Today women in Mali can dance in the streets. Girls can spend their days studying in school and their afternoons playing basketball. They can be seen wearing colorful hijabs or shorts and T-shirts; praying or watching TV. They attend wedding ceremonies dressed in their finest and have their palms painted with henna. Hair-braiding and laundry are part of the daily routine.
The unbridled spirit of these women can be seen in the photographs of Katie Orlinsky. A woman riding a motorcycle alongside the Niger River in Bamako, her hair flowing in the breeze, is just one of the many in “A Quiet Defiance: Women Resisting Jihad in Mali.” This exploration of women’s lives in central Mali by Orlinsky opens at the Bernstein Gallery at Princeton University on Friday, December 16, with a 6 p.m. reception, and remains on view through Thursday, January 26. The photographs show how the women resisted jihadist efforts to impose despotic law in 2012 and capture their resilience, dignity, and beauty.
The Republic of Mali, in Western Africa, is that continent’s third largest producer of gold, and yet half the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 (U.S.) a day. Mathematics, astronomy, literature, and art once flourished, peaking during the 14th century. Most of the nation fell under French colonial rule at the end of the 19th century, and then became the Independent Republic of Mali in 1960. Following the March Revolution in 1991, Mali became a democratic multi-party state.
Mali was again threatened in 2012 when jihadist militants took over cities. “Imposing their own despotic version of religious Islamic law, with brutal punishments and public executions, the jihadists threatened to decimate the relics of Mali’s ancient past and suppress the lively spirit of its joyous communities,” writes Orlinsky.
“In places like Timbuktu women bore the brunt of this crackdown: they were forced to cover their brightly lit clothes with dark hijabs and face-covering burkas, and were banned from work, school, or regular access to medical care. Behavior deemed ‘immoral’ resulted in imprisonment and beatings.”
When an international coalition led by French paratroopers pushed out the jihadists in 2013, a fragile peace ensued. That is when Orlinsky traveled to Bamako (the capital) and Timbuktu (500 miles away on the edge of the Sahara) to meet the women of Mali and absorb their stories.
To survive many women had fled or hidden in their homes for months, but many also found ingenious ways to stand up to the Islamists’ retrograde demands and keep the spirit of their country alive.
Civil unrest and jihadist militias still plague Northern Mali with suicide bombings, kidnappings, and a growing conservative Islamic movement. Malian women’s lives, and by extension the identity of Mali, remain at threat. “Their story is not over,” says Orlinsky, a photographer who has worked for the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. She recently won the Paris Match female photojournalist of the year award.
Travel to Timbuktu was challenging, Orlinsky says from Paris, where she was receiving the award. “It was too dangerous to make the journey by road, and the city was completely isolated from commercial aircraft. Eventually I gained access to a plane of special UN forces to get there — and the city was far from post-conflict.” A failed explosion of the local Malian forces headquarters had just happened.
“Bamako sadly experienced terrorism a year after I was there, but the conditions in the city were perfectly fine,” she continues. Journalist friends offered her housing for her month-long stay, but temperatures above 100 degrees were often unbearable.
A native New Yorker as well as New York resident, Orlinsky was interested in international politics, and her desire to raise awareness on social issues led her to study political science at Colorado College before earning a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and attending Maine’s Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. During a stint in Mexico she worked as a photojournalist for small newspapers and wire services and then moved on to freelancing for larger newspapers and magazines.
“I naturally gravitated toward covering conflict and social issues, hoping to capture the intimate moments of daily life behind the chaos,” she says. “I was, and am still, inspired by the endurance, dignity, and will to survive of human beings despite their difficult circumstances.”
The daughter of theater producers — she grew up traveling internationally with her father as he worked on plays — has pursued stories and projects all over the world. “I try to create images that can foster empathy so that even someone who has no connection to the story or place can see the work and relate to it in some way,” she says. “I like to have the time to just let a story unfold and follow my instinct, allowing the relationships I create to influence and change a story as I go.”
Her focus is on the daily lives of women in situations of conflict and violence, whether in Mexico, Nepal, or Mali. “Intimacy is the most important element to making a story work, and it takes time,” says Orlinsky. “As photographers working in conflict zones we generally only have a limited amount time, due to a variety of factors like resources and safety. So for me one of the best ways to gain access and trust is to have a reciprocal relationship with the people you are photographing. In the case of the images I made in Mali, specifically the portraits, were women who wanted to share their stories. Some had spent years in hiding or silenced, and it was cathartic and meaningful for them to talk about what had happened.”
For other women the trauma was too fresh, and they didn’t want to relive it by talking about it. Others wanted to talk anonymously but didn’t want their picture taken. Orlinsky made some images of women with their identity concealed by shadows, but in the end she decided that wasn’t the story she wanted to tell. “I was struck by the bravery, pride, and resistance of the women in Mali, and wanted to focus on that. I only made portraits of women who were eager to publicly share their stories.”
A Quiet Defiance: Women Resisting Jihad in Mali, Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. Opens Friday, December 16, with a reception, 6 p.m. On view through, Thursday, January 26, 2017. Free.
Up next: “Gods of War,” Maryland artist and professor Phyllis Plattner’s large altar-like panels of gold leaf and paint that explore war, political upheaval, and racial and ethnic violence. Friday, January 27, through Thursday, March 2. Reception Friday, February 10. 609-497-2441 or wws.princeton.edu/about-wws/bernstein-gallery .