I write this with a disturbingly vivid recollection of approximately 250 pairs of eyes bordered with bushy eyebrows fixed on me in a peculiar mix of fascination and loathing. In a room of almost 250-300 men, roughly 15 of the people in this hall were women, at most, all from my private American school, all uncovered, one blond. The queasiness that came over me quickly disappeared in mere moments when I reminded myself that I, along with the female classmates and teachers with me, had as much of a right to be in that hall as they did. Even if the security expressed their displeasure at our presence by asking girls to “uncross [their] legs when [they] sit”, they couldn’t exactly ask us to leave. I then remembered a scene from Meryl Streep’s new film The Iron Lady based on Margaret Thatcher’s life, where she is first elected into Parliament and she is the only woman there. She’s momentarily overwhelmed by the amount of men in suits, ties, pants, polished black shoes – and she feels so feminine standing amongst them, in her baby-blue skirt and blouse, in her flowery hat, in her high heels, with her blond hair. Still, this is the Iron Lady we’re talking about. She holds her head up and takes firm steps as confidently as their own, for she knows that she had earned that position and worked hard for it. She was not about to give it up because of a few condescending, misogynistic/intimidated eyes.
The Main Hall of the Kuwait National Assembly was insanely packed with men, and even though I had decided against wearing a skirt because I had expected this, I felt ‘uncomfortably’ feminine nonetheless. I wore the lowest heels I could find, long pants, and a formal blouse. I do have to point out that I even if I got looks for being a girl, I didn’t get comments of ridicule for the way I was dressed like my classmates who showed up in skirts and dresses did – for that I’m strangely grateful. Put politely, they were considered to be dressed ‘unconservatively’ and were ‘perfect examples of why there needs to be a law that requires women to cover up’. I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that it made sense, when you have a male-dominated Parliament, it’s only natural that you’ll have a male-dominated society. Or is it the other way around? Does it matter which way it is?
As you may have heard, today’s jalsa was cancelled due to black flags being raised in protest of the title of الاربعاء الاسود. We were dismissed from the hall 10 minutes into the session, but that was all it took to absorb in the patriarchy-saturated atmosphere that soaked the hall. I’m happy to say that although we received critical looks and comments, the ‘tour’ made up for it. Waleed Al Dhefiri kind enough to show us around and tell us the history of the Parliament both from the architectural aspect and the political one. A very down-to-earth and critical-thinking man, he gave us the opportunity to ask about anything that we were wondering about. Speaking for myself, I was very reassured with his answers that, mainly, this Parliament won’t be able to impose all the things that they want to impose on the citizens. I also voiced my concerns to him as a female, and he gave me a great piece of advice that I’ve vowed to always carry with me: “Sheikh Jaber الله يرحمه has given you a right that no one can take away without your permission.” Those words alone revitalized the determination and the hope that I have for a better future, and for being a part of that process of betterment – not despite being a woman, but because of being a woman.
Stop Kony has dominated my Twitter timeline for the past two days. The Kony 2012 documentary has apparently gone absolutely viral, taking over my Facebook homepage too and almost every other blog and social networking site. I thought it was great. I even heard two 8th grade boys talking about why Joseph Kony should be stopped! Couldn’t have been over 13 years old, and they were discussing justice and humanity and helping people in need.
So I was quite surprised when one of my favorite writers, Paulo Coelho, expressed a very different perspective on Joseph Kony. Heck, he wouldn’t even write out his whole name, merely referring to him as “Joseph K.” because he “didn’t want to promote him”. It didn’t make sense to me because he also said that he had watched the documentary, so surely he understood the motive behind making Kony famous!
So I read a few articles that discussed the ‘behind the scenes’ side of the documentary. It apparently isn’t a coincidence nor is it a result of the Invisible Children’s hard work that Obama finally sent in his troops to Uganda; oil was recently discovered in Kony’s backyard, so the possibility stands that politically speaking, Obama’s move was only a matter of international interests. A very good source that I came across pointed out that Kony is undoubtedly a criminal, but simply making the Ugandan economy rely on foreign aid because they need ‘saving’ is hardly helping them on the long run – especially when the documentary has ‘white man’s burden’ written all over it.
