RAMALLAH // Noor Abed no longer walks down the streets of Ramallah without her iPod. She simply does not want to hear the comments from the men on the street. "It could be anything. Some comment on my body or my eyes. Some just shout out their phone number. Every time I walk in Ramallah I feel I am being raped by men's eyes. It's shameful and it's demeaning." But it also proved a source of inspiration for the 21-year-old artist.
When she was approached by the local Mahatta Gallery in April to participate in a public art project as part of the festivities associated with Jerusalem: Arab Capital of Culture, she decided she would try to make the young men of Ramallah look at themselves in a different way. "I wanted them to take a step back and see if they really thought their behaviour was acceptable, or at least notice what that behaviour was."
The idea behind the exhibit was that the public had to contribute in some way to the creation of the work. Ms Abed decided to place a mannequin in a long white dress in Manara Square in central Ramallah. Then, with two male colleagues, she urged passersby to write comments on the dress. She asked them to write what they might have thought had they seen a woman walking down the street in similar attire.
The comments veered between corny and outright filthy. But almost all had as a common thread: sex, or the desire for it. Thus the rather tame, "I need you", written in English, competed for space with the more direct, "Without the dress you would be prettier", written in Arabic. Someone wrote down a phone number. Another wrote "loose" as in loose or promiscuous woman. Yet another, out of tune with the rest, wrote "Obey God".
The result was an installation she called Rotten, which featured Ms Abed wearing the white dress on a white backdrop in a wooden frame. Blindfolded and with her arms held behind her, the overall effect was an unmistakably dark statement on gender relations, yet one, she said, she was not sure was understood. "The idea was to take the obvious symbolism, the purity of the white dress and the blindfold, and contrast it with the comments written on the dress that come from men's minds, ruining that purity."
All those who had written comments were invited to the gallery. Ms Abed said she could hear (blindfolded, she could not see) that some had taken her up on the invitation. But they expressed a little disappointment that "she was just standing there, doing nothing". "I don't think they got it. Some of the younger women did. Of course I don't think it will change anything. But maybe it can open a few eyes."
Ms Abed admits she has a bleak view of gender relations in the Palestinian territories. Men, she said, think of women only as sex objects. And while this was the same everywhere, she said social and religious pressures here made it even worse. "From [the time they are] young there is social and religious pressure to keep boys and girls separated. People tell their sons that it is wrong to even talk to girls. That's how they are raised."
It is an attitude that is slowly changing, said Safa Tamish, the head of the Arab Forum for Sexuality, Education and Health. "There is a big gap between the generations," said Ms Tamish, who teaches courses on sexuality at schools and universities across the West Bank. "It's almost like they are two different people. But I think the older generation have slowly realised that their children are sexual beings and that they need a vocabulary to be able to communicate with them about it."
Ms Tamish said 10 years ago hardly any institution would invite her to come and teach sexuality, but it is now common for her to go even to rural villages in the West Bank. She also said she saw fewer and fewer arranged marriages and more and more choice for women. She emphasised the current conservatism was a normal response to the socio-economic and political environment. There is "nothing inherent" in Arab or Muslim culture that prohibits relations between men and women, she said, but in closed societies, there will always be "oppression".
"The Arab world at the moment is witnessing a lot of oppression and that includes of women. But this conservatism is borne of socio-economic factors. Whether in the West or East, a normal response to economic recessions or political disenfranchisement is greater conservatism." In addition, in the Palestinian context, the Israeli occupation had also become an "occupation of the mind". "People are prevented from travelling and from interacting with other cultures and even with themselves. This naturally leads not only to greater poverty, but to greater conservatism."
Finally, there is a political element, a "return to roots". In the Arab context, those roots are religious and, mixed in with politics, the covering of the head becomes a statement of identity. "In many cases, social conservatism is a way of asserting an identity and negating the West. As a result we see more women wearing the hijab." Nevertheless, she said, young Palestinian women, such as Ms Abed, are also becoming more rebellious. This is partly in response to the kind of harassment they encounter on the streets. It is partly a natural cycle.
"I remember when I could walk down the streets of Ramallah even late at night, and no one would look or comment. The situation became more conservative, but it won't stay the same." Ms Abed was less sanguine. There are social double standards, she said, "almost schizophrenic", where what a man says to a woman on a street would be cause for serious retribution if it was said to his sister. "If I am not allowed to shake hands with a man or raise my eyes, how can we interact? We live in a time when women and men have to interact. We can't at the same time bring children up to believe that such interaction is wrong."