Turkish Sabiha Çimen photographed four years in Koranic schools: ‘This is their story, but also mine’

“I have such fond memories of that time. With hundreds of girls at school, together all day, having fun, doing sneaky things. My twin sister and I were very rebellious, we used to run away, wear polka dots, paint our cheeks and hands . We regularly got a warning and were sometimes expelled from school. The punishment: a week at home. You had to think: hooray, no studying, finally watch TV again. But we,” says Sabiha Çimen on the phone from Istanbul, “found it boring at home, we missed our girlfriends and the trouble.”

When Turkish photographer Sabiha Çimen was twelve, her parents sent her to the Turkish Koranic School for Girls in Istanbul. The students, between the ages of eight and seventeen, memorize the verses of the Koran there for three or four years and stay that way hafiz: Guardians of Islam. More than twenty years later, in 2017, Çimen (36) decided to go back to the Koran School to record the girls’ lives – images that can now be seen in the Kunsthal in Rotterdam.

Girls on a roller coaster in Istanbul.
Photo Sabiha Cimen/ Magnum Pictures
A student waits outside the school building for her father to pick her up.
Photo Sabiha Cimen/ Magnum Pictures
Images from ‘Hafiz’ by Sabiha Çimen
Photo Sabiha Cimen/ Magnum Pictures

For four years, Çimen photographed girls at five Koranic schools in different cities in Turkey with his Hasselblad camera, capturing images of a world that is usually hidden from the outside world. She won several awards with the project and was accepted as an aspiring member at Magnum photo agency in 2020. The book Hafiz which she published in 2021, was awarded the Paris Photo-Aperture First PhotoBook Award.

cheerful pastel

In Çimen’s pictures, we primarily see a lot of cheerful pastels: light green, soft yellow, pink. The girls have fun on a slide, experiment with a pink smoke bomb, play hopscotch in the school yard or just hang around and be bored. “That’s the atmosphere when I remember my own time there. We were serious Koranic students, but at the same time just young. We were rebellious and discovering our own identity. In that sense, you would Hafiz can also be seen as a photographic autobiography. This is their story, but also mine. If you are part of a community as a photographer, you can get really close.”

Büsra (age 8) is the youngest student at the Koran School.Photo Sabiha Cimen/ Magnum Pictures

Çimen gained access to the schools through her network of former students: women who in the meantime had themselves become teachers or leaders of a Koranic school. “They opened the doors to me because they consider it an important and valuable project. For some years I could work very freely without official permission from the board.

“Until the men on the board heard what I was doing. Then it got harder. While the girls’ parents had given permission, as well as the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the board was concerned that I would portray the Koranic schools in a negative light. “But look at the pictures,” I said, “I’m not hurting anyone.” I myself come from this community, I am religious myself, this is my ode to this culture. I was able to convince them, but I cannot deny that it is still a struggle in Turkey to have your story told as a woman.”

‘I wear a headscarf and hardly see myself represented in the media’

Controversy

Of Hafiz Çimen wants to show a different image of women and girls with a headscarf, she says: “I wear a headscarf and hardly see myself represented in the media: highly educated, with a career, perfectly able to stand up for myself. Women and girls with headscarves are often portrayed in a certain way. And it’s not always positive. Often there’s something about those images. Problem! Controversy!

“Sometimes I find it very tiring. These girls are so much more than what they wear on their heads. Like all the other girls in the world, they have their desires and their dreams, their quirks, their individuality. Through my pictures I want to show their strength. How unique they are and how connected they are at the same time.”

The pupils enjoy themselves in the snow during the break.
Photo Sabiha Cimen/ Magnum Pictures
The girls are playing in the schoolyard.
Photo Sabiha Cimen/ Magnum Pictures
Images from ‘Hafiz’ by Sabiha Çimen
Photo Sabiha Cimen/ Magnum Pictures

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