Women’s fight against violence is a constant battle. In the Arab world, gender inequality has been one of the most defective characteristics on which the society is built and the most powerful reason behind gender-based violence.
However, physical violence is not the most dangerous type of gender-based violence. Women in Arab conservative societies suffer from a systemised inequality shaped throughout centuries of silencing women and carving a perfect patriarchal system that reinforces male privileges against women’s right to be equal.
Eager to defend their rights, women have resorted to an array of tools and platforms — protests, literature, newspapers, television and many more, including the use of art to raise awareness of gender-based violence and promote women’s rights.
Jordanian Rand Abdul Nour’s recent series of paintings evolving around a major violation of women’s rights in Jordan, particularly Article 308 of the Jordanian Penal Code, constituted an outspoken expression of her activism against gender-based violence.
“I was angry because [Article 308 allowed] women members of parliament to worry that victims of rape won’t be able to get married and Jordanian media accused victims of consensually being part of the rape,” Abdul Nour said.
“I want violence against women to end and art is my medium. As painters, we have a bigger role than painting. We are also documenters. We are anthropologists, too.”
Abdul Nour spoke at a conference organised by the Institute of Women’s Studies in the Arab World (IWSAW) at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, in collaboration with the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). The event was part of 16 days of activism against gender-based violence in December.
Jordan’s Article 308 that allowed a rapist to escape punishment by marrying his victim was scrapped in August 2017 after years of campaigning by women’s activists.
A similar event, organised by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and UNFPA December 15 in Beirut, portrayed adolescent girls fighting gender-based violence through pictures, videos and drawings.
Fighting gender-based violence through art has been a tool long used by feminists and feminist movements. Art has been a powerful political tool for most of history. As much as political leaders used art for indoctrination and propaganda purposes, activists and human rights defenders used art to break taboos, address inequalities and send political messages. Hannah Wilke, Renate Eisenegger, Ewa Partum and Frida Kahlo are a few of the numerous women artists who challenged gender inequalities and social norms through art.
“The importance of art as a medium to raise awareness on gender-based violence has been an integral part in fighting societal and legal control on women’s bodies,” said Maya El Helou, an expert at the Gender and Sexuality Resource Centre in Beirut.
“Patriarchal societies derive a big part of their power from controlling women’s bodies, either through policing them or through exploiting them, including economic exploitation,” Helou said.
“In many Arab countries, women do not have the freedom to decide what parts of their bodies they show. Their private lives, including getting married and having children, are rarely under their control. When they are subject to harassment and sexual violence, they are often blamed by the society.
“As well, women’s body is being used as a sexual object of attraction. In advertisements and male-produced art, it is a means to attract customers or viewers.”
Helou contended that art has been historically an important medium for breaking taboos and pointing out social violations through portraying women in a way that is uncommon, yet eye-opening.
“Painting, sculpting and performing free women from chains preset by the society. It allows women to express their feelings, especially their anger, towards the inequalities they face daily. It also opens important conversations about male privileges and dominance, stereotyping and exploitation of women’s body,” Helou said.
For Abdul Nour, human rights are crucial motive for her work. She said her paintings were of a scale that allows viewers to put themselves in the shoes of portrayed victims.
“It is true that art can’t abolish violence but it can open the conversation,” she said. “Then, it is the viewers’ role to start making the change in their own circles.”
Fighting gender-based violence is a long process that starts with deconstructing the social, legal and economic roots of gender inequality, Helou argued.
“Resisting patriarchy and violence through art is an important medium of communicating feminist ideas. The patriarchal system affects all society equally. Toxic masculinity is one form of its consequences and the burden of that violence always falls on the shoulders of women,” she said.
Myra Abdallah is an activist on gender issues.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.