzvah before being killed trying to execute another attack. Hashim says she has been scared to find some people of Islamic background prepared to argue he was defending Islam, and cites the power and influence of the ‘fiction’ of martyrdom as a possible explanation. “This is what I’m circling around.”

A secondary feature of the project is the process of sourcing the pictures of the bombers, many of which she found through websites set up by their friends and family to honour them, by posting images and letters and stories about them. Hashim says there is also an industry for these pictures in some countries, where divorced women find it hard to remarry, claiming it’s possible to buy them to procure permission, faking the men in the photos as their former husbands.

“So I was also one of these girls sometimes, I pretended I wanted a divorce,” she says. “Sometimes I could get the pictures for free, and sometimes I had to pay. They were always very small, really bad photos, sometimes taken from old camera phones. But it was not a problem for me. I just needed a photo to confirm the things that had happened.”

Having sourced the images, Hashim experimented to see how she could make them her own. First she photographed them in her hand, then she tried placing them in significant places, before finally having the idea of using blood. She is using her own (with the help of her sister, who works in a hospital), and is still experimenting with how long to immerse the images, saying that some have been placed in a packet of blood for three months, and that the resulting pictures have almost vanished. “I want people to look at the images and think that the blood is the issue, that these people offered their blood and their life by this action. I think blood is something they believe in.”

And as these red-soaked pictures become shadows of themselves, traces of what both the pictures and the bombers used to be, they are granted a metaphorical entry to heaven and a form of visual redemption by being bathed in Hashim’s blood. Or else they simply disappear. We’re not quite sure which, and this is typical of Hashim’s work. Looking into the beliefs and ideologies that are part of her life, she creates work that is fully engaged with Islam and the systems by which these beliefs come into play. At the same time, her work is intimately entwined with the culture of photography and how pictures are made and understood within those same beliefs and ideologies. It’s multi-layered work that leads to one conclusion; life is not simple, and neither is photography.

See more of Lina’s work here.