Meet Thana Faroq, A Yemeni Photojournalist Exploring The Struggles of Immigrant Women and Children

Thana Faroq is a photojournalist from Yemen, currently based in the Netherlands. At a young age, Thana picked up a camera, strolled along the streets, and realized how unconventional this was for a woman in a traditional and muslim-majority country, where women are governed by a patriarchal system heavily based on Sharia. Perhaps the inclination of a natural-born feminist, perhaps the impact of being raised by a mother who spoke empowering words, but the first seed into what has now become an exploration of untold stories of marginalized Yemeni and immigrant women and children. Thana’s work breaks the silence on the sufferings of and violences committed against those helpless souls. It is a reportage narrating intimate situations, personal anecdotes, and highlighting memories.

In 2016, Thana Faroq was awarded “Break the Silence” scholarship to pursue a M.A. in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at the University of Westminster in London, United Kingdom. Her work appears in several publications: Aljazeera, World Press Photo, BBC, Huffington Post, and CNN among others. Recently, Thana was awarded the Open Society Foundations’ fellowship grant and exhibition for her ongoing project: “The Passport.”

Fatima: Please tell us about your life in Yemen and what created your interest for Photojournalism. 

Thana: I was born and raised in Yemen. I would always think of Yemenis as people who are extremely genuine and kind, but frankly, the idea of a woman like myself carrying her camera and touring the streets would always make me uncomfortable. In a very conservative society with tribal traditions like Yemen, I would sometimes request one of my family members to accompany me when I go shooting, fearing to be harassed, or verbally hurt. This fear of mine has escalated during my time documenting the conflict in relation to women’s lives in Yemen. My work demanded a lot of travel inside the country to collect stories and, as security was fragile, I knew that my life as a female photographer wouldn’t be any easier. Photojournalism was my way to document the situation there. There were many stories needed to be told, especially when it came to women's condition during the war. 

Fatima: How do you connect Islam, the war in Yemen, and Women’s Rights?

Thana: All these are parts of my identity. But perhaps being a Yemeni and living the Yemeni war made me aware of the injustices faced by Yemeni women, and how big of a burden were falling on their shoulders. 

Sana'a, Yemen - 2016

Sana'a, Yemen - 2016

Fatima: Were you raised in a conservative family? And what would you tell a woman like Yasmine Mohammed, from Confessions of an Ex-Muslim, who per her last Tweets seems to be anti-hijab?

Thana: I grew up in a male-dominated society, but raised by a single open-minded mother, who taught me to stand up for my choices and never give up on my dreams. 

I am not so familiar with Yasmine Mohammed’s tweets. But everyone has an opinion about Hijab and has the freedom to express it, as long as he/she respects those who believe in it.

Fatima: How do you define an empowered Muslim woman?

Thana: A woman that stands for her choices and beliefs, and tries to inspire others through actions. I think this applies to every woman not just the Muslim ones.

Fatima: Why have you made the choice to focus on stories of women at the intersection of migration, memories, and suffering?

Thana: It wasn’t a choice. It was driven by inspiration. I was amazed to witness women resilience and strength in Yemen in times of conflict. During my journey in documenting the humanitarian situation, I didn’t want to talk to politicians, leaders, or activists. I wanted to talk to the women. The women in their households. The ones who bear the big burdens.

Sana'a, Yemen - 2016

Sana'a, Yemen - 2016

Fatima:  I discovered your work through the most recent Open Society Foundations' exhibition "Moving Walls: Another Way Home," where your series of photographs were under the name "Passport." Please tell us about this project, what "passport" means to you, and who these women are.

Thana: This project explores the experiences of people, who are hindered by their passports. It is about the people who are banned from entering countries; asylum seekers and stateless individuals, who cross oceans and land masses to obtain a passport that will guarantee them a higher value in life. It is about the people, who were not born within the “lucky” borders. My women participants come from different cultural backgrounds. They are emigrants, refugees, stateless, and asylum seekers. 

Fatima: You currently live in the Netherlands, which provides more freedom compared to a home country in political crisis. What can't freedom replace?

Thana: Good question, thank you. It can't replace the love and care my family surrounds me with at home. 

Sana'a, Yemen - 2016

Sana'a, Yemen - 2016

Fatima: What is the biggest struggle of an immigrant, and perhaps more specifically of an immigrant woman? 

Thana: The struggle that lies in the ability to find a balance between holding onto their own cultural identities and at the same time being aware of other societies and cultures in the midst of all this interconnectedness. The struggle to fit in and cope with the stereotypes that go against them.

Fatima: How have you been able to survive the trauma from the war in Yemen?

Thana: It’s not easy. I find it still awkward, whenever I’m in a place that is occupied with stillness and quietness. But, I think photos and documenting people’s stories helped me heal somehow (the feeling that you are not alone, and there are those who share with you the same struggles).

Fatima: What's the best part of your next project?

Thana: That it is a collaborative storytelling project, in which the participants are the author of their own stories, and that it includes my journey and personal experience. 

Author Fatima Bocoum. Photo Courtesy of Thana Faroq