Revolutionising 3eib: From shame to strength in Arab culture

4 Mins read

Amid cultural evolution, Arab millennials and Gen Z are flipping the script on ‘3eib’ through art, fashion, and collective action.

Pronounced ‘ay-b’, the Arabic term is used in any shape or form desired to label something as shameful. A weapon that has long been used to silence and guilt others for questioning patriarchal authorities.

It’s a set of unspoken rules in Arab culture that everyone is expected to follow to maintain their family’s reputation in society. For example, no sex before marriage, dressing modestly, minimising interactions with the other sex and never questioning your elders.

It’s a word that every Arab grew up hearing regularly; a nuanced term that forces itself at the core of everything, a term connoted with feeling shame, and unworthiness.

Flashforward to the modern day, millennials and Gen-Z are reclaiming 3eib, using the term as common ground to embrace one another, respecting each other’s individuality, sense of self-authority, and encouragement rather than conforming to a set of rules and shaming one another.

From Sarah Bahbah’s bold cinematic narratives on desire to Dania Arafeh’s empowering fashion pop-ups, these movements ignite a cultural revolution, challenging stereotypes and fostering inclusivity. Amidst a backdrop of censorship and silence, these acts of reclamation serve as beacons of resistance, celebrating Arab identity and paving the way for unfiltered self-expression.

3eib! Series by Sarah Bahbah

Sarah Bahbah is a Palestinian/Jordanian–Australian artist, and director based in Los Angeles. Renowned for her signature style, her art presents its audience with visually striking, culture-shifting stories through the subtitles in her cinematic skills, exposing intimate inner thoughts.

Putting herself in front of the camera for the first time, Bahbah’s 3eib! series takes the audience on a journey into female desire, sexuality, and her soul as she discusses her emotions and sexual desires via her captions.

Women’s sexuality and female desire can be perceived as taboo subjects in Arab culture. In the words of Egyptian writer and activist Nawal El Saadawi:

“Sexual experience in the life of a man is a source of pride and a symbol of virility; whereas sexual experience in the life of women is a source of shame and a symbol of degradation.”

Such ideologies have had detrimental consequences on women’s bodies and relationships with sex. In some cases, these ideologies have led to the circumcision of girls; “by removing parts of girls’ external genital organs, sexual desire is minimized” permitting a female who has reached the ‘dangerous age’ of puberty and adolescence to protect her virginity, and therefore her honour, with greater ease.

Sarah Bahbah in bed
3eib! Series [Sarah Bahbah]
Sarah Bahbah in bed
3eib! Series [Sarah Bahbah]

In response to the 3eib restrictions imposed on her growing up as an Arab in Australia,  Bahbah revealed to Foam magazine that she created this series to claim her power back.

Her work is defined through the use of text on photography, mimicking subtitles in Arabic and English. From her perspective, it was a dual tool to reclaim her Arab identity. It also offers a different perspective of Arab women in the West challenging the stereotypical, oppressed outlook Bahbah was associated with growing up in Australia – a powerful political weapon.

Bahbah’s previous work only had English subtitles, this particular series includes both; in an attempt to empower other Arab women and as a sign of acknowledgement that social media has allowed her work to reach everyone, regardless of her living in the diaspora.

The mere presence of her work showcases to many generations of Arab women that their agency lies within them, regardless of how they choose to present themselves; something that has not necessarily been encouraged within Arab culture.

It challenges thoughts and opinions surrounding femininity, desire and sexuality, presenting them in a new light as something to be celebrated. Her work also provides a deeper understanding to the Western audience that creates more inclusive spaces for all.

3eib Fashion Pop-Up

Baba Boys Items sold at pop-up
Baba Boys hat sold at pop-up [Tamaa Almashama]
LAMSA x 3eib collaboration
LAMSA x 3eib collaboration [Tamaa Almashama]

Meanwhile, London’s SWANA diaspora is reclaiming 3eib by acknowledging that what we put on our bodies is, in fact, a political act in a world that profits off our insecurity.

Reclaiming the streets [Tamaa Almashama]
Reclaiming the streets [Tamaa Almashama]

Curated by Dania Arafeh, a multi-disciplinary artist, and Palestinian activist, 3eib was launched in September 2023, showcasing the work of those from marginalized ethnic communities.

It aims to provide a safe space for designers in the SWANA community who refuse to conform to conventional norms – elevating the SWANA fashion industry to the same recognition as other global fashion hubs whilst presenting “the transformation into a force for good” as a collective effort

Walking into the pop-up space in East London felt like entering a protected bubble, an energy that heals one’s homesickness. Nostalgic music, the ability to support different businesses, enjoy authentic food, and celebrate one another.

At a time in which the Arab and Muslim communities have collectively felt censored and silenced since the renewed October slaughter in Gaza, this was a haven of acknowledgement to the SWANA culture and what it has to offer as a form of resistance.

Though it was filled with people from different backgrounds, the sense of familiarity remained as everyone gathered around with an eagerness to embrace one another unconditionally.

Fireplace, social area at pop-up [Tamaa Almashama]
Fireplace, social area at pop-up [Tamaa Almashama]

Arafeh has not only provided a space for many creatives such as Elissarrr, Suez, Baba Boys, Unty, and many other independent brands across the region with a variety of options: traditional patterns and textures onto streetwear, exclusive one-off pieces and books that cannot be found elsewhere. She continued to extend her efforts through the recent launch of which expands the recognition beyond London, making the accessibility to these brands global.

It’s fair to say that the negative ideologies and connotations of what constitutes as ‘3eib’ are still present. But these acts of reclamation are as important as ever. It’s a celebration of Arab culture and what it has to offer, from fashion to food, music, literature, and everything else in between.

“A Palestinian once told me that creativity is one of the highest forms of resistance and that spoke to me. It made me realise: this is how I’m going to impact the world, this is how I’m going to make a change,” Dania Arafeh said in an interview with Dazed magazine.

The sight of people from the community on different platforms voicing their opinions through their work ensures a more accurate representation that mirrors unfiltered identities that would otherwise be moulded to fit orientalist, western perspectives that are old and tired.

More importantly, it helps younger generations to celebrate themselves, and their culture that’s often demonised and deemed as oppressive in Western society. Providing them with alternative narratives that help them embrace their journey, away from the worries of committing 3eib.

Featured image by Tamaa Almashama.

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