Fighting gender-based violence through art

A painting by Jordanian artist Rand Abdul Nour.

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.