“Elephant!” “Pickle Barrel!” “Cow!” These are just a few of the verbal barbs Bassant El Qassem has witnessed men call out at women on the streets of her native Cairo. A self-described “normal size” woman, she was even called “fat” by some random guy. This kind of rampant abuse is what inspired the 22 year old Egyptian artist to paint revealing portraits of full-figured women as part of a “Love your body… you are beautiful” campaign she recently launched on Facebook.

After experiencing the societal pressures tied to Egypt’s beauty standard, firsthand, Bassant set out to help the women of her country feel good about themselves by encouraging them to appreciate their bodies. In doing so, she paints stunning portraits of her full-figured muses, and shows them in clothes they would not and could not wear in public, based on cultural mores. It’s a calculated move designed to let Egyptian women know they can be beautiful in revealing clothes that they “shy away from wearing, even only for themselves.”

Bassant El Qassem

The artist, Bassant El Qassem

Bassant has certainly struck a nerve as her Facebook page has gained close to 27,000 “likes” in less than two months of going live. But not all the reactions have been positive, with some critics denouncing her work as being too sexualized. Her response to them is simple, yet powerful, “Art is not haram.”

Qassem plans to hold an exhibition of her paintings in El-Sawy Cultural Wheel, one of Cairo’s busy cultural hubs, later this month. After having painted women in private, she told The Cairo Post that she will also paint women in hijab, the Islamic headscarf that the majority of Egyptian Muslim women wear in public.

“Many women in hijab have sent me messages telling me they look like the women in my paintings, but people just do not know how beautiful they are because hijab hides it.”

All images courtesy of Bassant El Qassem’s community Facebook page. See more of her paintings there.