A second year Political Science student in Nova Scotia dedicated a Tumblr account to denouncing the Invisible Children organization, while at the same time emphasizing that he does agree that Joseph Kony is fundamentally evil, and that the volunteers’ intentions are fundamentally good. He also backed up his argument by referring to credible professors who also expressed strong opposition to the campaign. I found it very interesting to learn on a Telegraph article that Kony and his troops had fled Uganda almost six years ago, and have instead dispersed all over neighboring countries, so Ugandan representatives have voiced their concerns that this viral video may end up causing more unnecessary harm than good to their country, seeing as the LRA apparently no longer exists within Uganda. Certain activists have pointed out that the documentary was campaigning for Western paternalism, that by participating in it, people are advocating the arrogant “let’s save Africa” agenda. I can’t help but wonder whether it matters if the man doing the activism is from the U.S., and that the region he’s focusing on is Africa. If people take the time to inform themselves on an issue, is it naive to think that good people might band together to help others around the world?
As the #PaintToFreedom online movement grows and sparks more controversy and discussion and encourages people to speak up, many are wondering what the story is – who Shurooq Amin is. I thought that posting my old article “Sins on Canvas” from the LoYACY magazine in the November issue would help people get a good image of this great artist. I would also like to say that the Paint to Freedom movement is not just about Shurooq’s particular gallery being shut down, nor is it restricted to painters. It includes artists, poets, writers, film-makers, dancers, musicians, designers. It’s one that seeks to protect our right to freedom of expression and appreciation of art, literature, poetry, and beauty in all its forms. No one has the right to control what another person paints, writes, thinks, or believes. Paint to Freedom seeks to abolish the false assumption that the intellectuals will simply hand over the power to people who are blind to such beauty. Art, cinema, poetry, and literature are all tools to enlightenment and liberation – which is the exact reason that these groups are attempting to kill them, and also the reason that in turn, the intellectuals must retaliate by practicing these acts of rebellion from now on more passionately than ever.
Paint on the floor. Poetry in the air. Smiles in the hallway. Children here and there. The home of a woman whose fingers have formed a long-lasting friendship with her paintbrush since her early childhood: Shurooq Amin’s home. I was privileged enough to be invited to visit Shurooq’s studio in her humble home, where I felt more than welcome, and was greeted with warm hellos. After meeting her children, Shurooq and I went up to her studio. Within those four simple walls, I saw some of the most thought-provoking paintings I had ever laid eyes on. Pure taboo: everything that is forbidden, everything deemed unspeakable – painted on canvas, speaking thousands of words that would never do her paintings justice.
Shurooq Amin is an artist, a poet, a member of the Kuwait Arts Association, and a professor at Kuwait University, to name only a few of the high-status positions she holds. She is the first and only Kuwaiti artist to feature a nude painting in international art galleries. She is also a mother of four children: Nujood, Lujain, Khaled, and Abdulla. Just by hearing this, most people would say: there is no way she is managing all of those things at once. Quite the contrary, Shurooq says balancing every factor in her life has not been difficult – it was all a matter of time management.
She considers her job at KU to be a day job which she has maintained simply because it is her source of income, and that it is “not something [I] love anymore because of the education system”. I personally thought this was an interesting point, so I asked Shurooq to elaborate. She discussed how the university used to be an academic environment, but is now politically charged, where “everybody wants to be a politician, but nobody wants to do the work”. She expressed frustration at how the KU Student Union now “has more power than the faculty”. Naturally, her frustration is reasonable; one cannot help but question whether or not all of the KU faculty members feel the same way. As a result, Shurooq no longer feels passionately about her day-career – her students are only growing less and less enthusiastic about their major with each passing year, making it difficult for Shurooq to teach with passion.
Instead, Shurooq focuses on her conceptual, controversial art works and her children. She feels most strongly about those two things: her artwork, and her children, and puts all of her energy into them. I personally have spent my life around adults who said they were too busy with their career to give their all to their children, but Shurooq said that such talk was “merely an excuse”. She considers her children to be gifts, to be future citizens actively taking part in the development of their society.
