A Street Art Festival that Puts Women on Walls

In Jordan, artists take over public space to empower women otherwise too fearful to speak out against street harassment.

“Street art is a very new thing in Jordan,” says Laila Ajjawi.

This week, the 24-year-old Jordanian artist finished a mural on the wall of the Ras Al Ain Gallery in Amman, Jordan. She is one of 25 artists participating in Women on Walls, a feminist street art festival based in Cairo, Egypt. Artists from around the world—both men and women—were asked to contribute works to the wall that would provoke conversations on women. Ajjawi’s piece features a woman whose head is capped with symbolic images—a light bulb, a speech bubble, a rainbow, and a flying dove leaving an open cage. “It is a message to guys in general,” says Ajjawi. “Guys look at girls as objects. The media shows the girls as objects.”

What Ajjawi wants to articulate with her artwork is the idea that women are not objects to gaze at but rather full-fledged human beings with intellectual depth. If this seems like a banal point to make, consider that an estimated 80 percent of Jordanian women have experienced street harassment, according to Asma Khader, secretary general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women. Elsewhere in the world, the numbers are just as dire: In the United States, 65 percent of women report being sexually harassed in the streets; in Brazil, 99.6 percent of women said they were victims of street harassment; and in Egypt, 99.3 percent of women reported being sexually harassed.

This is why, when asked to choose a topic in line with this year’s Women on Walls festival theme, “Stories from Fear to Freedom,”Ajjawi chose street harassment. Street art, she says, is particularly useful for tackling this type of issue. Because the artwork is located outdoors, it addresses a much wider audience than those typically motivated to attend a feminist art show. Instead, it challenges harassers in their domain: the streets. This kind of art doesn’t just decorate cement walls; it forces a conversation. “It catches the eye,” says Ajjawi. “But it’s not confrontational.”

Women on Walls began in Egypt, following the 2011 revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Swedish photographer Mia Gröndahl had been inspired by the proliferation of revolutionary graffiti on Egyptian streets—she documented much of it in her book Revolution Graffiti: Street Art of the New Egypt. As she collected photos for the book, Gröndahl found that the art overwhelmingly depicted male subjects, of 17,000 photos of street art, only 253 featured women.

In 2012, she hosted the first Women on Walls festival with her friend, Angie Balata, and they’ve been putting it on every year since—a couple times in Egypt, once in Copenhagen, and now in Amman, where they’ve curated the “longest street art gallery in Jordan.” They’ve collaborated this year with Jordan’s Al Balad Theater and brought together street artists from Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Palestine, Yemen, and Sweden.

If art can be empowering, street art is doubly so because it gives people an opportunity to occupy public space in ways they are usually denied. On the streets, women are often fearful of speaking out against harassment. But art like Ajjawi’s may stand in for those who’ve been silenced into submission.

“If a women is silent, it’s because society compels her to be silent,” says Ajjawi.

Laila Ajjawi, left