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Lina Hashim grew up between cultures as a Muslim in Denmark. She's documenting similar young people thwarting strict moral codes and getting intimate in public spaces.

Night vision

Photographer investigates Muslim teens’ secret hookup culture

By Katie Booth on July 31, 2015

Born in Kuwait to Iraqi parents, visual artist Lina Hashim moved with her family to Denmark as a teenager in 1992. Though she went on to university at the prestigious Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, growing up Muslim in her adopted country wasn’t entirely without confusion or conflict. Muslim teens in her community were expected to follow a strict religious code when it came to sexual relationships outside of marriage. That meant no dating, hand-holding or kissing, and most imperatively, no sex. In stark contrast, Hashim was confronted with Danish society’s broad-mindedness about sex. “They were open to everything, allowed to be intimate, kiss as often as they wanted, have boyfriends, and have sleepovers,” she said in a phone interview with Women in the World. “All of that, I was denied. It was really hard to be myself at times.”

But away from their parents, Muslim teens in Hashim’s community found their own spaces for sexual intimacy. Hashim noticed her peers would meet their significant others in parks, behind trees, or under the cover of night on public beaches or in parking lots. She remembers her friends in high school fabricating elaborate lies to get out of the house for these “unlawful meetings,” telling their parents they were going to football camp, writing fake letters, and packing sleep-away bags. Hashim said that though she was shy, she would join them sometimes. When Hashim began studying anthropology alongside photography at university, she focused on Islam. She started to examine closely the Quranic rules that had affected her personally, and revisited the “unlawful meetings” of her teenage years.

Following leads from members of the community, some of them anonymous, Hashim would go to the meeting places, sit in her car, and wait. “With the information I got from anonymous sources, I started to ‘hunt’ them,” said Hashim. “I was out, writing down everything I was seeing, sometimes sitting for hours.” In her pursuit, she found that teens weren’t the only Muslims meeting in secret. “I discovered that some were married people having affairs, some were young people just meeting and having fun, and then there were couples denied to be married to each other, so they married secretly. I spent three years on this, but could easily have spent 10.”  The images Hashim made with night vision cameras, smartphones or digital cameras equipped with long-range telephoto lenses, are grainy and dark, but captivating nonetheless. They don’t show the lovers’ identities, but convey an intimacy that makes it difficult to look away.

Despite photographing in secret, and often in darkness, Hashim said she was confident her subjects were Muslim. She said she could tell either from her sources, or from listening to the language the teens were speaking and the music coming from their cars. The images have come as a shock to some, both online and in the Muslim community. “I believe people are angry, mostly because I did the project, as a woman and as a Muslim, but also because I’m interpreting the idea of privacy,” she said. “People have asked about the authority of showing these subjects, but I’ve had to assure them that no one’s identity is visible in these pictures, and that was my decision.” Hashim also pointed out that for some, it was difficult to confront the reality that these meetings were happening. “Everyone was denying that such things were happening, including my parents. Even if they’ve done it themselves, they deny it,” she said.

The photographs in Hashim’s “Unlawful Meetings” are more than visual evidence of teenage rule-breaking; they also speak to the profound effect that living in secrecy had on Hashim and other teens like her. “We were living this double life, in this ‘cultural schizophrenia’ as I call it. And we were really good at playing both roles. But I was almost going mad as a teenager,” she remembered. “We couldn’t talk about our needs, but teenagers need to talk about everything. We fall madly in love. At the same time, I didn’t want to offend my family, and I didn’t want to disappoint them either.”

Hashim’s other photography projects critically examine the ways Muslims interpret the Quran in modern society, from the use of hijabs to the concept of martyrdom. She’s especially concerned with how these rules implicate women in Muslim society. In addition to her camera, she applies her background in anthropology and her own experiences with her faith, consulting local religious leaders, and researching and discussing the Quran. “I encourage all of the Muslim women out there to do whatever they want, and try to study these things themselves, and not to lay down and listen to old stories of how to do things,” Hashim said. “I think it’s an important thing to discover by ourselves how the rules of the Quran are written, and how they’re affecting us.”

Lina Hashim’s “Unlawful Meetings” will be on display at Unseen Photo Fair in Amsterdam in September. See more of her work on her website.