The sensational artist has paint coursing through her veins. She grew up painting, and had the constant support of her father. Her father took her to art galleries and museums, and at the time, she didn’t realize how exceptional such opportunities were. She assumed all girls her age saw what she saw. At the young age of 11, her father passed away in her arms, and after that point, nothing scared her anymore. At the age of 11, she witnessed the death of one of the dearest people to her heart. Death, Shurooq said, is the most common fear. Since she faced that at an early age, there was nothing left to fear anymore. From that point onwards, all of the endless obstacles she faced didn’t seem so difficult to tackle anymore.
Death threats have surprisingly been amongst those obstacles. But Shurooq says she didn’t care. “They can’t judge me — we’re all souls, only God can judge me, or an art critic, which doesn’t exist in Kuwait. I won’t listen to regular people judging me just because I’m painting the truth. We have people preaching Haram and Halal when they are hypocrites, telling girls not to talk to boys and in the weekend he’s with his mistress.” Because Shurooq addresses taboo subjects in her paintings, she is met with violent opposition. She addresses religion, politics, morality, sex, socio politics.
Shurooq was kind enough to show me her upcoming series, “It’s a Man’s World”, consisting of a total of 18 paintings which depict the secret lives of Arab men, including factors such as homosexuality, polygamy, double-lives, hypocrisy, alcoholism, adultery, the demeaning of women by turning them into non-human objects of sexual gratification, all the while preaching against the very acts they participate in on a nightly basis. The one that most caught my attention was “My Harem in Heaven”, a painting that portrayed a Kuwaiti man laying on a couch, barefoot in his dishdasha. He is smoking shisha, has a glass of whiskey on the table in front of him, an ashtray next to it. The ashtray and the glass of whiskey are placed on a glass table, and underneath the table, you see his bottle of Red Label – the most common choice of alcohol in Kuwait. A key element painted that would be noted is that the table was made of glass, so everyone can see the Red Label. Regardless of how hard he tries to hide it, everyone in the society knows this man is an alcoholic. Furthermore, there are women all around him. Tiny, Tinkerbell-like women, representing the alleged 70 virgins in Heaven–sitting on his shoulder, grabbing his feet, swimming in his glass of whiskey, all posing very promiscuously. He is relaxed and seems to be immensely enjoying this overflow of sensual sinning – because no one can see him indulging in these pleasures. Shurooq says this painting was done with love and passion, it had been a “eureka moment, a vision, pure inspiration from God Himself”.
Another one of her paintings portrayed an Emarati man, a symbol of your average male from any of the Gulf countries, with a BlackBerry, an iPhone, and a pack of cigarettes in front of him. Around him you see symbols of Abercrombie & Fitch, and other popular consumer products within the Gulf region. Next to him you see newspaper articles. Egyptians still fighting for their freedom. Syrians slaughtered ruthlessly. Palestinians oppressed by Israelis. Parliament members stealing millions of Kuwaiti Dinars. Saudi women demanding the simple right to drive, while women in the West are astronauts. The Khaleeji man doesn’t care. He is living in his own little world of consumerism and materialistic values. So long as it does not affect him directly, he sees no reason to care about other people’s pain. He’s naive and happy, driving his expensive car, killing himself slowly with his posh cigarettes, drinking away his petty troubles with cheap Red Label, taking advantage of women and blackmailing them with pictures. He sees no real reason to care. Consumerism has made him grow numb to reality. It has created an alter universe for him, one in which he is content, one in which he does not acknowledge the guilt that should be gnawing at his insides for allowing other human beings to suffer while he lives in luxury and silence. Had he not been a slave to consumerism, he would realize that his silence is complicity.
Shurooq does not take part in that silence. She is doing what she loves, and uses her art as a message to society, to broaden minds, enlighten people, change the world. “Every single person who thinks about the message behind my work is being influenced. His mind works. He discusses it with a friend. Something has shifted. It has been passed on, a ripple effect, a pay-it-forward technique, a new generation of people who are activists, full of hope and power to do something, not just watch TV. They will reach a point where they will challenge themselves to be consistent with their actions, not just their ideas.”
