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Sabiha Çimen, “Students playing with a colour smoke bomb”
Sabiha Çimen, “Students playing with a colour smoke bomb”, Hafiz© Sabiha Çimen/Magnum Photos

These portraits challenge stereotypes surrounding Muslim girlhood

Sabiha Çimen’s award-winning project Hafiz reveals the “poetic and playful moments” in the lives of teenage Turkish girls who spend their schooldays learning the Qur’an by heart

The self-taught photographer Sabiha Çimen picked up a camera for the first time at the age of 30. It was 2016 and she had just completed her master’s thesis, which focused, in part, on the plight of Syrian women refugees in Turkey. Unsure of what to do next, she decided to experiment. “I’d always been interested in photography. One day my husband’s friend sold me his second-hand Hasselblad camera,” she tells Dazed. “I shot one roll of film and immediately knew that my images had something. I had the confidence that photography could be my profession.”

Çimen’s intuition was correct. Over the next five years, she would develop, Hafız: Guardians of the Qur’an, a project focusing on young girls learning to recite 604 pages of the religious book. The photographic glimpse into a world that is usually hidden from view would win last year’s prestigious First PhotoBook award at Paris Photo. In 2020, Çimen became a Magnum photographer and her first solo show Sabiha Çimen: Hafiz is currently on display at Kunsthal Rotterdam. Speaking to Dazed from Ukraine – where she arrived last week to document the conflict – she reflects on the unique project that launched her career.

“Memorising the Qur’an was part of my daily education from the age of 12… from 5am to midday I recited lines alongside my twin sister and classmates. In the afternoon we had normal, secular schooling. It was exhausting.” The oral tradition of Hafiz dates back to the time of Prophet Muhammad, who encouraged his followers to memorise and recite scripture when most of the Arabic population was illiterate. The custom continues and still today requires that young Muslim girls and boys memorise 6,200 verses and 77,000 words of the religious text. A person’s becoming a hafiz is considered to be a sign of deep devotion to Islam that results in rewards from Allah in paradise. “The discipline from my years in Quranic education has shaped my life as a photographer. I still wake up at 5am every day, to pray, and then begin work.”

Despite the intensity and isolation of hafiz school, Çimen’s work offers an affectionate homage to the tradition. Her lyrical photographs subtly investigate the transition of childhood to adolescence, as well as the solidarity among the girls. “I wanted to show the poetic and playful moments of their lives – the broader picture beyond the act of studying.” Today, she feels nostalgic about her time among a tight-knit community of girls, which she remembers as one of “the most fun, craziest and colourful times of my life.” While paying respect to their sheer discipline and diligence, her compassionate gaze celebrates the girls’ spirit of rebelliousness and resistance to the school system, expressed through moments of visual rupture: explosions of pastel pinks, crushed watermelon, chipped nail polish, lilac hijabs and self-possessing gazes.

Born in Istanbul in 1986, Çimen began her career with aspirations to work in finance, before pursuing a master’s degree in cultural studies. Her thesis Turkey as a Simulated Country considered the identity of her home country, in particular, its complex history of immigration following the civil war in Syria and the position of women in Islamic society. “I don’t feel that my photographic work today aligns with this research,” she explains. However, her interest in postcolonial thought undeniably informs her artistic practice, which seeks to challenge cultural representations of Muslim women as ‘subaltern’ – a term referring to those demarcated as being of lower status in society.

For Çimen there is a political dimension – as well as a feminist incentive – to photographing the girls in this manner. “I wanted to give Muslim women a chance to speak for themselves. In both western and Islamic cultures, they are often underrepresented. And if they are represented, it is in degrading, one-dimensional ways, as side characters.” Çimen approaches her work as an insider, with the empathy to develop intimacy with her subjects – a palpable characteristic of her work.

“This project allowed me to show my respect for young Turkish girls continuing the custom of hafiz. But also allowed me to see myself as a child.” Ironically, one of the essential life lessons she claims to have learned from the experience of hafiz school – and which shapes her photographic practice today – is “don’t obey the rules”.

Visit the gallery above for a closer look.

Sabiha Çimen: Hafiz at Kunsthal Rotterdam until May 7 2023.

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