On a concrete wall in the alleyway of a Palestinian refugee camp in Irbid, Jordan, Laila Ajjawi works quickly, switching between the three spray-paint bottles that sit at her feet. Within 20 minutes, she has scrawled Arabic letters onto the veil of a girl with cavernous eyes and painted a feather quill by her side. Her mural is nearly complete.
Draped in a dark, paint-splattered cloak with a black respirator strapped over her hijab, Laila, 25, looks like a bona fide superhero. The petite graffiti artist even has a superpower: talking through walls. “My energy will be reflected from walls to people,” she said, explaining that people will then take her message to others.
Laila is painting on a wall opposite her family’s 700-square-foot concrete house, where she lives with four of her five younger siblings and their parents. She was born just three blocks from here, in a one-room home her parents used to rent. They built their house on the site her paternal grandparents settled with tents during what she refers to as the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the mass exodus of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced out of their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. Both of Laila’s parents, like her, were born and raised in refugee camps.
During the day, Laila has a job with an NGO. When she paints and writes late into the night, she sleeps in the family’s living room, which is filled with her artwork. Many paintings are of horses; one of the paintings symbolizes frustration at her family’s situation of “having to fight for very simple things” like her university education, which she says cost about 6,000 Jordanian dinars for four years — about $8,400. The Ajjawis have taken on considerable debt to send Laila and her three younger sisters to college, and plan to send her teenage brothers, both of whom are in grade school, as well. Laila says her parents bring in less than 700 Jordanian dinars per month — about $1,000. Most of the family’s income comes from her father’s construction job, which is now in jeopardy because of a foot injury that makes it hard for him to work.
As a woman who lives in an impoverished and overcrowded Palestinian refugee camp, Laila was born on one of the lowest rungs in Jordanian society, her fate almost sealed at birth. Her educational training and art, however, has opened doors and created opportunities for her beyond the camp that she did not realize existed. She uses her public art to question the assumptions her culture makes about women, who are taught to be subservient in a male-dominated society, and of Palestinian refugees, who 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.
The wall in front of Laila’s house now radiates girl power. Directly next to her newest creation is another of her original spray-paint artworks. In it, a band of women rocks out, and center stage, a brazen leader rises above them, holding a paintbrush like an Olympic torch. “All these female symbols are new for the street. Usually street art is dominated by men in general,” Laila said. By painting murals of strong women, she is trying to prove that girls can “express themselves without the limits that society or community is trying to put them under.”
In Jordan, while women have the right to vote and are in school at slightly higher rates than boys, they have one of the world’s lowest representations in the workforce and face significant inequalities. Citizenship is passed only through men, so children of Jordanian women who marry non-citizens don’t have access to basic rights, like public health care and education, which the government subsidizes for citizens. Non-citizens are also barred from most public sector work and certain professions, and have to obtain residency permits to live in the country. Gender-based violence is a problem too. If a man rapes a woman, he may escape punishment if he marries her, and spousal rape is not considered a crime. The belief that women are responsible for sexual violence committed against them is so deeply held that, according to figures cited in a 2009UNICEF report, 90 percent of Jordanian women believe there are circumstances in which a man has the right to beat his wife.
These are some of the issues that Laila, who has been drawing and painting since she was about 5 years old, has started to highlight in her public art. She discovered street art just over a year ago after completing her first mural in Women on Walls (WOW), a feminist street art campaign in the Middle East. The mural, in Amman, features a woman whose head is a prism that opens up colorful rays of thoughts, ideas, and dreams. “Look at my mind,” the caption reads. A few months later, in December 2014, an NGO invited Laila to visit a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan and paint murals with women and girls who had survived gender-based violence. In March 2015, she presented her work with Women on Walls at a women’s rights conference in Tunisia, and in April, she painted another mural for Women on Walls in Cairo. In July, she painted a mural for Lina Khalifeh’s women-only martial arts training facility in Amman, SheFighter. Throughout, Laila garnered media attention with interviews in Good magazine and on Yahoo Travel, and has amassed more than 7,000 fans on her Facebook page.
Swedish photojournalist Mia Gröndahl, who has written about graffiti and refugee camps in the Middle East and co-founded Women on Walls, says female street artists like Laila are a rarity, especially in this region of the world. “It’s more complicated when you are a female and you take that step out in the public space in the Middle East than it is, of course, when you do it in the West,” Gröndahl said.
Because being alone in public can make a woman a target for violence, the celebratory group atmosphere of WOW creates a safer space for women to paint. Women activists in Jordan have become increasingly vocal about street harassment. Though street harassment is believed to be prevalent (statistics quantifying the problem are not available), stigma often prevents womenfrom raising complaints. Laila’s public art is usually coordinated through an NGO, so she has never painted alone in public. At first, when an art project meant traveling to a new or unfamiliar town, Laila admits that she was “prepared for the worst,” including lewd or hateful comments. Instead, she and her art were met with cheers and acceptance.
