Full Potential, a SWANA collective, puts the artistry of community-building on display

Full Potential, a SWANA collective, puts the artistry of community-building on display

SWANA collective Full Potential advocates for the economic agency of women from Southwest Asia and North Africa through art and community.

On Aug. 30, the last of the United States military left Afghanistan, ending a 20-year war that had carried through three U.S. presidents. The Taliban now has control over the country, and commentary from American outlets and citizens continues to flood digital spaces, echoing a white feminist overview of Islamic republics pushed by former First Lady Laura Bush in a post-9/11 world.

Often absent from the political commentary are the voices of Afghan women whose rights became the subject of headlines. And to many women from Islamic countries, this reality came as no surprise: Unrestrained Islamophobia and the harmful Orientalization of Islamic customs, like the many different veils worn by Muslim women, has been part of daily life for many in Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA) and its diaspora.

Discussing women’s rights under governments ruled by Islamic law and throughout the greater SWANA region requires an eye and ear towards intersectionality. After all, feminist critiques vary depending on citizenship, class, race, religion, sexuality, ability and more — as do the women these critiques aim to uplift. The need for nuance in the conversation, and a space to hear the voices of SWANA women who hold the lived experiences to amplify such nuance, was part of the reason the artful collective Full Potential came to be.

 

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“Full Potential allows for any SWANA woman of any age to have a medium to look at, to say, ‘Yeah, SWANA women are many things; they’re not confined by the social conditions or realities they’re born into,’” said Sara Azmoudeh, a cofounder of the SWANA collective.

Full Potential was founded in 2019 by Azmoudeh and Kiana Vahid, two Southern California-based Iranian American women born to immigrant families. The core team includes May Arjomand, Leyla Gozkcek, Janelle Jajou and Gamze Şanlı, who all work in a myriad of roles from content coordination to graphic design across the U.S. and the U.K. But in just two years, the collective has extended to around 30 SWANA women from around the world volunteering to help its online platforms, which include a website and an Instagram profile with over 10,000 followers. Its mission statement is rooted in the economic agency of women from the region, including the diaspora.

“Agency is the capacity we have to make our own decisions, and when that takes on an economic frame or context, we’re just talking about this ability to move around the world, and accumulate resources, and really just live,” said Azmoudeh, pointing to two themes that can be pulled out of Full Potential’s content: promoting education about the issues SWANA women face and supporting their businesses or creative work.

 

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In its mission, the group centers community-building, where its Instagram has been instrumental. The profile contains a myriad of resources meant to bolster conversation through SWANA news roundups; bloggy interviews with SWANA women and non-binary folks building businesses or creating art; celebrations of the music, books, films and visual art from and about the region; and shared work from other collectives, like the Collective for Black Iranians, Between East and more.

“None of us had experience in graphic design, marketing — none of that,” said Vahid, describing the early days of the collective. “So we spent months researching economic issues [SWANA] women face around the world. And we tried to visualize what we’d want Full Potential to be as a brand through weekly meetings.”

It must be noted that “SWANA” is a relatively new term used in place of what many still call “the Middle East.” In order to understand the movement to stray from such language, the question to ask is: “The Middle East of what?”

Answers point to the colonization of everyday language when describing large swaths of BIPOC countries and cultures. “The Middle East” was coined by a United States naval officer in the early 20th century and popularized through speeches made in the British Parliament around World War I; it referred to the land beyond present-day Turkey, which, during the Ottoman Empire’s rule, had been called the “Near East” by these predominantly white governments. Running parallel to imperialistic interest in the region’s oil reserves, “the Middle East”’s ancient history and Islamic roots have been Orientalized for centuries by what is often referred to as “the West.” (Yet even the now-popularized terminology dividing the world between West and East erases Indigenous cultures in the Western world and obscures the fact that Europe sits in the Eastern hemisphere.)

Language frequently fails when painting in broad strokes; “SWANA” has come up against its own short-comings. One example: To include North Africa can seem like an overstep, especially when considering the rampant anti-Blackness in Southwest Asian countries. But the choice to include North Africa — especially Northeastern African countries like Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia — stems from the likeness in culture: the shared religion, history, languages and foods that come with nearby borders and trade ports over thousands of years.

“When we’re discussing topics that are personal to people, it can be a little hard,” said Vahid. “But just having an honest discussion as a community — that’s what we really strive to do.”

