“I wanted to plant a seed for dads around the world. What impact would it have for yourself and your child, if you could stay at home with your children for a long period of time. It is not about creating superheroes. It is about creating role models to whom we can actually relate.”
That is how the Swedish photographer Johan Bävman (1982) explains the aim of his world touring photo exhibition, “Swedish Dads”, which has been shown in over 30 countries.
The Egyptian tour (8-16 October) began in Cairo and moved to the Delta and Upper Egypt, but the exhibition itself changed, for the first time becoming part of a bigger joint show and retitled “Because I Am a Father: Egyptian and Swedish Dads”. With support from the Swedish Institute, the Embassy of Sweden in Cairo, the National Council for Women, and UN Women Egypt, it now incorporated photos of Egyptian as well as Swedish dads. Set up in the “Kodak Passageway”, 20 Adli Street in the heart of Downtown, the exhibition opened in the presence of Swedish Ambassador Jan Thesleff, National Council for Women President Maya Morsi and UN Women Country Representative Blerta Aliko as well as the Egyptian photographers who contributed to the work.
According to Thesleff, “We felt we had such a fantastic Swedish exhibition but we wanted Egyptian fathers and Egyptians in general to be involved, not only watching the Swedish pictures but also to see how this works in their country and their context.”
A concrete plan developed after a conversation with Morsi, who initiated the project of portraying Egyptian fathers engaging with their children. “For sure there are differences regarding the legal and cultural context of every country,” Thesleff says. “But when you look at the photos you recognise the universality of fatherhood. It’s meant to show men that by being an engaged father you can change your children’s life, you can give your daughter the same opportunities as her brothers and you can give them both the opportunities you yourself did not have, because there is a unique opportunity in doing things differently.”
The Swedish exhibition depicts fathers who chose to stay home with their children for at least six months, an opportunity offered by the Swedish government with the aim of freeing women and promoting equality, which Bävman explores by asking why they chose to do it and how it has changed them and their domestic life. The Egyptian addition simply features fathers taking part in domestic life or spending time with their children: playing, reading, laughing, teaching or cooking.
The system in Sweden gives parents the opportunity to stay home for 480 days on state allowance, with half of that time allotted to each parent. But the majority of Swedish fathers do not make use of the system: “I was shocked to find out only 14 per cent of the Swedish fathers actually share their days equally.” This was his motivation. “I wanted to explain the benefits of being home and taking full responsibility of the household. The importance of being part of your children’s emotional space, which women do without any recognition. I wanted to encourage men and women to share their parental leave more equally.”
The exhibition responds to Sweden’s unique parental allowance system, but as it moves to other parts of Europe and onto Asia, Africa, Australia, Latin America, it becomes more about fatherhood in general. For Morsi, the father’s responsibility is ensuring stability and security, but as Aliko explains this must go beyond financial support as such: “Children always look up to their fathers who shape their personalities and characters; therefore, it is essential to feature positive role models and a strong way to do so is through using art that appeals to a wide audience.”
The challenge in Egypt was rather as expected. For young photographers like Hanzada Al-Sherif, the first step was to find fathers to photograph: “Within the limited time we had, the scope of our search was our friends and colleagues. Fortunately they welcomed the idea.” On location, however, few Egyptian fathers had the experience necessary for a convincing picture, and that is why the mothers tended to be present backstage, showing the fathers what to do so that they could appear to be doing it by themselves in the pictures. Some fathers were embarrassed to appear changing diapers, for example.
Al-Sherif believes this was more about encouraging fathers to spend more time with their children than showing their actual everyday life with them. Many Egyptian fathers including Al-Sherif’s own do play an integral part in their children’s lives even if this isn’t played out in a gender-equality framework: “My father is a photographer and I am following in his footsteps with his support and encouragement.”
Being part of this exhibition was motivated by the desire to encourage other Egyptian fathers to change the way they think of their role: “We chose very young kids for our photo sessions because we believe that the emotional bond between the fathers and their kids should start from the very beginning. It is a process that should be built step by step.”
The captions show the difference between the Swedish and Egyptian contexts. Compare “Her excitement when choosing things together makes me happy” next to a clothes-shopping photo with “I feel that men on paternity leave get undeserved praise for being at home and available to their children, praise that mothers do not get” next to a father at home. Or: “Women are the real warriors, and I have a completely different understanding of my own mother since I have been on paternity leave. I thought paternal leave would be an easy time, but now I realise how much work and frustration it involves. At the same time, it gives me much pleasure. I am a Swedish Muslim and live in an ethnically diverse community. There are not many fathers on leave with their kids in my area.”
“Because I Am a Father” is part of a social media campaign entitled “Because I Am a Man”, a collaboration between the National Council for Women and UN Women, aiming to raise awareness of the positive role of men in achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment, changing negative stereotypes related to gender roles including household roles and responsibilities, fatherhood, violence against women, employment and other subjects. It also highlights positive role models of men and youth who have supported the achievement of gender equality. Some prominent male figures who represent the campaign are the Egyptian footballer Mohamed Salah and various other celebrities including Tunisian actor Dhafer Al-Abdine, TV presenter Osama Kamal, rap artist Zap Tharwat, screenwriter Mohamed Hefzi and many others. The campaign has reached over seven million followers.
This article was first published by Al-Ahram Weekly.
For more arts and culture news and updates, follow Ahram Online Arts and Culture on Twitter at @AhramOnlineArts and on Facebook at Ahram Online: Arts & Culture