So far, there have been tweets, blog posts, articles, and other forms of media published in support of Paint to Freedom all over the Arab world. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE are only some of the countries whose writers and activists have took part so far. I particularly liked my friend Arie’s bold article here, and greatly appreciate his effort to support us. The influence has been overwhelmingly remarkable. You are more powerful than you think.
I loved, LOVED this documentary. It really makes you want to reach out to all of humanity instead of just your own country. Thank you Elio for sharing this with me!
“The people of the world see each other, and can protect each other. Right now, what we do, or don’t do, will affect every generation to come. We live in a world where we should be saying that the technology that is in our hands is allowing us to reach out to others. We are not just studying human history, we are shaping it. The better world we want, is coming. It’s just waiting for us to stop at nothing.”
This is another example of how you don’t need to be part of a corporation or hold a political position or have a lot of money in order to make a change. These are all students who made a difference. Students who painted, wrote, protested, advertised, did a bunch of small things that all added up to one big influence. Please share!
Shurooq Amin had her gallery “It’s A Man’s World” at Al Salhiya tonight, and was surprised to find that someone had reported her artworks to be ‘inappropriate’. Police received complaints of people feeling ‘insulted’ by her artworks, and around 10 PM headed there to notify Shurooq that her gallery would be shut down, and if she didn’t comply she would have to pay a fine. They referred to her artwork as “pornographic” and مخلة. They took photos of her artworks, saying that they would be sending them to the ministry.
This is exactly why we’re always either stuck in limbo or in a constant state of regression rather than progress. We can’t find proper books in our own country anymore, now with Virgin being shut down and all the good writers banned in the other bookstores. Our movies are censored, and instead we’re fed a bunch of media advertisements to turn us into consumerist robots during those 15 minutes that the cinema had cut out. Our writings are censored, it’s inappropriate to write about love and inappropriate to address the endless issues our society is facing. How does denial help anyone? Why is it believed that if we pretend a problem doesn’t exist, it’ll go away? It only gets worse the more it’s ignored. Shurooq addressed those issues in her paintings and I for one am glad she did, someone needed to speak up. As a writer I relate to her, because I know how frustrating it is to constantly be forced to bite my tongue and mute my voice when I know that what I’m seeing is wrong – yet, pointing out the wrongs of society is apparently wrong in itself.
I say it needs to end. The intellectuals of the Arab society need to unite to fight censorship and ignorance and regression. I really wouldn’t be surprised if this regression was planned. Why would higher powers want ‘the public’ to enlighten and liberate themselves from their own shackles? Better to make them love those shackles and brainwash them well enough to have them enforce your ideologies on others too. That way, it won’t just be your security forces imposing your beliefs on others. It’ll be the monsters you created too.
Please hashtag #painttofreedom with any tweets regarding Shurooq Amin’s gallery or art/writing censorship in the Gulf.
My friend Arie wrote an article called The Cruel Sea about Bas Ya Bahar (an old Kuwaiti film) and an upcoming Egyptian author, Yahia Lababidi. It can be read here. I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t watched the movie, even though it’s one of the only Kuwaiti films to be considered top-notch. In my defense, however, it’s very difficult to find lately. But I will try my best to find a copy at any of the old video stores in Salmiya.
I asked some older people about it, and they told me that it depicts the pearl-diving history of Kuwait before the discovery of oil. I asked, “That’s it?” and they said yes, mostly. I didn’t understand because Arie had mentioned something about rape victims in the Middle East, and here they were telling me it was about pearl diving. After Arie finished writing his article, though, I saw the very critical element that my elders seemed to have found irrelevant: two of the characters are in love with each other, but their families don’t approve of the relationship. So the girl is married off to a rich, old man. The girl is raped by her husband on their wedding night.
Of course, many people would argue that a woman can’t be raped by her husband, when in truth it’s more common than people think. If she’s not giving him her consent and he does it anyway, it’s rape. I got a reply on Twitter also mentioning a crucial occurrence that’s equally neglected: prostitutes being raped. Although that’s a separate issue on its own (I think this gives a good portrayal of the truth), women can be and are forced into sexual acts under all sorts of different circumstances. 1,000 women are raped per minute, according to UN statistics. That’s not even counting the ones that go unreported.
But what I think should be discussed, is how rape victims are looked at. Generally, they carry *at least* partial blame. Most societies all over the world tend to blame the victim in some way. In the Middle East, they carry most of the blame. It’s usually said that she asked for it by dressing or acting in a certain way, or by being out ‘too late’. Other times, she’s very badly beaten up by her own family, sometimes even killed, simply because her ‘honor’ has been violated – i.e. her virginity. I read about a sixteen year old Kuwaiti girl who was raped in 1991 by an Iraqi soldier. A case was filed a while later, but not because the girl was raped. A case was filed because the sixteen year old was murdered by her father and two brothers who thought they were preserving their family’s ‘honor’. The girl’s mother was also investigated with, but she apparently showed no objection to their act – she was ashamed of her daughter and proud of her sons and husband. The degree of monstrous inhumanity to which brainwash can lead to is just stunning. When a brother can kill his own sister, a father can kill his own daughter, and a mother can look on and say ‘good riddens’, that’s when you know society has reached a terrifying definition of priorities. ‘Honor’ – a figment of Middle Eastern mentality – topples over love. Over family, over justice, over protecting your loved ones.
I also remember watching a Kuwaiti TV show back in 2004 or 2003, where a woman is raped, and her brother finds out and decides to kill her. He takes her out to the desert, holds a gun to her temple, and you hear the girl’s thoughts being narrated, you hear her blaming herself and saying that she doesn’t blame her “maskeen” brother because she brought عار to her family. Then you see the brother having flashbacks of all their childhood memories, and suddenly she isn’t the cause of “shame” to his family, but his little sister. I can’t remember what happened later, I just remember that he couldn’t bring himself to do it and he cries because of what a “coward” he is. This was shown on TV! Even the media advocates honor killing! Heck, in Jordan, it’s legal! TODAY IN 20-FREAKING-12!!!
I wonder how Arab men today would react to their sister or future-fiance or wife getting raped. Would they blame her or support her and help her through the healing process? Someone was offended that I asked, saying that I was implying that they were savages. It really isn’t what I think, but from what I’ve seen and heard, most Arab men do tend to blame the victim, saying that she asked for it by doing something, as I said before. I have to point out that rape is never asked for, and that if they insist on going with that logic, then they’re also saying that men are animalistic savages who can’t control their sexual urges if they see something that appeals to them.
A friend of mine told me about a married 19-year-old girl in Saudi who became widely known across the media as Qatif Girl, and was sentenced to 90 lashes for being in a car with her ex, and another 110 for trying to ‘distort’ Saudi’s reputation through the media by reporting her case to a Human Rights organization. She was gang-raped by 8 men, who got varied sentences ranging from 2-15 years. That’s it. So half of them will be released in two years, go back to society, and probably repeat their crime. Very few of the victims will have the courage to report the crime. Not even Qatif Girl did; her husband found out because the gang kept gossiping about what they did in an attempt to ‘ruin her reputation’. They were hoping that her husband would find out and kill her. Her brother tried to, apparently, when he found out; he beat her up until she was unconscious, but she didn’t die. She did, however, try to kill herself twice since then. Her life has been an absolute hell from what she’s said. If we were to apply the “she asked for it” logic in this case, it doesn’t apply. She was wearing an abaya and a niqab.
Why do they pretend to be ‘open minded’ and say that they would never blame the girl, but all of a sudden change their opinions when it’s a relative or someone close to them? All of a sudden it involves their honor. All of a sudden the first question that comes to mind isn’t, “How will I help her overcome this?” but rather, “What will people say?” and then there’s the sub-questions of “Who will marry her now that she’s lost her virginity?” “How will I deal with the shame?” “What do I do with her?”
What do you think? Guys – honestly, if it was your sister/mother/wife/fiance/steady girlfriend, what do you do? Do you ever blame the victim?
Girls – “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” 😉 keep that in mind next time you judge a girl who was harmed by a man.