Choman Hardi is a Co-Director of the UKRI GCRF Gender, Justice and Security Hub, and Assistant Professor at The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani.
On the morning of October 26, 2020, the city of Sulaimani woke up to a bold artistic feminist statement: that violence against women is far more pervasive and comprehensive than acknowledged and that women’s bodies should be dissociated from shame. The installation, which was called Feminine, was composed of a 4,800-meter-long wash-line covered with the clothes of 99,678 Kurdish women survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Starting from Nali Park near the city centre, the clothesline hung between electricity poles through Salim Street, which is one of the busiest routes, all the way to the Courthouse. Hours after its launch, parts of the installation were set alight by young men who were “offended” by it. The rest of it was brought down to prevent a disaster and keep the peace. Feminine is the result of a long process of conceptualisation and execution by the young artist Tara Abdulla, with help from the Civil Development Organisation (CDO), which offered logistical support, covered expenses, and provided a team of volunteers. Tara knows what it means to be a woman in this patriarchal community. Aged 11, she got in trouble for recording her feelings and started practicing writing words backwards.
Now all her personal and artistic notes are written backwards, a style that helps her express herself without fear of retaliation. The night before the installation launch, Tara and the CDO workers started working on hanging the clothesline. Seven hours later, the artwork was ready to be witnessed.
The items of clothing which form the washing line include traditional Kurdish clothes (the dress, undergarment, waistcoat, and baggy trousers), head scarves, skirts, trousers, tops, dresses, bras, and underwear. They belong to women who have faced sexual, physical, or psychological violence within their families or communities. In order to collect the clothes Tara and her helpers knocked on the doors of various neighbourhoods in Sulaimani, Halabja, and Chamchamal and talked to tens of thousands of women, asking them whether they had been subjected to violence. Sometimes they were faced with silence, closed doors, and angry men, but at other times women let them into their courtyards, told them their stories, and contributed a piece of clothing.
After collecting the items, Tara spent days organising the clothes, deciding which piece would be placed next to which, supervising a group of female tailors who sewed the pieces onto the clotheslines, ensuring that the shape of each item was preserved and that the bras and underwear were sewn on top of the dresses, trousers, and tops. In effect, each washing line was a sewn patchwork of female clothing, with all that is usually hidden underneath displayed on top. Tara had two aims in this project. First, she wanted to expose the abuse that goes on silently, behind closed doors. Second, she wanted to normalise women’s bodies. She chose the main street to bring the issue “out of the frames of walls, these prison-like homes are full of pain...
... I wanted people to see this, those who go shopping, to schools and universities, to the court.” Placing a silenced and “private” issue at the centre of the city is an attempt to disrupt the status quo, to intrude on the sense of normality, to shake the apathy and oblivion that many people feel in relation to women’s victimisation, and to challenge the taboos associated with women’s bodies. This is in line with other feminist artwork across the world, art that problematises ideas about women’s bodies and lives, and breaks the silence around women’s experiences of violence and abuse.
In a similar project in 2015, Alketa Xhafa-Mripa called upon men and women to donate clothes in order to highlight the plight of women survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) in Kosovo (1998- 1999). The installation, which was called Thinking of You aimed to “take this hidden private issue that no one wanted to talk about and place it in the main football arena in Prishtina.” Five thousand people, including CRSV survivors and ordinary citizens, donated clothes that were hung on washing lines across the stadium. This broke the silence about these crimes and aimed to end the culture of isolation and shame that enfolded survivors.
Similarly, in 2018, the Turkish artist Vahit Tuna covered the side of a building in one of Istanbul’s central neighbourhoods with 440 pairs of high-heel shoes. Each pair represented a woman who had been killed by her intimate partner in the past year. In this case shoes were chosen instead of clothing because of a Turkish tradition where shoes of the departed are left outside of their house to prevent another resident from dying. All of these projects attempt to depict loss and violence through exhibiting feminine items or personal belongings of the missing and violated women. To use bell hooks’ words, they are bringing these issues from margin to centre, and demanding public attention and understanding.
Tara’s second aim was to normalise women’s bodies. The decision to exhibit women’s intimate items on top of the other items was bold. In this community, women’s bodies are associated with sex, shame, and “honour.” Anything that comes into contact with women’s breasts and vaginas is considered shameful and is usually hidden under other clothes on the wash-lines. Tara tells the public: “you may not see them, but they are there, underneath the clothes, women wear bras and pants, this is normal!”
Feminist artists have long worked on revoking the taboo around women’s bodies. In 2011, in her Menstruate with Pride, Sarah Maple portrayed herself wearing a white dress and bleeding as she stood tall. She was surrounded by a group of horrified onlookers including women, who were disgusted by the blood that covered her crotch. The only person who was not disgusted was a little girl, who looked at her with curiosity. This painting showed how people, including women themselves, learn that something as natural as women’s monthly menstruation becomes associated with filth, disgust, and contempt, and that it has to be endured secretly; it has to be hidden; and it is something to be ashamed of.
The menstruation taboo is common in many parts of the world, forcing women to keep separate quarters during their menstrual periods, so as not to contaminate the rest of the family. In 2015, Rupi Kaur addressed the same issue when she posted a picture of herself on Instagram, a little blood leaking from her pyjamas onto her bed. It was deleted twice because it did not follow Instagram’s “Community Guidelines.” In fact, Instagram had done exactly what she expected. In response to this omission she said: “I will not apologise for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be ok with a small leak when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified, pornified, and treated less than human.” Instagram then apologised for their “mistake” and restored the photo. Rupi said that this photo is part of a set of images “to demystify the period and make something that is innate “normal” again.” Tara Abdulla does the same when she hangs women’s underwear on top of the dresses, trying to make these pieces of clothing and women’s bodies “normal again.”
Within hours of its debut, Feminine caused major outrage and controversy in the community. Many people posted disparaging comments on Facebook, ridiculing the work of art and calling it “the cloth project,” “the revolution of bra and pants,” and “bra city,” shaming the artist, accusing her of tarnishing the city’s image and reputation, of lying, of stealing clothes from the donations to refugees, of humiliating women by showing their underwear, of stealing the idea from others, and of abusing the trust of women who spoke with her.
In a press conference, after the installation was brought down, Tara graciously responded to the question of negative reactions by saying: “if a work [of art] is not spoken about, if it invokes no reaction, then it has not done or changed anything.” She also addressed those who set the work alight and said: “I want to tell them that you proved my point... we actually saw it in reality, this is violence!” To those who argued that she had sullied the city with her installation she responded: “I want to ask you: is the city blemished by pain and violence, or by this artwork?”
Some of the men who set fire to the women’s clothes may be those who commit violence against women and were scared of being exposed, scared of the women who spoke back through their colourful clothes; others may be angry because of their own abjection, unemployment, and marginalisation, and they direct their anger at women who dare to challenge their only power: the power of a man in a patriarchal system.
Others still may be those who hate women, who regard all things related to women and their bodies with contempt and disgust. There was also a lot of support from men and women who understood the significance of Tara’s project, who saw it for what it was, and who responded to the attackers. This short-lived installation led to debate and argument, and it shook up the city more than anything has for quite a while. In this way, it was a grand success.
Photo Source: Civil Development Organization (CDO)