“Al-Banaat” (“the girls” in Arabic) is an intimate journey through the world of two little sisters in Iraq. It is a long-term personal project I carried out, exploring the meaning of freedom and childhood from a personal and feminine perspective in contemporary Iraq. It’s a journey that interrogates Iraq’s future, based on the deepest belief that the way a society treats its children – and especially its girls – will shape its future.
Through the portraiture of two little girls, this collection of images takes the viewer into a poetic and colorful world, and shows an unseen face of Iraq.
Fatma and Tiktum are two sisters, now aged 7 and 8 1/2 years old. They live in Chibayish, in Southern Iraq, a Shiite region. Very few places are as conservative as this rural region of Iraq. I met them by chance, by becoming friends with their father as I was working on another story in the region. It was one of those moments of grace: Fatma and Tiktum immediately adopted me, and vice versa. I started to photograph them just for me, and because they would ask for it. It was only after some time that I realised those images made absolute sense, and that this story had become the most significant and important I’d ever worked on.
The sequence of images careens between moments of their daily life, scenes of this magic they seem to conceal and reveal, and still life images capturing the particular environment they live in. Diptychs echo the duality of the subject and reinforce the importance of the bond between the two sisters.
Fatma and Tiktum were born in post-war Iraq, in the early 2010’s. And, very soon, war returned to the country when ISIS took over a quarter of the country in 2014 – although Southern regions like Chibayish were relatively far away from the fighting, the conflict still took a toll on local society as dozens of young men died while being part of Shiite militias battling the jihadi group.
Iraq seems to be now at a turning point: ISIS has officially been defeated (yet is still present in the country, and people agree it will soon be back in force) and tens of thousands of protesters are marching in the streets of Baghdad, trying to – finally – shake up the corruption and economic hardship, but also the rotten “system” that’s been running the country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Therefore, it seems like a good time to look at Iraq’s future – its children, its girls.
These intimate images are also my personal reaction to the girls’ condition in Iraq – where lawmakers have proposed a law to legalise marriage for girls as young as 9 years old. Only six months older than Fatma’s age today. For now, still considered children, Fatma and Tiktum are free. But this will change at some point, perhaps in a year or two for Fatma. As soon as they become early teenagers, they will have to cover up and “behave”. The project is called “The girls”: it can be the story of every Iraqi girl.
Emilienne Malfatto is a freelance photojournalist covering post-conflict and social issues, mostly in Iraq.
She studied in France and Colombia and graduated from Sciences Po Paris in 2013. She then worked for the Agence France Presse (AFP) in France and on the Middle East regional desk. In early 2015 she moved to Northern Iraq as a freelancer. She now lives between Iraq and Southern Europe, with occasional reporting in Latin America.
Her work has been featured by The Washington Post, The New York Times’ Lens blog, UNESCO, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Le Monde, Libération, Le Figaro, among others.Visit Website