 

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Solidarity is at the heart of social movements, though it is admittedly hard to navigate, especially when open to necessary nuance. SWANA is a large region, and its imagined borders are still up for debate; questions about including countries closer to Russia, like Kazakhstan, or whether countries further East, like Afghanistan, count as part of SWANA are expressed in the ongoing conversation. But in a blog post explaining their use of the term, Full Potential questions: “There’s no way this one term can effectively represent the multitude of populations and cultures of people in the region, no matter their shared history … [H]ow then should we go about fighting for representation in the U.S. and abroad?”

The many racial and ethnic divides in the region further complicate the issue, but they also shed light on why the SWANA community, specifically the diaspora, has searched for new terminology. Despite being marginalized by the steep uptick in Islamophobia after 9/11 and the centuries of the Orientalization of SWANA, census reports often white-wash people from the region, claiming “Middle Easterners” and North Africans fall under the “white” category.

“We had the census this year, and I always click ‘Other,’ but this year, I put Southwest Asian,” said Şanlı. “It’s everyone’s decision to identify how they want to identify; [SWANA] is an option.”

Here is where Full Potential’s name is apt: It holds full potential for solidarity with its openness to discussion in everything from the terms it uses to the topics it sheds light on. The team accepts — and even celebrates — the differences or ambiguity as inherently tied to the reality of SWANA identity, its long history and its growing diasporic communities.

 

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“I’m Assyrian American, and there are many different ethnic backgrounds in Full Potential,” said Jajou. “There are shared experiences [but] we obviously have our differences, and I like appreciating the differences in the similarities. When I find myself talking about issues with SWANA women, it’s really fun tracing the history of each one and how they might intersect.”

And it matters that none of the women behind Full Potential are claiming to be authorities on SWANA; they are anthropology, philosophy and economic graduates, law students, graphic artists, writers and more, who all hold full-time occupations outside of the collective. They created Full Potential based on the premise that, being in the diaspora, they were first seen as “Middle Eastern” and have spent their lives learning (and unlearning) what that meant, navigating their dual identities and researching their homelands, all in search of community.

“We could do as much research as we want; hell, we could get Ph.Ds in some of the stuff we want to cover, but we still won’t be delivering absolute truths,” Azmoudeh said.

 

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Similarly, the collective’s core team of women recognize that, as members of the diaspora, they sit in the “Western” world, and with that orientation, they hold certain privileges and live different lives from those in the homeland. They’re not hoping to speak for women who live in SWANA; they simply recognize themselves as part of the larger swath of women from the region who face the same themes of struggle, despite differences in circumstances.

“In every society, there are a host of conditions that can be explained through patriarchy. Just because the conditions are different — or maybe what we describe in the West as ‘more progressed’ — doesn’t mean … things are perfect,” said Azmoudeh, underscoring how intersectionality remains at the heart of Full Potential’s practice. “Each individual woman finds herself in a web of obstacles she’s going to have to face in order to engage with [political and social issues].”

 

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The work of Full Potential over the past two years has resulted in an online platform that puts the artistry of activism on display. After quadrupling in size in 2020, the team has since created a cohesive image that ties in sprawling SWANA styles, like Islamic architecture, geometric motifs and Perso-Arabic scripts, into its infographics and creative posts.

“The branding of Full Potential really comes back to the mission statement,” said Gokcek, who joined the design effort in the summer of 2020. “There were many group discussions [about]: ‘What do we visually think about when we think of Full Potential, or what do we connect back to?’ It was really like doing a mood board workshop.”

And the designs, which are still being fine-tuned, are meant to expand beyond the two online platforms. Full Potential was never meant to be “just an Instagram page,” Azmoudeh and Vahid explained. Recently, the collective made an announcement: It will be expanding to include a marketplace, created by SWANA women for SWANA women, to sell their work. Though in its beginning stages, the collective states its hope that the “ethical marketplace” can live up to its mission statement in creating an avenue for economic agency for SWANA women in a tangible way.

 

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“We do this because we’re passionate about it; we’re not paid to do it,” Vahid said in her final remarks. “We just do it because we love it. We have biweekly meetings where we sit around and just talk about Full Potential and but also, real life gets into it … We’re having fun while pushing for change.”

Top Image: by Gamze Şanlı, courtesy Full Potential