The writing's on the wall: Jordanian artists send strong message of female empowerment

We speak to the artists who painted a mural in Amman to create a dialogue on gender-based violence

‘The Breaking the Silence’ mural on Arar Street in Amman took six days to complete. Courtesy Muhammad Emad
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It is a striking sight; her grey and black features stand proud against the beige backdrop of Amman, her chin raised proudly towards the sky, and the words "Let your eyes be cast on the mountaintops" written in red, wrapping around her.  

The mural stretches the entire length of an eight-storey building in Jordan's capital, and was designed and painted by female artists Miramar Al Nayyar, 23, and Dalal ­Mitwally, 22. The pair wanted to convey a message of strength, while hoping to create a dialogue around gender-based violence in a country where women continue to face huge limitations to their personal freedom on a daily basis. "The cause is very important. People have got so used to violence here and women are constantly victimised," Al Nayyar tells The National.

The mural is a result of the "Breaking the Silence" campaign launched by the Netherlands embassy in Amman. Through a collaboration with online art platform Artmejo, an open call was made for local artists and writers to submit artwork and written entries on the topic of gender-based violence.

Artist Miramar Al Nayyar uses the red markers on the wall and the image on her phone to paint the final design on to the eight-storey building. Muhammad Emad

The campaign was coincidentally timed as local news headlines were dominated by a story about a woman from the city of Jerash, 45 kilometres north of Amman, who'd had her eyes gouged out by her husband in an attempt to stop her from leaving him after years of domestic abuse. "I was seeing very scary submissions depicting the violence this lady, Fatima, had gone through. But I thought, 'Why are you showing this side?' You've got to show a woman's strength," says Al Nayyar.

The artistic duo, who have been friends for a year, after making the joint decision to quit university in pursuit of art careers, chose to include a line from the winning poetry entry, written by Seba Al Abbadi, 18, which they felt delivered this meaning. "For us, the quote is about how the mountains are inside of the woman – they are her strength – and the message behind the piece is about finding your inner strength," says Mitwally.

Whenever I've painted in the street before, I've received a lot of sexist and disrespectful comments. But while working on this piece, people's reactions were different – they were respectful and thoughtful in what they said.

Nearly 80 per cent of women in Jordan aged 18 to 64 have experienced domestic violence, and between 15 and 20 women are murdered as a result of "honour killings" each year, according to figures from the United Nations Population Fund.

In November, despite awful weather conditions, about 300 people gathered in protest against violence inflicted on women following the story of Fatima's mutilation. However, Mitwally points out that the most vulnerable women – those living in heavily patriarchal areas, where access to education and jobs is much more restricted – would not have been able to attend the rally. Instead, it was the young middle-class in attendance who have the least exposure to these kinds of challenges, she says.

Located on Arar Street, which is lined with shops all run by men, the image of a scarf-less woman's face in a public space is a bold statement and the pair say they were not sure how the local community would react. However, they were pleasantly surprised.

"Whenever I've painted in the street before, I've received a lot of sexist and disrespectful comments. But while working on this piece, people's reactions were different – they were respectful and thoughtful in what they said. Local businesses brought us food and people stopped to ask questions," says Al Nayyar, adding that she suspects a female-strong team around them likely contributed to the positive reaction.

“That’s why this mural is important – to show people you can do something.”

The two friends braved chilly temperatures to complete the mural in two parts over six days. It was the biggest challenge they have faced so far, they say, but it is also a huge achievement.

The artists begin the second half of the mural. Muhammad Emad

Mitwally says the project presented them both with an opportunity that wouldn't only benefit their careers, but that would also allow them to reach people through art, presenting something that residents can connect to, while spreading awareness about art and women's rights. "It's addictive. You're so open and so vulnerable and everything is so amplified. You have such a powerful thing in your hands – to be able to produce work that can affect the public," she says.

The campaign took place during the annual "16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence" in November and December last year. It was also at this time that submissions were featured on the Netherlands embassy's and the art website Artmejo's social media channels. The site's founder, Hind Joucka, says the main focus was to highlight the struggle women face in gaining access to education and economic opportunities. "It was a very detailed selection process," Joucka says. "We had to make sure the artwork was relatable and had a long-term focus; longevity was really important to us, as it needs to be relevant for a long period to come. The aim of this was to create something authentic and youth-led."

She says the community's reaction was the biggest success. "There was a real sense of pride from the residents that this was happening in their neighbourhood. They provided a lot of support through food, coffee and dessert – someone even made us lentil soup. They were really excited about it and said how young, brave and skilled everyone was," Joucka says. "We have really integrated a piece within the city that speaks to people who also feel they are a part of it."

The Netherlands embassy's politics, press and cultural affairs officer, Seema Huneidi, says this was a new approach for the institution. "The embassy is very involved in human rights projects. Every year we try and plan something where we contribute to a local partner project. This year they wanted to do something a bit different." Huneidi says the aim was to deliver something with a lasting impact, even choosing to refrain from including their logo so as to allow the artists complete ownership.

“When Miramar and Dalal explain the process behind the mural you can see how involved and passionate they are about what they do. It was inspiring to see.”