Tunisian women take over male-dominated streets with art

How a group of women got together to paint the first feminist mural in Tunis.

A man walks out a men-only bar in downtown Tunis. Suddenly he looks extremely small. Next to him is an unusual sight in town, a mural encouraging women to be bold, fearless and self-loving.

This feminist mural, the first of its kind in Tunis, features two women: one them says: “Listen to your rage” and the other “Be tender with yourself”. It is a reminder to all women to be true to themselves and express their rage unapologetically when needed, as well as to allow and foster radical self-love and support for each other, a rare message in a deeply male-dominated region.

This community art project of was initiated and realized by the Fearless Collective, a feminist art group based in South India, and CHOUF, a Tunisian feminist LGBTQI+ organization of inspiring strong young women, whose work focuses on the merging of art and activism.

Women’s representation in society

In the storytelling we attended, the participants shared their experiences of societal oppression, microaggressions and gender-based violence. One aspect that repeatedly came up was the common representation of and societal expectation from women to be the delicate bearers of support and comfort, those that bring and restore peace, while their own rage is neither accepted nor acknowledged.

In a storytelling ‘ritual’, participants were asked to talk about how they are perceived as women when they show anger. “Rage has always been- spark to tremendous political and social change,” said Indian artist Shilo Shiv Suleman, co-founder of the collective. She explains to us that feminist movements have used rage as a tool as well, but somehow got stuck with that label. Anger should be seen as a tool to use for a particular mean, and in a society like Tunisia, anger is something many women have difficulty expressing.  In fact, at the workshop, any women present admitted they felt angry on a daily basis, but that as women they felt they were not able to express it.

Inspired by these moments of radical openness, and the stories that were shared, the group of women present decided to create a visual representation of what had been discussed led by Suleman.

“Working this immersively with a community is a hugely heart and eye-opening experience for the artists,” Gayantri Ganju, the photographer of the collective, explains. “One that was made possible with a sharing that is mutually vulnerable and open.”

Expressing rage as a woman

This particular project started with a participative storytelling workshop, in which a group of ten women from different backgrounds, ages, sexualities and belief systems came together to share their most intimate stories. Every one of them was asked to share something that ignited their rage or touched an old pain, as well as something that made them feel tender.

The stories told in the shelter of scented smoke and burnt flowers – which the Fearless Collective symbolically uses in their rituals of storytelling – were as diverse as the women present. Yet they showed repeated patterns of different forms of violence experienced by the participants, or of women feeling like they were giving themselves up for others.  

Creating alternative people-led narratives that counter mainstream discourses using beauty, fierceness and fearlessness as a tool for protest, is essential for the Fearless Collective, Suleman told WIB.

As a movement of women protesting through creating affirmative art projects, the Collective creates space for resilience and expression, she continued. It has developed projects with diverse local communities, such as the daughters of sex workers in New Delhi, Syrian and Armenian refugees in Beirut, or the Tupinamba of Bahia, Brazil.

Self-representation in the public sphere

The artists work closely with communities to create a public dedication to personal histories and to raise voices on the political realities of local contexts.

As a result, the women created a work of art which shows the image of two women, both strong-looking, yet different in their way of dressing and looking.

Their beauty doesn’t necessarily comply with traditional Tunisian standards as one of the women has her hair cut short and is showing some skin.

They both hold a fire close to their bodies representing their rage,  and a jasmine plant, which, according to the artists, represents tenderness. By holding these two symbols towards each other,  they offer each other emotional support and openness.

Taking over the streets

The participants and artists worked together on the 3 stories high mural. They climbed up and down the scaffold and organized where and what to eat – in midst of Ramadan. 

 

Each participant also painted a creative representation of their vagina in the lower margin of the mural, thus framing it with these intimate self-portraits.

“For us, it was a challenge to represent the most intimate part of our bodies, which we are told to hide, to keep to ourselves, hidden, not to touch it, or to think about it,” said Bochra Triki, President of Chouf. “In this mural, this dynamic was completely reversed,” she continued. “Here, our vaginas are represented, idealized and transformed. They take on life and speech and prevail in a space that is for them the most forbidden.”

Engaging and interacting with passersby

Such a sensitive image on a male-dominated street, next to a men-only bar, set the stage for interesting interactions with passersby.

Contrary to expectations, they stopped and watched. They came closer to talk with those working on the mural, or to take photographs. Some women also joined in and began painting themselves. The street suddenly became a space for dialogue, creativity and the exchange of stories and ideas.

“This shows that this fresco also responds to a need of the citizen to appropriate the public space for oneself, through art, [and] through social messages,” Triki said.

The women, their rage, their vaginas and their tenderness stare down at the Tunis’ public and are here to stay.

Categories
FeaturesGender
Magdalena Mach

Magdalena is a queer feminist based in Tunis, Tunisia. Recently, she has organized a summer school on Citizen participation in the urban space and urban sustainable development for the German foundation Heinrich Böll - North Africa. For the past 4 years, she has been working in numerous projects as a writer, translator or volunteer in Tunisia while and after compelting her BAs in Middle Easter studies, and Philosophy. Her work was focused on themes such as: art and intersectional feminism, and discrimination of minorities in the MENA region. As such she has worked with Maghreb Economic Forum in a gender research project, with Chouftouhonna as a translator, and with the foundation Rosa Luxembourg as a writer. In her free time, she experiments with music, and mixing of sounds.
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