Egyptian women fight for equality with graffiti

A graffiti artist from the Women on Walls (WOW) collective paints on the walls of a street in Alexandria. Photo courtesy of WOW.
 
 
In Egypt, street art, which has become incredibly popular since the revolution, is mainly created by men. However, women are now starting to join in, notably via the group “Women on Walls”, which has just launched a nationwide graffiti campaign to educate Egyptians about the difficulties faced by the country’s female population.
 
In December 2012, when the collective was launched, it only had 20 artists. Now there are 60, including about a dozen women. For these women, making their mark on public space is crucial: more than 80% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed in the street, according to the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights.
 
 
 
A large portion of the collective’s work features women, sometimes well-known cultural or political figures, and aims to spark a discussion on the role of women in Egyptian society.
 
This project is the brainchild of the Swedish author Mia Grondahl, who for a year and a half observed Egyptian graffiti artists and then wrote the book “Graffiti Revolution”. She introduced the artists she met to each other, and created the project “Women on Walls” (Sit El 7eta in Arabic) thanks to funding from the Danish Centre for Cultural Development.
 
Among the famous Egyptian women featured in this mural: Nefertiti, the singer Oum Kalsoum, and the author Nawal el Saadawi.

“We’re doing this to fight against the social pressure and daily humiliations suffered by women”

Fajr Soliman is a painter. She lives in Cairo and took part in the WOW project in the city of Mansourah.
 
As an artist, I am familiar with graffiti techniques, but this is still quite different from painting on canvases. When I do graffiti, it’s all about reaching the audience, which could be essentially anybody. With my canvas paintings, I can make allusions, and express myself through metaphors. But with graffiti, I need to ensure that everybody will understand my message immediately.
 
When we go to a city, we spend two days with the women from the collective scouting out areas where we could paint and discussing possible mural ideas. We try to select smooth walls that are fairly high, to allow us to paint large murals in busy streets.
 
“Our graffiti touches on the issue of sexual harassment, which is a huge problem here”
 
Of course, some onlookers make fun of us and even insult us, which is quite commonplace in Egypt when women try to do anything in a public space. It’s in fact to counter this sort of behaviour that we launched our project. Our graffiti often touches on sexual harassment, which is a huge problem here.
 
We also condemn the paternalist view that society imposes upon us: men have the right to decide when they want to go out, or what career they want to have… but not us! If the role of women in Egyptian society were re-evaluated, I believe this would fix many problems in Egypt.
 
 

“With graffiti, everyone receives the same message — even those who don’t necessarily want to receive it”

Angie Bagela is a women’s rights activist. She founded the “Women on Walls” project with Mia Grondahl.
 
Local initiatives had already taken place in Cairo [such as the artist’s collective NooNewsa] but WOW is the first national-scale project bringing together Egyptian graffiti artists. Our artists range in age from 17 to 35 and come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.
 
What drew us to graffiti was its accessibility. Passersby in the street can stop and talk with the artists; they don’t need to go to a closed space like a museum or an art gallery to see the piece. Everyone who sees it receives the same message — even those who don’t necessarily want to receive it. And sometimes, people just don’t get it: in Mansoura, one of the first murals that the artists painted was painted over by a local resident who considered it to be vandalism. [Editor’s Note: The city had in fact given the collective its authorisation to paint on certain walls].
 
“Let’s be frank: a woman cannot try to do this on her own in Egypt”
 
Female artists were not afraid to go out and paint in the street, despite the frequent harassment, particularly in Cairo. But let’s be frank: a woman cannot try to do this on her own in Egypt. Surrounded by men and with the collective, we know they are safe.
 
Our objective is to help women — and more generally Egyptians — improve their environment, and not wait for the government to do it for them. Decorating public space, all the while respecting it and making it aesthetically pleasing, is the best way to get people’s attention and, in time, gain their admiration.
 
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