Twenty-five-year-old Palestinian refugee Laila uses street art to empower young women in Jordan.
“Street art is generated by men in general, but what’s wrong with being a woman and doing that?” asks Laila Ajjawi.
The 25-year-old Palestinian refugee wears a dark, paint-splattered cloak with a black respirator strapped over her hijab as she spraypaints a powerful message on the wall opposite her family’s 700-square foot house.
There, she lives with four of her five younger siblings and their parents. Ajjawi was born just three blocks away, but grew up in the concrete home which was built over the location her grandparents settled during what she calls Nakba, or “catastrophe.” The incident was the mass exodus of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced out of their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.
The activist works quickly, switching between three spray-paint bottles that sit at her feet, and within 20 minutes has scrawled Arabic letters onto the veil of a girl with cavernous eyes. She then paints a feather quill by her side – her mural nearly complete.
Despite what you may think, her message isn’t as much about the art as it is the meaning behind what’s being colorfully sketched on the walls.
Laila works at an NGO during the day, but uses her free time to create artwork which conveys her family’s frustration of “having to fight for very simple things.” For example, her university education, which she says costs about 6,000 Jordanian dinars for four years (about $8,400 USD), is sending her family into considerable debt.
Recognizing that education is a priority, her parents are doing their best to send Laila, her three younger sisters, and someday, the two youngest boys of the family to college. This is tough, however, for every month, her parents bring in less than 700 Jordanian dinars (about $1,000 USD). Most of that income comes from her father’s construction job, which is now in jeopardy because of a foot injury that makes it difficult for him to work.
Still, they persist as a unit.
Living as a woman in an impoverished and overcrowded refugee camp, Laila was born on of the lowest rungs in Jordanian society. Her education, however, is opening doors and creating opportunities she never before knew existed.
Recognizing the power of activism through art, Ajjawi is spray painting murals to challenge the assumptions her culture makes about women. Traditionally, women are taught to be subservient in a male-dominated society. Palestinian refugees, as well, face ongoing discrimination.
Through her murals and activism, she hopes to show other refugees, young women, and girls that they, too, can take control of their destinies.
Cosmopolitan brilliantly captures this in the video above.
According to Women on Walls, the feminist street art campaign in the Middle East, women activists in Jordan have become increasingly vocal about street harassment. Though street harassment is reportedly prevalent, stigma often prevents women from raising complaints.
Channeling that frustration into art is one of the ways female activists – like Laila – bring attention to the issue and inspire change.
Laila never paints alone in public, as her public art is usually coordinated through an NGO. In addition, while graffiti is often associated with resistance and civil disobedience, Ajjawi does not paint on public or private walls without first obtaining permission.
She also avoids depicting a woman’s body on a public wall, which might lead to “deletion” of a mural seen as too risqué. By working within the rules of her society, she argues, her art can reach more people.
Ajjawi by no means has an easy future. She’s a female Palestinian refugee challenging cultural norms, staving off marriage until it’s with the right person, and working toward a future that affords her financial freedom. Her efforts, she believes, will be worth it, however.
“My future doesn’t look easy,” says Laila, but living a “normal” or traditional life is even less appealing than whatever challenges lie in her path.
Her aim is to develop her abilities and take on the media through her art.
“The media is trying to provoke an idea about girls, that girls cannot take control of her life. I’m going to become a part of the media that affects people.”
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