“In prison, prostitutes were allowed toilet paper, but not the political prisoners. They were afraid we would write on it. In many ways pen and paper can be more dangerous than a gun.”
Woman writer Nawal El Saadawi of Egypt is a force of nature. Now in her eighties, her books explore feminist issues, women’s rights and female genital mutilation. Today, young people frequent her Cairo apartment to hear her speak and derive inspiration for their own activism.
It was an interesting coincidence that an interview with El Saadawi was aired amid international attention over the alleged sexual harassment of several Hollywood actresses by powerful movie producer Harvey Weinstein.
I thought of El Saadawi, the diminutive writer and physician who spent her life speaking out against the gender mutilation that haunted her for most of her life, and by contrast the silence of so many actresses over the violation of their bodies.
I wondered, does it come down to personality or are there systemic barriers to artists feeling empowered enough to use their voices for social change? Do artists lose their validity as creative entities if they stay silent about oppression, to protect their careers? Is there a gender nuance to artistic activism so that women who agitate are more likely to be labelled troublemakers than their male counterparts?
“I spent my 20s trying to get old men’s tongues out of my mouth.” Double Oscar winner Emma Thompson perhaps best described the complexities of being young and vulnerable to predatory behaviour within the film industry.
She also raised the issue of the need to fix broken systems that encourage secrecy, bullying and power imbalances. These systems that often protect sexual predators, and make it difficult to feel that one has the freedom to speak or be heard.
Power and culture are important factors in determining whether one’s voice will be heard. Theoretically, in TT we are free to speak out. However, in reality, we are still systemically very constrained. Our work environments, for instance, are even now overwhelmingly dysfunctional, not just in the power relations between managers and staff, but regarding gender dynamics as well.
Speaking out is not discouraged, but it is certainly quietly frowned upon, and can result in the dreaded “note” being placed on one’s employment file.
Over the years, local artists have used their skills to make social and political statements from outside the traditional system. In the 1970s, the Black Traditions of Arts used theatre and the performance arts to treat with social issues of police brutality, heritage and identity.
Astor Johnson very deliberately incorporated African motifs in his dance choreography, and Carnival bands have addressed issues such as environmental degradation in their portrayals. Writers have explored race relations and concerns over gender and sexuality.
Is it enough? Do we raise our artistic voices loudly strongly enough, or are we constrained by the need to generate funds or the requirements of a sponsor? Is it possible to make a difference without causing some discomfort? Hardly likely. Often, discomfort is the first stage of working through serious social challenges and finding solutions to these.
El Saadawi understands that she has to make a difference from outside the system. She certainly faced the consequences of defiance, losing her job and being sent to prison.
But in the end, art is political and her resilience as an artist stems from the strength of her ideology.
She was locked up for her views and barred from writing, but a prostitute, believing in her work, gave her an eyeliner so she could write on the toilet paper. Artistic activism at its best.
Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN