Belly dancers in harems. Bodies clad in dark-toned burkas. Helpless victims of ultra-conservative regimes. These are the stereotypes the western world shamelessly paints of women and girls in the Middle East.
But thanks to the impressive work of photographer Rania Matar, we have the visual tools necessary to broaden our understanding of Middle Eastern culture, and specifically of the women who are part of it. In her A Girl and Her Room photo series, Matar captures moments in the lives of young girls across the Middle East and the United States as they sit in their bedrooms. Spoiler alert: It's impossible to distinguish between those in the United States and those who are not.
Matar's work shows that "othering" is more than a major faux pas — it's blatantly incorrect.
Matar started the project in the United States, where she currently lives, and expanded it to Lebanon, where she grew up. While the countries and cultures may seem worlds apart, Matar's photographs bridge the gap by artfully portraying the commonalities of being a teenage girl.
"There were more similarities than differences. Photographing in both cultures wasn't about comparing cultures, even though some people cannot help but do it," she told Mic. "It was more about really showing the universality of being a teenage girl and the similar issues that girls go through regardless of culture, religion, and background, as they learn to deal with all the pressures that arise as they become consciously aware of the surrounding world, wherever this may be."
If you ignore the photos' captions, it's not clear in which country the girls live. And that's exactly what Matar was striving for.
"I hope that people see that ... at the core, we are so much more the same than different," she told Mic. "With all the news from the Middle East, now more than ever, the focus in the western media is on how different we are from one another, but for me, beyond the sensationalism of the news, there is the universality of our common humanity, as expressed here through A Girl and Her Room."
Much of this sameness is rooted in the girls' vulnerability and sweetness.
"For the most part, I photographed young women I did not know prior to the photo session. I quickly built a pretty intimate relationship with each one of them and I realized how trusting and open they were with me. It showed me that teens are often willing to talk and open up. Often we, the adults, just don't know how to give them the opportunity to do so. I truly felt how vulnerable and sweet those girls were," she said.
Matar's photo series is the ultimate study in identity and humanity. She challenges us to examine our own stereotypes, and rewards us with what happens when we shed them.