Heba Amin gives faces to extraordinary Muslim women


Halide Edib Adivar, Umm Kulthum, Arwa bint Ahmed al-Sulayhiyya, and Shirin Ebadi are names that may be unfamiliar to many in the United States. They are four women-a scholar, a musician, a queen and a Nobel Peace Prize winner-portrayed in the recently released book, “Extraordinary Women from the Muslim World.”

It was a learning experience for artist Heba Amin, who painted 11 portraits for the book. “That’s what made this project exciting for me. It exposed me to these amazing women, many that I didn’t know about,” Amin said. In her research for the paintings, she found few pictures of the women. She had the challenge of conceptualizing their images-the perfect project for a women artist who focuses on the intellectual power of art.

“I was really honored to put a face to these women,” she said, and at the same time it was intimidating “because they are highly respected women in their cultures. I felt the pressure of depicting them accurately and honoring their achievements.”

Intellectual artist

Raised in Cairo, Egypt, Amin felt lucky to grow up in a family that encouraged her artistic talents and intellectual interests. She attended an American school in Cairo, where Egyptian students were the minority, and had access to a strong arts curriculum. She continued her liberal arts education at Macalester College in St. Paul, where she initially enrolled as a math major.

Although she always enjoyed art, Amin said, “I had never really considered art as a career path. It was something that I always loved to do.” At Macalester, Amin continued to take art classes, and came to realize the intellectual impact art could have.

“Art was more than just a medium for creating something beautiful or a thing that had visual attraction,” Amin continued. “It made me realize that it can be a contemplative medium; it’s engaging and allows for intellectual stimulation. [Art has] power to inspire people to think. I dropped everything and pursued art!”

After Macalester gave her the conceptual and intellectual background for her art career, Amin continued her studies at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, enrolling in a post-baccalaureate certificate program. Here she perfected her technical skills and was exposed to all different types of art mediums. Her next step was an MFA in interactive design at the University of Minnesota College of Design. Amin’s path has led her back to Egypt, where she teaches art at the American University in Cairo.

Extraordinary women

Amin felt that painting the portraits for this book was a perfect fit.

Shirin Ebadi

“How can you not find her story extremely inspiring?” said Heba Amin of Shirin Ebadi. “This woman has lived in possibly the toughest of all time periods of modern history for women, and the obstacles that she overcame are incredible.” Ebadi was born in 1947 in Tehran into a family where education was encouraged equally for all of their children. She went to law school and, at age 23, became Iran’s first female judge in modern times. She was removed from her judicial position in 1979 when the Ayatollah Kohmeini came into power and forbade women to serve as judges. Ebadi continued writing books and articles on legal matters and set up a private law practice. She became an activist for women’s and children’s rights and is known as a voice for millions of women in Iran. In 2000, while defending a political dissident, she was accused of slandering the government, thrown in prison and banned from being a lawyer. After her release from prison, she established the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, and in 2003 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize-the first Muslim woman and the first Iranian to receive the award.

“The mission of the book was important to me, because I’m a woman from that background,” she said. “It was an opportunity for me to enlighten people about the achievements and the stories of these amazing women that I felt closely connected to and extremely inspired by. For me it was a way to reveal a culture and its richness and diversity in a way that I felt didn’t exist already.”

The stories of 13 Muslim women were written by Natalie Maydell and Sep Riahi. Initially the book was thought to be for young Muslim girls to learn about their culture, but according to Amin, the book far exceeds that reach. “The way that it’s written, it can touch anyone of any age and of any culture.”

The book shares stories of the Muslim world from Morocco, Nigeria, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Arabia, Yemen, India and Indonesia, covering a time span from the year 555 to today. The women are scholars, poets, novelists, artists, musicians, warriors, queens, women’s rights advocates and human rights activists.

Amin felt a strong connection with the story of Halide Edib Adivar, a novelist and women’s rights activist who lived in Turkey from 1882-1964.

“[Adivar] was an academic woman, interested in the liberal arts, and pursued her passion of intellectualism. I felt a lot of similarity in our upbringing. She straddled two worlds, two cultures, having a western education and living in a Muslim country. It’s such a struggle to live in these two worlds where you feel like you do not belong to either one.

“On the other hand,” Amin continued, “this is such a positive, especially as an artist. I feel I have this amazing perspective. I can step out of a culture and can analyze it in a way that people who are immersed in it can’t or in a way that people who are outsiders can’t.”

For the portraits, Amin painted each woman in a setting that depicted her individual culture, in clothing that reflected her time period and interest. Except for the portrait of Shirin Ebadi.

“It was really important to just depict her,” said Amin of this portrait, which is a close-up of Ebadi’s face. “I felt like her personality and her character were so incredibly strong and powerful on its own. She really turned herself into something much bigger, [through her passion of] helping other women. That’s very difficult, very rare, and is to be admired in a society where it’s very difficult for women to stand above and be able to achieve something so grand.”

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