Saudi Arabian designer Ayah Al Bitar is provoking a strong – yet safe – sociological dialogue from her seating collections, through a tangible representation of issues affecting women in the Kingdom. DesignFix met with the designer for Iftar to find out more…
What sociological protests have women made in Saudi Arabia that have inspired your designs?
In 2013, there was a very big protest with around fifty women. They each decided to drive a car in the streets of the capital city, Riyadh. Some were caught and interrogated and others weren’t. The women did this to create awareness and bring up this topic [of freedom of mobility] again. Around the same time, during the summer, the government allowed women to ride bicycles, however, only with the presence of a male figure, which was humorous – and this in turn created a dialogue in society about this that was funny. From there, I was inspired to create something tangible that related to this social issue, but something that was also humorous, which brought me to create the over-sized Wisada bicycle seats. The idea was to design a piece that people could discuss and speak about in their homes, behind closed doors. There was no necessity for negative rebellion, I thought.
“Concepts like Wisada will be either
praised or criticized; this on its own creates
dialogue and allows for discussion.”
You aim to break other social and cultural boundaries with the interactive seating; why did you want to raise these issues?
Such issues are within the society, and therefore they should be talked about and discussed in a very diplomatic and civilized manner, not in aggressive protests that bring chaos and negativity to the issues.
How does Wisada address this?
It allows the topic to go back inside the home, provoking a safe dialogue in a safe environment with close friends and family. Wisada is a tangible product. Everything related to this social issue is 2D, be it a movie, a graphic or an article, but there has never been anything tangible. Once its tangible, people somehow start believing; like the breast cancer ribbon that you place on your t-shirt, you automatically become a supporter because you have something tangible to show for it.
What are your views on women being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and how do you see it being resolved?
Regardless of being ready or not, the social issue needs time. I am not trying to change the world; I just want to make a difference. Wisada was not created to allow women to drive; it was designed to create dialogue, provoke thought, trigger positivity, and release frustration. The social issue might be resolved tomorrow, in ten years, or never; the point is to show maturity towards it and work towards a goal without being destructive in society, slowly but surely. Everything will happen in the right time.
How to do you feel about the KSA government’s suggestion that more women may soon be allowed to enter the workforce?
I am beyond thrilled. As a designer, it’s great, but as a woman, I am at a loss for words to express how I feel – that is how proud I am. I have always been supportive of women in Saudi Arabia and their eagerness to work and change the ways things are for them in the country. In my opinion, the entire economy will change when women become a larger part of the workforce. I believe they will be able to touch certain sectors effectively, to create and bring success.
How do you regard the independence you have from working as a successful female designer maker?
Independence is a very freeing feeling and I truly wish everyone could experience it. I encourage everyone to continue pushing, through thick and thin, because that’s the only way you will reach the top. Even there, it’s still rocky and cold but nonetheless it’s beautiful.
“I am not trying to change the world;
I just want to make a difference.”
How will women gain more freedom to drive and work in KSA in the near (or far) future?
Freedom comes from within, not from things that are given to you. I believe that women should believe in themselves. Don’t wait – for anything or anyone to change for you. Walk in the path you have created for yourself, and things will fall into place where and when they need to. Like this, they will gain freedom for themselves and inner strength. Their freedom to drive will follow … but this should be from a movement of women’s empowerment and not their ability to drive.
Women can now vote in municipal elections. What do you think about this step towards independence in KSA?
This is a great step just like all the others. We are finally building a staircase that leads to a destination.
What other developments in women’s social issues in KSA have there been recently, and how do you hope concepts like Wisada will raise awareness and discussion of them?
Many Saudi women have become entrepreneurs aiming to create change, and they have proved themselves to be very successful. This has allowed for the entire ball game to change; we are able to see the capabilities of a woman and her ability to change, create and be. These are all developments that are working in the direction for women to become prominent members of society. Concepts like Wisada will be either praised or criticized; this on its own creates dialogue and allows for discussion.
“As a woman I am at a loss for words to express
how I feel – that is how proud I am.”
What dialogue does your new collection L’esotico create?
L’esotico was designed to argue the concept of luxury and how far we are willing to go for it. It was questioning the concept of materialism and how much value that creates for people, if it does at all. I was aiming to focus on the idea that luxury can be achieved in many different ways.
Even the animal hides you’ve used pays attention to this concept of what designers and consumers see as luxury – or what isn’t good enough…
If I’ve used any original leather it is always waste leather. For instance, the Springbok is hunted for its horns and its fur and skin is thrown away, it’s not traditionally used for upholstery because of its lack of elasticity and its unattractive colour. I took the hides and dyed them in pigments that I made and then used leftover pieces to make the cushion. This is the way I use leather and fur – always with thought and caution.