“We try to give women the voice, the strength, and the respect they deserve,” states Azeema founding editor Jameela Elfaki. Her print and online platform empowers female creatives living in the Middle East, North Africa, and the diaspora while aiding the exploration of her personal heritage.
In Saudi Arabia, women are now free to drive, but still take a back seat (in every respect) to men. While there was a brief window in which crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was viewed as a visionary young reformer, Saudi Arabia still shows no sign of combating its human rights record; women’s rights activists are still being incarcerated, and the male guardianship remains intact.
With this year’s lift of the driving ban, Noor Alabdulbaqi, Jameela Elfaki, and Sunayah Arshad, the brains behind the print magazine Azeema, decided to make a statement: The cover of their first issue, Habibi, depicts a woman behind the wheel, dressed in a niqab. Habibi translates to darling; “you would use it as an endearing term with your friends and significant other,” says Elfaki. In the context of Azeema, however, Elfaki describes its purpose as “almost the opposite of darling.”
Azeema’s second issue, Huia, talks about identity and introduces visual artist Balqis AlRashed. Her video series, A State of Play, depicts her hula-hooping in a niqab, a work that challenges notions of womanhood and traditions. “We were conditioned from a very young age not to express ourselves authentically,” says the Saudi-born artist in the interview. To her, the niqab “can restrict and allow me, empower and oppress me, protect and expose, all at the same time.”
Azeema indicates determination, strength, and braveness—attributes that shape the different narratives explored in the biannual publication. The inside cover of Huia reads, “This magazine is made especially for girls with the courage to rebel. The aim is to empower, not to offend.” The striking, powerful visual statements of Azeema’s protagonists have put them on their local map. Azeema is their medium to express their identity, whether that’s through ethnicity, gender, nationality, or sexuality.
Swedish-Iranian musician Nadia Tehran is on the cover of Huia. She looks fierce; her soft curls frame the intense look in her eyes. “I chose that picture of Nadia because it shows the core values behind the magazine,” Elfaki says. Arshad chimes in: “It’s strong and vulnerable at the same time. That reflects the magazine. It’s also about being proud; we want to show femininity as well as some pure bossiness and feminism.” Elfaki describes Tehran’s music as one with a distinct punk attitude. “She’s so fearless, super proud of her heritage, and quite outspoken. She enjoys her art, and I really respect that,” she says.
The heads behind Azeema (from left): Jameela Elfaki, Sunayah Arshad, and Noor Alabdulbaqi
As one of the first international publications solely covering these two sprawling regions and its population of about 315 million, Azeema carefully assembles their diverse natures. “What we’ve learned by meeting our protagonists is this idea of unity,” Elfaki begins. “Although we’re never going to be able to represent every single woman in those regions, we can highlight different things that connect them.” Arshad is convinced that many locals don’t know much about creative projects that women continuously initiate for the people around them.
“The themes that run through Azeema are borderless. Anyone can pick it up and resonate with it,” says Elfaki, referring to the fact that much of the publication relates to the founders’ personal journeys. “We can’t speak for everybody but we can speak for ourselves; it’s a good starting point.” The backgrounds of Azeema’s core team vary widely: Elfaki’s parents are British and Sudanese; deputy editor Alabdulbaqi is from Saudi Arabia; senior editor Arshad’s heritage is Pakistani. Frustrated by the lack of women of color represented in UK media, Elfaki founded Azeema while graduating in fashion communication from Central Saint Martins. She was soon joined by friend and roommate Arshad. “It’s important that it’s meant to be inclusive but also explorative,” Elfaki notes. “I want to represent as many faces as possible, because we don’t just belong to one group. That’s partly why the magazine is so diverse; it’s one big melting pot. It would be strange for us to close in on one thing or ethnic group.”
Elfaki and Arshad both describe their upbringings as challenging; both felt disconnected from their roots and struggled to fully understand and accept them. “My heritage seemed so different from my life in England,” Elfaki says. “All that has shaped me in some ways, though. Now I regret that I didn’t want to know much about it and share it with others,” she adds. Arshad shares a similar sentiment: “I went to an all-girls school and was only surrounded by privileged white girls. I tried to be more like my white friends, which I shouldn’t have been like,” she begins.
“Coming from a Pakistani background there are a lot of traditions that I didn’t agree with, especially the rules and restrictions for women. What you can wear; who you get married to; whether you are allowed to study or not. Luckily for me my parents didn’t agree with a lot of that either. I didn’t really like what these traditions taught me—hence I resented my Pakistani heritage and tried to distance myself from that,” she says, pausing. “But I shouldn’t be ashamed of being a Pakistani. There might be things I disagree with but there are still amazing parts about my heritage and my culture. That’s the main thing I’ve learned throughout the process.”
Visuals from Azeema Magazine
The limited edition cover of Saffiyah, Azeema’s third issue.
The cover of Huia, Azeema’s second issue.
Alabdulbaqi, who spent most of her childhood in Saudi Arabia and attended an all-girls Arabic school, remembers her native country as beautiful, hot, and littered with palm trees her family harvested dates from. To honor her heritage, she asked her mother to write an Arabic letter for Huia, an ode to growing older as an Arab woman. “I carry my heritage with me through my mother tongue, through the traditional dishes we make, and through Azeema,” Alabdulbaqi says. “It gave me a space to share with many strong and inspiring women, and to discuss my heritage and commonalities with other beautiful Middle Eastern cultures. As I continue to interact and interview these women, I am slowly finding out that we are invincible.”
Do they feel restricted at all? “We know there would be restrictions as to where we can stock Azeema; I know a couple of places that don’t allow creative magazines,” Elfaki says. “If we were to stock it in places like Saudi Arabia or more conservative areas, we might get some criticism, but that doesn’t mean that people and young women who want to read it can’t read it. Not being able to stock Azeema will not stop us from sending it out to them.”
Zooming in on Middle Eastern and Northern African creative landscapes from a female perspective, Azeema Magazine acts as both a print magazine and platform that eagerly explores such long underestimated creative potential. To learn more about the magazine, or order your own copy, visit their website or follow them on Instagram.
Azeema’s third issue, Haraka (Movement), will launch on November 2, and will explore tangible and intangible types of movement. It features Palestine DJ Sama, activist and artist YASSA, photographer Thana, and basketball player Asma Elbadawi. You can pre-order it here.