Interview with Sitare Ibrahimova on her project, "Wedding Night"

Sitare Ibrahimova recently became a target of criticism on the internet and social media for her project, “Reflektor” (“Wedding Night”). She kindly agreed to reply to Meydan TV’s questions about her project. 

Why did you choose to address the problem of virginity? Is this a message to patriarchal society or the reaction of a creative artist? 

I believe you can look at reaction and creativity as interrelated and even identical processes. 

The easiest method of self - analysis for me is documentary photography, which I have been doing now for the past 10 years, from the moment I began studying on the faculty of photography at the Czech Academy of Arts (FAMU). 

I was always interested in the investigation of social themes, and capturing the epoch, space and people that produce them. But less as an attempt to produce documentary photography of a critical nature, but rather in order to create a body of visual anthropology. 

This is important, so that later down the line, our descendants will be able to understand our times, and who we were and what we wanted. 

I have investigated similar themes throughout my career, including early marriages, marriages between relatives, domestic violence and toxic relationships in families. 

On the surface, my reasons for investigating these themes are empathy and solidarity. I too am an Azerbaijani women and I have to deal with social stigmas, labels and the ‘moral police’ on a practically daily basis. 

I was lucky to be born into my family, with social status and a strong circle of friends and acquaintances and the opportunity to study abroad. 

How did you find out about the ‘virginity test’?

From my heroines. For example, a subject of one of my photography projects told me an unbelievable story. Her uncle raped her and naturally, she wasn’t able to tell anyone about what had happened. Then they married her off to a man who teases her still for her lack of chastity before marriage. She found some peace in religion, but lives with a permanent sense of guilt and shame. Think for a moment: who should be more ashamed here?  

Yet another story: a girl who was born and grew up in Russia was married off to her cousin. She was only in 9th grade. They deprived her of the ability to make the independent decision of not getting married at such an early age. To not marry her cousin. And so on: a story of a woman who lived in a shelter after being thrown out of her home for having given birth to a daughter for her husband, and a son for her lover…

There are thousands of these stories…tens of thousands. I heard the story of being forced to do squats on the first wedding night from one of my subjects. 

Did you expect such a strong reaction when you shot this film? Did you know that others would criticize and try to humiliate you? 

Going back to your question, 10 years after I began to study photography, I decided to be the subject of one of my own pieces in a video - installation, “Reflektor”, which was exhibited in the Center for Modern Art, Yarat!

Only one of the video - installations made it onto the internet. The other three works touch on other social issues that are important for me. 

It’s interesting that most of the attention was captured by just this video. This fact speaks to the contentiousness of the topic - which means I did something right, and scratched at a wound…

As far as being able to predict this reaction…this should never be the aim of an artist. I don’t bet, I try to give birth to discourse, attract attention to questions that concern me. It would seem that this time around, I was able to do that…given that there was so much…butt-hurt! 

What did people write to you in relation to your project? 

My Facebook profile has been receiving many messages of thanks…and I have been especially gladdened by letters of thanks from men. 

It is strange that in addition to the men that cursed and insulted you, there were a number of women to who decided to show their discontent. Was it not surprising for you that, in trying to defend women, may of them attacked you? 

Again, social stigmas and suitcases full of complexes are handed down from generation to generation. For some, and maybe even for the majority, it might appear normal for a mother in law to interfere in one’s personal life. I don’t blame them, but I do urge them to reflect on their lives and to act.

What was the reaction of your family to the film and to the scandal which evolved around these photos? 

My family was affected more by the curses and words directed towards me than they were by the work itself. If curses and humiliation could bring corpses to life, as one might see in a Harry Potter movie, my ancestors would awake from their graves five generations back. But I’m an artist, and I understand that the societal reaction may not coincide with my expectations. I can accept criticism, but just to claim: “This is sh*t!” doesn’t do anything constructive. 

What do you think about the situation of women’s rights in our society?  

I have some concrete ideas about what needs to be done to improve the situation of women’s rights in our society. 

We need sexual education in school, and more hot lines for women. These are very realistic steps. 

We need to take these steps, and overcome this absurd situation. On the doorstep of the 21st century, men are still…laying with animals out of frustration and women think up the most absurd ways to have sex but still save their virginity. And these bizarre methods provoke less anger and confusion than traditional sex. This is a yoke. This is oppression, and it is not healthy for anyone. 

Will you be working on such contentious and difficult issues in the future? If so, which ones?  

There are many problems in our society, but there are also many active societal leaders, and their numbers are growing. I am currently working on a project with friends and other like minded thinkers on a project called, “Medeni Niyyet” (Cultural Aim). Our main direction and goal is to help lonely elder men and women with Alzheimers and dementia, and tell their stories. But we’re always in need of help, so I’ll use the moment to let anyone and everyone know that we are open to cooperating. 

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