Spray Paint Cans and Politics: Using graffiti to talk about feminism and revolution in the Arab world

Khadiga El-Ghawas

In 1839, Edward Bulwer-Lytton first introduced us to the idea that perhaps, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Now in 2016, we might be able to say the same about the power of a can of spray paint thanks to groups like Women on Walls (WoW).

“We are using art to discuss one of the most important issues in Egypt, women’s empowerment,” explains WoW founder, Mia Gröndahl, in a Spring 2014 post to South Writ Large—a website for “Stories, Arts and Ideas from the Global South.” Gröndahl goes on to note that under this large ideological umbrella, WoW is then also able to go on and address related social, political, economic and cultural issues.

Egyptian artist, Khadiga El-Ghawas started sketching and doing tags on street corners in 2010—a year before the start of the revolution in Egypt. Then on January 25, 2011, everything changed as Egyptians took to the streets to call for the removal of then-President Hosni Mubarak. El-Ghawas notes that, “…after the revolution of course we all became political.” It was also in 2011 that she connected with Women on Walls and began to use her art to actively engage with political discourses and discourses on women.

El-Ghawas says that the revolution gave her art more direction, and “…things began to be more clear.” “My art became more meaningful,” she continues, “It had a message.”

Khadiga El-Ghawas

"Not a license for your eyes"

For example, “Not a license for your eyes” is a piece that El-Ghawas hopes will start conversations on street harassment. “I hope that anyone who reads what I’m writing on streets will take a second look and think ‘Why do I harass and say mean words to girls on the streets?’” she says. For her, the piece was also very personal. “I felt it a lot,” El-Ghawas says of the piece. She wears traditional Muslim attire. “People just look at me and judge me from my looks,” she says, “My type of clothing has a lot of stereotypes.  I wrote it with all my heart.  I felt it so much.”

Getting people to engage in conversations on the issues is just the tip of the iceberg. El-Ghawas hopes that things will go even further. “It’s not enough to say ‘Don’t behave that way’ and you don’t give them the alternatives,” she says. To continue the conversation, she hopes to see the creation of awareness programs, where people discuss stereotypes. “Like I said, these people don’t have any jobs and they do things haphazardly…If you gave them a job and if you could just let them find a goal in their lives, their lives will change,” she continues. She also stresses the importance of developing a mutual understanding, where girls understand boys and boys understand girls, and there is no gender gap. In order for that to happen though, she says, “You need more than the shape of a girl on a wall and a message behind it.”

El-Ghawas also carves out a very distinct, special spot for herself in the art world with her work on light calligraphy.  She is the first Egyptian light calligrapher—the only woman, and one of only eight artists in Egypt who practice the art. El-Ghawas notes that “Of course it’s not so political as graffiti,” but she still plans to use it to make political statements.

Khadiga El-Ghawas

Light Calligraphy from the "Stop Harassment Egypt" Initiative

“This is a good window for me to express myself,” she says, especially since, as she notes, it isn’t always safe for her to be out on the streets.  “I will not ruin anything,” she continues, “I will just express graffiti in a different way, on a wall, with light…No one will get hurt. The government won’t do anything about that…No one will see what you’re writing.  It’s a safe thing to do and you deliver the same message on the same wall that you will be spraying on.”

Safety has been a particularly big concern for El-Ghawas. When asked about a particularly difficult experience she’s had as an artist, she mentions the night visits by the police. “Of course it’s not very safe to spray graffiti here—especially in my city (Alexandria),” she says,” One time the police…I was going to be caught…but thank god I wasn’t caught.”

Public perception of her work has also been a problem. El-Ghawas notes that as time passes, and the spark of revolution becomes a distant memory, one finds fewer artists expressing themselves in the streets. “After the revolution, many people summed up their minds in a different way,” she says. She elaborates, noting that during the revolution, people were “interactive and cooperative,” but after, it was as though people just sat back. Suddenly, “It wasn’t a revolution,” she says. Most of the youth who saw the revolutionary potential in art were arrested after they were caught protesting in the streets. The older generation that has remained has a different perspective. “If you’re drawing something now, you’d be a ruin-er, not a revolutionary,” she says.

All of the risks El-Ghawas takes have yielded rewards though. She mentions how she’s had some people come by while she works, and offer her ideas, or sometimes even express an interest in drawing with her. She also talks about how even some of her dealings with her detractors have proven to be rewarding in the end. Sometimes she’s had people come by and say “ugly words and bad shit.” Then, these same people come by later, once she has finished the work. They talk about how they feel about the finished product and mention how their views may have changed. “This is the best time you have,” she says.





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