A noisy discourse on sexual harassment
BY MARIE-JEANNE BERGER
Cairo: Women have been groped this year. They have been grabbed. They have been subjected to the bizarre and menacingly-named “virginity tests.” The soldiers have gone free. Women have been attacked and mobbed by groups opposing their protests in waves; they have run. Women have written about injustice, they have been criticized for their views; hands were broken.
They have been stripped and stepped on and damned for it. Their assailants — those meant to serve and protect the people — failed at both and went unpunished. Women have been vilified simply for being there — wherever “there” happens to be when they are assaulted. And they persevered, blogging and tweeting and standing in Tahrir in the face of this injustice.
“Harassment Exhibition,” currently on display at Darb 1718, is a visual response to these kinds of disconcerting incidents. In the exhibition, female artists from Egypt and abroad consider gender inequality from a predominantly Egyptian perspective. The results of such highly personal reflections (or perhaps not so much for visiting foreign artists having a say in the Egyptian experience, like poster-maker Pit Becker) reflect the mess of feelings tied to behavior that is both private and public, society-sanctioned and unsanctioned, and both aggravating for women, and ignored for the sake of getting on with each day.
The topic of harassment has been so visible in the past months in the face of incidents such as the sexual assault of British film student Natasha Smith, the attack on activists in the anti-sexual harassment protest in early June, and really, the innumerable exploits of the previous year.
Considering that this kind of public dialogue concerning gender issues and women’s rights is still very much in its nascent phase, it is remarkable to see the diversity of responses, and the participants of the exhibition should be applauded. Nevertheless, many of the pieces, to put it bluntly, are terrible.
The exhibition is held in coordination with HarassMap, a project launched in 2010 to document and publicize hotspots where women face sexual harassment, incorporating narratives of incidents that had taken place at each location. Norhan Alaa’s video project with supporting mannequin seems to be directly inspired by the work of HarassMap; however, the white, blank female body of the mannequin has been transferred for the map of Egypt as a site to mark the trauma of harassment: Egypt as woman, the public as personal.
Alaa introduces her piece with the following quote: “Women’s sexual desire is equal to men’s and their ability to control that desire is the same.” Then the tack changes; she says: “Regardless of the reaction of the woman that was being harassed, whether she defended herself or just giving up [sic] to the harassment, the effects of that experience leaves [sic] a negative impact of [sic] the woman psychologically, which sometimes end [sic] up scarring her for life.”
These scars are manifested on the mannequin as black nails spread out artistically, though not necessarily accurately, on the body. Are women touched as often on their ankles as their breasts, I wonder? The mannequin stands to the side of a screen projecting women’s accounts of feelings, moments and stories relating to their own experiences of abuse. The mannequin seems redundant, and confusing. Why is the mannequin white? Do the narratives need a physical signifier of trauma to be justified, and do the black nails hammered into her frame suggest that the only harassment is physical? The words of the women are strong enough to stand alone, especially with the exceptional music provided by Khalid Monazer on the opening night.
Many of the pieces in the exhibition also traverse the political and public spheres. The revolution is a specter looming heavily over works by German artist Pit Becker and Noha Samir. Samir creates a shrine for the revolutionary woman. A wire mannequin is the focus of a series of small, fetishistic pieces, including cardboard calligraphy that asks, “What caused her to go anyway?” An ‘x’ made out of black lingerie hangs next to a sign that says: “Sit El-Banat” (woman of the girls) below this, a charcoal drawing of a group of women with big hair and even bigger, darker vaginal regions. Next to this a sort of blue half globe hangs with another handprint on it, this time gold. The wall looks pregnant. The mannequin is an obvious reference to the Blue Bra Woman, affixed to the wall wearing — a blue bra and gauzy black scarf, blue jeans folded haphazardly across the bottom edge.
While there isn’t necessarily a strong connection between the segments of the work, Samir succeeds in reflecting one thing especially: Our immediate responses to emotional, distressing experiences are often not thought out, not necessarily nuanced and probably clichéd just like her fragmented contributions.
German artist Pit Becker’s posters are particularly dreadful, especially because there are so many of them. And so bright that you can’t help but feel yourself drawn into the rainbow abyss of poster paint, handprints and signifiers of the revolution: a large “La” (No) to sexual harassment alluding to the ubiquitous yellow “La” posters and stickers that decorate every revolutionary square and crossway, “Kefaya” (Enough), and hashtags abounding throughout the images.
The poster of the giant “La” is helpfully bilingual for all: words scroll across the top saying in Arabic, “The streets are also for us.” The tails of the “La” say “STAY AWAY!” and “RESPECT US!” (in caps) in case you didn’t get that already from the brutish colors. In case you want to tweet about it, the hashtag #end is provided for the ease of the audience. Patriotic handprints in black and red surround the “La.” No to Egypt? No to hands? No to the veiled woman in the middle of the “La?” These posters become collages of symbols employed in the past year to represent certain goals central to the struggle of revolutionaries and activists everywhere, yet they’re vacant and bankrupt of meaning.
The sum of the parts only seem to cancel out the goal: Twitter, the military regime, Kefaya, La and shoddy painting overshadow sexual harassment. The major failing (besides the painting) behind these posters is ideological. Defiance to sexual harassment does not have to be situated inside a revolutionary oppositional framework to be meaningful, and using symbols of these groups to discuss harassment is misguided.
The ideas of mainstream revolutionary-liberal-oppositional groups in regard to women’s rights are not necessarily the same as feminist activists, and should not be conflated as such. While we can all blame the regime and all its constituent parts for the ills of the nation, the real cause of harassment — and everyone is trying to figure this one out in the exhibition: low wages, lack of respect, inability to marry — is patriarchy.
While it is true that the public battleground for women’s rights in the past few months has been Tahrir, the more private battle for a woman’s individual freedom has taken place over the volatile debate around Aliaa Mahdy’s naked body, for example, when all of a sudden her demand for freedom of expression condemned her for damaging the reputation of the liberal movement, and her own as well. The emblems and allegories employed by Becker cause the political revolution to dominate any sort of women’s revolution, and the works defeat their purported purpose.
Amira Parée’s latex dress named “Coercion” stand out as the most meaningful in the show. A terribly ugly, dirtied tea-colored galabeyya-type housedress is draped in the middle of the gallery floor, hung with clear fishing line. When the gallery is crowded, you walk into it because it’s unobtrusive. And as you look down at this sad, latex monstrosity that really resembles an ugly housedress, you realize that the arms are skinny lengths sewn shut, and that there is no beginning or end to the dress. The dress is immobile and static and feminine and suffocating. This is the only piece that evokes a visceral reaction, and the experience it reflects is mundane, yet universal.
“Harassment Exhibition” exhibition is showing at Darb 1718 until August 20. –The Egypt Monocle