Street art for social change: the female artists taking to the streets in three of the world’s worst countries for gender equality.
It is much more difficult to ignore a message if you find yourself literally face-to-face with it. Despite its often negative reputation, for many, street art presents itself as an inclusive, democratic and public means of direct communication and protest. Having long been a prime location for the advocation of personal, social and political opinions, today the public canvas of the street is being embraced by a number of brave female artists, who are taking huge risks in order to express their views and their experiences of living in some of the world’s worst countries for gender equality. Here are just three such artists, who are trying to spark conversations and bring about social change through art in the public domain.
Shilo Shiv Suleman, Pakistan
Suleman is an Indian artist, whose organisation Fearless Collective – a group of visual artists, film makers, and photographers – use art to tell their stories about gender-based violence. In 2015, Pakistani sexual rights activist Nida Mushtaq invited Suleman to join her for a project in Pakistan. Their project, Reclaiming Public Space Through Street Art, aimed to create new narratives around the position of women in a country in which child marriage, rape, “honour killings”, domestic violence, and acid attacks remain prevalent, according to the 2018 Human Rights Watch World Report. The series of murals created went viral, sparking discussion – both in the city streets and online – about the severity of the issue of gender discrimination and violence against women and girls. Prior to the production of a mural in any location, Fearless Collective holds community workshops in order to engage local women and to identify a message and design for the painting. Women and their supporters are encouraged to paint the murals, and openly discuss the stories which inspired them, together. On the project, Suleman stated that: “Our job as artists and as activists was to transmute these spaces to bring them to their highest potential while sharing stories that are relevant and contextual to us and are beautiful at the end of the day.”
Shamsia Hassani, Afghanistan
Shamsia Hassani paints over walls scarred by the marks of the recent conflicts in Afghanistan. Named by many as Afghanistan’s first female street artist, Hassani is also a fine arts lecturer and professor at Kabul University, using her passion and talent for art to establish herself as a spokesperson for women’s rights in Kabul. Afghanistan ranked 154th out of the 159 countries on the United Nations Gender Inequality Index in the 2016 Human Development Report, and is one of the most dangerous places in the world for women.
In an interview for Art Radar, Hassani admitted: ‘I worry all the time about security problems when I am in the street and maybe that something will happen, and I am afraid that I should leave.’ Despite this, however, the artist has been working tirelessly since 2010, risking her life to bring awareness to the war years and to the experiences of Afghani women, mainly depicting stylised images of women wearing burqas. In an interview for Street Art Bio, Hassani voiced her mission statement: ‘I believe there are many who forget all the tragedy women face in Afghanistan. That is why I use my paintings, as a mean to remind the people. I want to highlight the matter in society, with paintings reflecting women in Burqas everywhere. And I try to show them bigger than what they are in reality, and in modern forms, shaped in happiness, movement, maybe stronger. I try to make people look at them differently.’
Haifa Subay, Yemen
Yemen was ranked at the very bottom of the UN Gender Inequality Index in 2016, and, according to the UN Population Fund, approximately 2.6 million women and girls in the country are at risk of gender-based violence, with 52,000 women at risk of sexual violence. The ongoing armed conflict in Yemen since 2015 has caused conditions for women and girls to deteriorate further, and the consequences are worsening as the conflict continues.
After two years of living with the nightmare of this war, artist Hafia Subay took to the streets to deliver her message to the public through the best means available to her – her art. Her murals in the capital, Sanaa, are part of her ongoing #SilentVictims series, which focuses on the human consequences of the war, depicting the suffering of civilians, especially victims of landmines. Previous subjects of her paintings have highlighted the shortages of food and water, the people who have disappeared, and the destruction of schools. Since Subay started painting, many other women have joined her campaign, and the team’s work is focused exclusively on the experiences of Yemeni women and children, bringing to light the suffering of those who are often marginalised.
Al Mahjali, one of Subay’s most loyal teammates, recently recalled what inspired her to join her friend in an interview with The Intercept: ‘I’m not a painter or an artist, but I wanted to take part in this message. I am a Yemeni and a woman, and I wanted to leave my mark.’ After interviewing Subay and her team, journalist Sarah Aziza writes that, in the midst of the terror of the conflict, ‘the women behind #SilentVictims derive purpose, camaraderie, and courage from their work, but admit that the larger questions of Yemen’s future still plague them.’
Although graffiti and street art can be controversial, perceived by many as an antisocial nuisance found in grimy alleys and subway tunnels, it can also be an empowering medium of self-expression – especially for those whose voices are silenced all too often.