On a late and cold Sunday evening in Tunis, it was too late to find a café that stays open long enough for two women to settle in for a long talk. When we met Tunisian street artist Sangoura, we went from one café to the next the streets of downtown Tunis slowly cleared out.
Rebel at heart, the artist Lamia Mechichi, art name Sangoura, addresses the daily struggles of women in Tunisian society in her art, and she does it through humour.
Whether it’s the way to dress, the difficulties in the professional and personal life that women have to face, or taboos concerning sexuality and periods.
Mechichi created the character “Sangoura” in 2011 after having finished her studies in design and product. At first, it was a concept of political satire, she says, but later on the artist turned to rather social topics that are, however, no less controversial.
Her pseudonym roughly translates to “the one who captures quickly and critically”, she told us, and this already depicts the artist’s work and principles.
The weight of a woman’s voice
“In Tunisia, the woman is expected to remain silent. To speak as a woman is ‘3ib'” she uses the arab word for shameful, unacceptable. “it’s not acceptable.” she continues as she sips her coffee as the café closes down.
When she addressed this repression of the woman’s voice in her art, she says, a popular scholarly debate on the role of the woman’s voice resurfaced.
There are different stands on this debate, and many moderates viewed Sangoura’s depiction of repression as exaggerated. Others attacked her for making the woman’s voice “3awrah” through her art, which can be translated as “sexualized”, and therefore forbidden to be shown, and in this case heard.
“In Tunisia, the woman is expected to remain silent.”
In response to the moderates, she argued, “if the woman’s voice is not considered as forbidden, then why are women not allowed to perform the muezzin’s call to prayer?” asks Mechichi.
Discrimination in the workplace
Even though the Tunisian Constitution grants equal pay and opportunities to both genders, “As a woman in Tunisia, it is extremely hard to be recognised in the work you do” she tells WIB. It takes double the effort and ambition, and double the expertise in order to establish oneself in one’s career. “If you have one man and one woman with the same qualifications, the man gets the job, and a higher salary than the woman would get” she protests.
Mechichi has personally experienced sexism in various forms throughout her working life, she says. “Even though I work double as hard as others, and I deliver great results, I have regularly made the experience that whole projects will not be given to me. Women are systematically underestimated, and not trusted to be able to handle responsibility.”
Apart from this, discrimination and violence against women in Tunisia is critical with 47,6% of women aged between 18 and 64 years reporting to have experienced at least one form of violence in their life. And with domestic violence being the first reason of death for women aged between 16 and 44 years, according to Nadia Chaabane, constituent and political activist and feminist committed to women’s rights and social justice, in an interview with Huffpost Maghreb.
Artivisms for LGBTQ+ rights
In May 2017, Mechichi participated in a collective exhibition “At the time of 230” that reunited 12 artists in opposition to the article 230 of the Tunisian criminal code, which criminalizes homosexuality.
Organized by the feminist association Chouf, which fights for the rights of sexual minorities in Tunisia, the exhibition was the first of its kind in Tunisia, and took place in order to celebrate the international day against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia (IDAHOT).
Mechichi created a canvas showing two women and their adopted son in order to create a representation for lesbian couples with children, a pioneering thought in Tunisia.
The canvas shows two almost identical women with flowing turquoise hair and small crowns floating above their heads looking at each other and holding a young bald boy between them.
“Homosexuality is extremely repressed and taboo within the Tunisian society. That’s why I decided to address it in a positive way.”
Mechichi has previously addressed the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community in her work.
“Homosexuality is extremely repressed and taboo within the Tunisian society. That’s why I decided to address it in a positive way.” she continues.
A previous work of hers shows a young gay man enjoying himself with a crown of leaves on his head, and the word “nature” written by his side three times. This is to show that being gay is actually something natural, instead of “against nature”, as often claimed by homophobic discourses. The artist named the canvas “Je suis gay, alors je suis gai”, which translates to “I am gay, so I am happy”.
Redefining Girl Power in Tunisia
Creating a space for women to express themselves freely and comfortably is important because it exposes women who lead by example and create an environment in which women can resonate with each other.
This is something that Mechichi introduced in Tunis and the Tunisian art scene. What is especially striking in her work is that she clashes with absolutely taboo subjects, and she does it in a place where it can reach everyone, in the streets.
Mechichi’s art depicts androgynous women who drink, have periods, and are unapologetic of being women. This is something unprecedented in the streets of Tunisia.
To say that a woman is brave in Tunisian Arabic, that she “has balls” is translated to the expression “roujla”, the male force.
Mechichi’s idea is to introduce a new word into the Tunisian vocabulary: “Al Binsaouiyya”, translating to“girl power”. Because femininity is powerful, and not to be underestimated.