“They are so much more than a piece of fabric”: Sabiha Çimen documents the nuances of Muslim girlhood

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To coincide with Portrait of Humanity 2022, the Magnum photographer – who won the award in 2019 – discusses her upcoming photobook, Hafiz: Guardians of the Qu’ran

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© Sabiha Çimen.

Almost 23 years ago, the Magnum photographer Sabiha Çimen, along with her twin sister, enrolled at Qur’an school. In Çimen’s native Turkey, it is a rite of passage for many Muslim teenagers: three to four years dedicated to memorising the religious text in its entirety. Thousands of the single-sex institutions exist across the country, helping young people between the ages of eight and 17 practise “discipline, devotion and focus”. But it’s also where they move through the familiar stages of youth: where they laugh, dream, make friends and break rules; where they grapple with who they are, and who they might become.

Years later, when Çimen began taking photographs with a second-hand Hasselblad medium format camera, “l immediately wanted to go back to the Qur’an schools,” she says. “The experience always stayed with me.” Her ongoing and most expansive body of work, Hafiz: Guardians of the Qur’an, captures the daily lives of students at several girls-only Qur’an schools throughout Turkey. The series of portraits – one of which won Portrait of Humanity 2019 – is set to be published by Red Hook Editions as a photobook next month.

© Sabiha Çimen.

Shot exclusively on medium format film, Hafiz is a delicate and emotional collection of vignettes: quiet snapshots and stolen moments amidst funfairs and picnics; on break times and before prayer. “For me, film gives a lot more depth than digital,” explains Çimen. “Digital, in my opinion, interrupts the creative process, as you’re always looking back at the camera at the image you just took, instead of only looking through the viewfinder until you feel the image in the actual environment. I enjoy the waiting process between shooting and getting back the results. It’s like a process of digestion for me.”

© Sabiha Çimen.

After developing Hafiz for several years, Çimen was voted into Magnum Photos as a nominee in July 2020. In the same year, she secured numerous other accolades – including second prize in the World Press Photo contest, and a finalist spot for the W Eugene Smith Memorial Fund Grant. It’s not hard to see why: her images feel rare, precious, and achingly human; a marked rejection of the reductive and often derogatory depictions of Muslim women that have permeated western media for decades. In Turkey, Çimen explains, a headscarved woman would never be seen in the role of main character or love interest on television. But in her images, the girls’ hearts and minds take centre stage. “They are so much more than a piece of fabric,” Çimen muses. “Through photography, I hope to show the hidden power within them.”

© Sabiha Çimen.

The artist fondly recalls a warm June night in her own time at Qur’an school, when she and several friends crept out of their dormitories at 2am to cook pasta and tomato sauce in the cafeteria kitchen. They left a big mess, and as punishment, had to serve meals to their schoolmates, clean the premises, and were forbidden from going home for two weeks. “We still laugh about it to this day,” Çimen remarks. “That night [making the pasta], it was not about hunger. It was about joy and adventure… This project gave me a chance to see myself as I was then.”

Ultimately, the work acts as a kind of autobiography to Çimen. “I am one of them,” she says. “I am their sister.”

Hafiz: Guardians of the Qur’an will be published by Red Hook Editions in November 2021



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Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.