While graffiti is often associated with resistance and civil disobedience, Laila is less of a revolutionary and more of a peacemaker. She has not painted public or private walls without first obtaining permission. She 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.
Though she was born in Irbid camp, Laila thinks of her hometown as Jenin, a city that borders Israel at the northern edge of the West Bank. She and her siblings are considered refugees by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) because their male ancestors were among those expelled from Palestine during the Arab-Israeli conflict, around the time Israel declared statehood in 1948. According to the UNRWA, about 2 million Palestinian refugees reside in Jordan. While one class has prospered and wields significant economic power in the country, Laila is among the class that struggles. According to UNRWA, which was set up in 1949 to provide social, health, and educational services to Palestinian refugees, 18 percent of Palestinian refugees in Jordan still live in poor and overcrowded camps.
Irbid camp is a 57-acre plot of land about 12 miles south of the Syrian border that an estimated 25,000 refugees call home. On the rare occasion the camp is quiet, Laila can hear the bombs going off in Syria late at night. Unlike the secluded camps for Syrian refugees in Jordan, the Irbid camp is an extension of the city, not recognizable by any signage, gate, or security checkpoint. To find someone in the maze of mostly unmarked, drab streets, visitors have to walk to a local storefront and ask for the family by surname.
From the alleyway where Laila paints, we can see a parade of children carrying the Palestinian flag, holding a weekly demonstration for the “right to return to an unoccupied Palestine.” Laila tells me the unofficial name for Irbid camp is Al-Awda, which roughly translates to “return to the homeland.” While the history of Palestine lives on in the camp, she worries that it is slowly being erased in schools. “We used to have national days where we celebrate, or remember, or are trying to make poetry or art gallery for Palestine,” she said. “These activities are not being done anymore,” she said.
For refugees like Laila, the conflict around her homeland — the heart of one of the world’s most intractable and controversial geopolitical disputes — means existing in a state of limbo, trying to hold on to the history of a land she may never be able to visit, and a place whose definition is always changing. A majority of displaced Palestinian refugees are stateless, leaving them vulnerable to dangerous and inhumane conditions where they lack legal protections or rights. Most Palestinian refugees in Jordan, however — including Laila and her family — have citizenship rights.
Citizenship enabled Laila to enroll in high school, and later, a public university. She was 16 when she started high school — the first time she ever left the camp. “That actually helped me a lot to change my thoughts, to be able to accept diversity, accept people with different thoughts and different points of view,” she said.
But education also introduced her to a clash of cultures and discrimination. She says some teachers banned her from wearing Palestinian symbols or flags, and she was made to feel ashamed of her heritage. She experienced a political awakening of sorts, realizing that life in the camp was limiting and even frowned upon by outsiders. “Some girls used to hide where they came from, but I’m not,” she said. “I’ve been living here so what is the problem with that?” she said, explaining that being a Palestinian refugee doesn’t make her a bad person.
After high school, she wanted to study 3-D animation but couldn’t afford such an expensive program. So Laila and her parents saved and borrowed money for her to attend Yarmouk University, a 10-minute drive outside of the camp, where she majored in biomedical physics. It was her creative career, however, that took off as she began accumulating awards for her art, writing, and even for a short film. She began attending workshops on leadership.
Studies show that girls with higher levels of education are less likely to be married at young ages. Laila even tried to convince one of her friends’ parents to keep her friend in school instead of marrying her off. She and her family believe that educated girls will, in the long run, help relieve financial burdens that families like hers endure. “I strongly believe that educating a woman means educating a full society,” she said.
Marriage hadn’t been a priority for Laila as she nurtured her art. “It’s like in Arabian culture when the girl gets married, sometimes she can’t do whatever she wants,” she said, explaining that women are expected to be subservient to men. Even her friends and family warned her: “If you get married, you will lose what you’re doing.”
However, as we strolled through her neighborhood, I noticed Laila wears a gold band on her right hand. Her fiancé, whom she referred to as “the one” as if that were his name, appreciates her art. He came across her mural in Amman and contacted her through Facebook, where they began having in-depth conversations. “I need someone who can see me, my soul, what I’ve been born to do. Not just a wife or a housewife to continue others’ dream,” she said in one of our following phone conversations. “I also want someone who has got his own dream. And at the same time, he doesn’t step on me to go with his dream. I want to go side-by-side.” He lives across the border in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a country so prohibitive of women’s rights that she will not be allowed to leave the house without the approval of a male guardian. But Laila isn’t concerned, she said, because when she moves, she will live among a group of progressive graffiti artists she knows there.
“My future doesn’t look easy,” Laila said, but said that living a “normal” or traditional life is even less appealing than whatever challenges lie in her path. The young woman from the tiny Irbid camp aspires to 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,” she said. “I’m going to become a part of the media that affects people.”
Cosmopolitan.com traveled to Jordan to learn about how access to education for girls is affected by conflict. For more information on the global education crisis, visit Let Girls Learn.
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