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Tatar Women Embrace Tradition In Lithuania

Photographer documents how minority community of women balances cultural heritage and modernity.

The small Baltic country of Lithuania has a surprisingly rich history of Islam, which photographer Neringa Rekasiute set out to explore in her exhibition “Islam in Lithuania,” which is on display in Vilnius until December 7.

The 27 year-old artist’s project began as a photographic history of Lithuanian Tatars, traditionally Muslims, who have inhabited the region since being invited to settle there by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania toward the end of the 14th century. She then expanded the scope to include other Muslim in Lithuania, including converts and immigrants.

In addition to images of mosques in Lithuania, the project includes a series of portraits of Tatar women who Rekasiute says are a symbol of modern Lithuania. In the photos the women wear both traditional Tatar and contemporary fashion, expressing the two equally strong facets of their identities.

Lithuanian Tatars, also known as Lipka Tatars, lived among the noble military classes when they first arrived over 700 years ago, but later became urban dwellers known for their crafts. Nowadays, Tatars make up just a meagre 0.1 percent of the Lithuanian population, but they are known for their significant role in the development of Lithuanian society.

“The aim of my project is to promote intercultural dialogue in our society,” Rekasiute told RFE/RL. “Lithuanian Tatar women inspired me to do this project. I was motivated by their ability to integrate into Lithuanian society while still maintaining their Tatar traditions.”

Like all European countries, Lithuania is divided on the refugee crisis. Demographically, it is still a largely homogeneous country. “It is very important now to present a positive and objective vision of Muslims in Lithuania,” said Rekasiute.

Having started her career as a fashion photographer, Rekasiute later discovered the social documentary genre. Her last two projects, “We Women,” a series of black and white images with a weighty message about negative body image among women, and “They Won The Lottery,” 14 powerful portraits of men reacting to the new law on mandatory military service in Lithuania, were both very successful.

Her work has been published in The Huffington Post, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, Dazed & Confused, Vanity Fair Italy, and other publications.

--Gulnaz Badretdin