What is it Like Being a Woman Working in the Arts? (Balqees Nakhlah, Palestine, ITP 2019)

Written by Balqees Nakhlah, Ethnographic Collections Assistant, Birzeit University Museum (Palestine, ITP Fellow 2019)

What’s it like being a woman working in culture and heritage in your country?

Merely being a woman in the Middle East is a huge challenge, and being a woman working in culture and heritage in the Middle East is the greatest challenge as eastern societies impose on women-specific social roles and attested stereotypes that women must adhere to and not depart from. As for the eastern community, the presence of women in this field is not socially acceptable, and it has no meaning despite any success achieved by women in this field, which is also considered a rebellious act from the social role decreed for them. In turn, being part of this community has never been easy; it’s full of challenges. Despite it all, this journey in the arts helped me overcome many of these challenges by expressing my authentic self and fighting the standards that I reject.

Birzeit University Museum, Palestine. /  11 February 2021

How did you get to the position you are in now?

The start of my museums journey was very sentimental; it all started when I was doing my bachelor’s degree; English Literature, back in 2015 when I was 18 years old. I first started as a volunteer student for a whole year; at that time, I was responsible for guiding visitors and assisting in the office’s work. The transition from high school to college was not easy, and volunteering at the museum was a way to fill my free time and improve my mental health.  But through my day-to-day work in the museum and the direct encounters with the artists, exhibitions, artefacts, I became very passionate about my work, and I tried to develop myself in every area that our museum offers. Later on, I worked as a part-time trainee at the museum for another two and a half years. During my years of training I focused on learning everything I could know about collections that we have: space management, managing the collections, ethnographic objects, and exhibitions. Years later, I became the Ethnographic Collections Assistant at Birzeit University Museum.

Do you think women and men face different challenges in your area of work?

Absolutely yes! We can never equate the challenges women and men face in this or any other field. Indeed, men face challenges, but women face double challenges only because of their gender. Consequently, we have to face the resulting inequality of wages, failure to take our role seriously, not considering our successes as essential or fundamental. Women also face other difficulties, such as lack of confidence in judgment or decisions of women in this field or any other area under the pretext that women are emotional and irrational or that this role is not suitable for her as a woman, and that her primary role is raising children.

Birzeit University Museum, Palestine. / 5 December 2019

What changes would you like to see for women’s careers in the arts?

I personally don’t seek validation for any achievements in my career; I know for a fact that my achievements in this field are great. Despite all the challenges and obstacles, I still aspire to reach my full potential. I know I can do anything I put my mind to because I am a woman. I would like to see respect; respect for us as equal humans, not based on gender roles.

What would be your advice to a woman aiming for a career in museums and galleries?

My advice to any woman in this field is that you should only listen to your inner voice, never listen to anyone who’s saying that you can’t. You are capable, you can always do anything, even if they say you are crazy; just show them what crazy can do. These challenges must be voiced, challenged, and rectified.

Who are the women who have inspired you?

When I think of inspirational women, I do not think immediately about those who have achieved success in a leadership role, as great as these women often are. I think of the women who have taught me about fighting gender roles, ambition, and rebellion – and without knowing it made such an incredible difference to others’ lives. I have had the pleasure to work alongside many inspirational women; in 2017, I worked with a Palestinian artist, Samia Halaby, on her exhibition, Drawings of the Kafr Qasem Massacre. Samia Halabi contributed to the formation of Palestinian art despite all the difficulties she faced.

Do objects from your collection tell stories of gender and celebrate women?

A huge bulk of the museum’s collection of textiles tells many interesting stories of gender and celebrates women and their role. Even though these objects are not very well addressed or recognized, so currently I’m working on a project with Museum With No Frontiers  to readdress these objects, and I will share the project with my ITP fellows soon.