When photographer Maha Al Asaker moved to New York City in 2013, she was frequently asked one question: What are Kuwaiti women like? Speaking to Vogue Arabia from her Brooklyn apartment, Kuwaiti native Al Asaker shares, “I was always approached with questions such as ‘Do you dress the same way here [as you do] over there?’ ‘Are there restrictions?’ and ‘Is Kuwait modern?’” After a year, the photographer came up with a standardized answer that she would use every time she was approached. “After a while, I hated repeating myself over and over. That’s when I decided to do this project where I can visually show anybody that asks me about [what] Kuwaiti women are like,” she says.
Titled “Women of Kuwait,” the project examines eleven Kuwaiti females between the ages of 20 to 40 in various professions and marital statuses, pictured in their bedrooms. “I chose the bedroom because it’s the most private place and I wanted to show the raw side of women,” Al Asaker says. “Nobody goes to your room except for your family or your best friend. It’s the only room in the home that’s not shared, and expresses something about you.”
Al Asaker started the project in October 2015 during a visit back home. At first, women were hesitant about taking part in the project because it was shot in the bedroom. “I approached family members and friends [first]. Then, when I shared behind the scenes images of the shoot as a reference on my Instagram with an explanation of the project, a number of women were curious and were excited to participate,” Al Asaker says. “Also, this project is an investigation to understand women in my country. I was curious to know how they felt, how they view themselves as a Kuwaiti woman, and what this means to them,” she adds.
Al Asaker’s work engages with identity, as well as cultural and female issues. “I like to elaborate on what it’s like being a female in Kuwait,” she notes. “You will see women like myself that don’t wear a hijab,” shares Al Asaker.
“You will see women wearing a turban with makeup and high heels, women with a hijab and less makeup, and women that are fully covered with an abaya and hijab.”
“We are diverse,” she adds. With every session, Al Asaker would delve into deep conversations with her subjects. “Every time I wrapped up a shoot, I left so proud. The women I met are so intelligent, smart, thoughtful, and so full of life,” she muses.
With an educational background in industrial engineering, Al Asaker did a stint in her field before switching to the financial sector. While working at the Kuwait Investment Authority, she completed a master’s degree in business admiration. “It was fine in the beginning because it was a learning experience, but then I started to get bored because it was too slow. I didn’t like the idea of sitting in meetings day in and day out,” she says. After completing her master’s degree, she fully dedicated herself to photography.
Al Asaker took a leap of faith, taking up her new passion full-time and establishing a business. After completing a program at International Center of Photography in New York City, the emerging photographer was picked up by JHB Gallery and showcased her first project “Undisclosed” as part of a number of exhibitions and art fairs, including Art on Paper in New York City, Miami Project in Miami, and Art Market in Hampton. In 2016, she participated in regional shows such as Abolish 153 at JAMM Art in Dubai and Art Night Out at Contemporary Art Platform (CAP) in Kuwait.
Al Asaker currently works as a freelance photographer in New York City. “I’m still in the process of learning and the city is full of art, inspiration, and energy,’ she notes. “I’m just trying to absorb and digest everything while I’m here. ‘Women of Kuwait’ is very special and it also helped me understand myself.”
Editor’s Note: First published on Vogue.me in Winter 2017 and republished to mark International Women’s Day 2018.