Women's rights inspire artists at annual Iraqi Women Artists Exhibition

Event brings together more than 70 up-and-coming and established artists who address women's issues through different artistic styles

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Female Iraqi artists at an art exhibition in Baghdad are defending their rights and speaking out about the obstacles they face in a male-dominated society.

The annual Iraqi Women Artists Exhibition is taking place at an exciting time for arts in the country. Feminist art is making waves as part of a revival of the country’s cultural life.

More than 70 up-and-coming and established artists are displaying work in different artistic styles, including abstraction, impressionism, realism and symbolic realism.

All-female art exhibitions have been held for more than a decade to recognise women as an important part of the Iraqi plastic art movement, said Qasim Sabti, the head of the Iraqi Plastic Artists Society, which organises the exhibition.

Because of the economic crisis and coronavirus, Mr Sabti said he was afraid this year's exhibition would get only a lukewarm participation.

“But I’m astonished and thrilled with both the level of participation and works this year, mainly from the new artists,” he told The National.

“This means that this country will never die regardless of the circumstances it goes through,” he said, describing the exhibition as the most important one given the participation of female artists from different provinces.

The artists addressed a range of themes. Some artworks depict fatigue or faceless women in gloomy paintings, while others celebrate the achievements of women despite the hardships around them.

In her work Restrictions, Lamia Rafie drew barbed wire around the neck of a woman looking helplessly forward with an empty gaze.

“These wires are the restrictions the woman experiences in her life,” said Rafie, 36, a school teacher.

“Whatever move she makes or even an attempt to free herself they will hurt her,” said Rafie, a mother of two.

She wants to convey the message that there is always “someone who takes control of a woman’s life against her will and puts her under social and psychological pressure”, she said.

A painting by Yuser Jalil is a warning to society that it could face an unexpected reaction from the oppressed women.

Jalil drew a naked, limbless body for a fatigued woman with a splash of blood coming out of it and the head of a black barking dog to depict her rage.

“A lot of Iraqi women are deprived of their rights and that makes her as if she is without hands and legs,” Jalil, 23, a bacteriologist, said.

“Therefore, her anger or exaggerated reaction against the society can be translated that way because of the repression,” she said.

Like other countries in the region, women in Iraq are facing growing obstacles because of social norms, discrimination, lack of opportunities and tribalism.

With the sense of freedom Iraqis started to feel after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, female activists have been fighting for equality, eliminating gender discrimination and attaining full rights.

But no major breakthrough has been made.

Iraqi artist hopes to set world record for largest pin-and-thread art

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Since then, domestic abuse, mainly against women, has been on the rise as a result of the weakness of successive governments, which have has allowed customary law to prevail.

A significant surge in domestic violence was registered during coronavirus restrictions and as the country went through economic hardship.

The exhibition is taking place amid a surge in killings of women by their relatives across Iraq, mainly in the conservative Kurdistan Region.

“The woman is always in a struggle and swims against the current,” said Muna Merie, standing next to her painting, which depicts a woman who keeps walking despite all the hardships.

Merie believes that the “woman still needs time to have her right place in our society”.

Basma Kamal, in her painting Harmony, which shows a faceless man and woman dancing together, sees that mutual understanding between man and woman is vital to change the course of society.

“Man and woman complete each other,” said Kamal, 26, a student at the College of Fine Arts.

“They need to act like the dancers to integrate and become one soul, and with that harmony and understanding a lot of problems will be solved,” she said.

Updated: April 30, 2022, 3:17 AM