Freedom Through the Press

Palestinian women speak out with their art.

“There are hands that give love and affection while there are hands that steal the soul and take away life. What is so startling to us is that one hand is capable of both.” — Hani Zo’roub, artist, born in Rafah, Gaza in 1976

“The role of art is not just an aesthetic one. It should also be responsible for shedding light on societal issues that are circulated in the shadows by the public.” — Shadi Hreim, artist, born in Salfit in 1977

PrintThere is a woman. There are many women.

Who is this woman? Can we understand this woman?

She hunches in the spot-lit corner of a room — defeated, but dignified.

She bends her head, haloed and golden, like a Byzantine icon. Like Mary. She is contemplative.

She punches the air with an oversized fist, her abstracted body heavy against the fiery red and orange backdrop. She is in pain. She is angry.

Fear. Rage. Shame. Sadness. More clearly than any textbook diagnosis, the 15 prints in the exhibition “‘No’: Palestinian Artists Confront Violence Against Women” expose the myriad and conflicting emotions felt by abused women.

The show will be on display December 4-5 in the Board Room on the second floor of the University Capitol Centre (Old Capital Mall). It was curated by University of Iowa international studies major Julia Baily, a 33-year-old who spent the better part of the past two years in Palestine working with Open Workshop for Culture and Arts (OWCA), an organization that aims to incorporate art in the day-to-day life of Palestinians.

Together with the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, a Palestinian group that works to change old laws for the benefit of women, OWCA invited artists to confront the problem of gendered violence through a 2005 workshop in Ramallah, Palestine. For her senior project, Bailey brought a selection of these works to Iowa City. She has also arranged programming, including a video discussion with some of the artists, for the first weekend in December. The discussion coincides with other events celebrating the 60th anniversary of the United Nation’s adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Drawing on the historical tradition of prints as a protest medium, their sense of outrage and personal experience with victims of gendered violence, the Palestinian artists whose work is included in this exhibition have created a powerful group of prints that has toured Palestine extensively and sparked dialogue about an issue that is too often covered up.


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Violence against women is a problem that spans continents, cultures and the passage of time. It’s not a pleasant or easy problem to discuss. Even more difficult to talk about is the specific type of violence that these Palestinian artists were responding to: “honor killings.” A complicated cultural tradition that is often mistaken to be a solely Muslim practice, an honor killing occurs when a female is killed by a member of her own a family.

The motivation for this crime is a perceived dishonor brought upon the family by the actions of the daughter. Many offenses are tied to issues of assimilation into Western culture. The daughter may have become pregnant outside of marriage, rejected an arranged marriage, or fallen in love with the wrong man. Whatever the cause, honor killings are performed in many cultures and countries around the world, including Palestine. The punishment for these egregious murders is typically just a few weeks or months in prison, if anything.

“Domestic violence, or gendered violence, happens throughout the entire world,” Bailey said. “It’s something that happens here in Iowa, it happens in Iowa City, and it happens in Palestine. Honor killings are just one form of this violence.”

To even attempt to understand honor killings, one must try to understand a societal structure far removed from daily Western life. In this patriarchal, familial system, “the woman’s function in society was to preserve honor and tradition,” Bailey said.

One way to try to understand is to think of the role women have traditionally played in war.

“Unfortunately, women have always been and still are used in war,” Bailey said. “One side will rape the women of the other side when they attack the villages. And when this happens, they are specifically attacking the honor of those they are fighting. The women’s body represents the honor of the society.”

The Palestinian artists were very aware of the strong power of tradition and its connection to honor killings. Artist, writer and OWCA co-founder Mazen Sa’adeh is quoted in the exhibition label text: “We were very brave to talk about the issue. The society here respects tradition, and so they feel that they must respect honor killing. This enforces the shame that is placed on the family of the girl who falls in love or becomes pregnant outside of the family system. It is a sickness of the society. A sickness that I believe will be cured.”

While the Palestinian artists didn’t create these prints with Iowans or even Americans as the intended viewing audience, Bailey said she feels these works offer a rare opportunity for Iowans to see another side of Palestinian society, one that is not often addressed in the media and politics.

“This art offers to us a truth that is stronger and more vivid than knowledge gained through books and newsprint,” she said. “It is a composite expression of the women’s lives that inspired the artists. Here, through the exhibition the artists and the stories they tell are related to as human beings outside of their labels as Palestinians, as Muslim, as Christian, as male or as female. It is in this way that art provides true clarity.”

Though Bailey said this was not done for a particular reason, it seems fitting that the individual prints in the exhibit do not have titles. Seen separately, they attract the eye; but seen together, they create an undeniable and clear message. The wood block print medium helps create this unification with its distinctive aesthetic — broad color swatches, a nearly palpable texture, and visceral lines. The result is a gripping final product with a clear purpose.

Many women. One woman.

She crouches; her faceless, blocky figure bends with uncomfortable grace. Maroon color shadows her body, dots the surrounding space. Above her: a white sun with maroon spatters hangs in a somber black sky. Beneath her: the ground, also black, swirls, its vegetation arcing in violent lines toward her midsection.

This woman is alone. She feels pain. Rage. Shame. Sadness. But — the background turns abruptly to a white rectangle around her figure, like an open door or window onto her plight. Like a community open to discussion. The woman — she has hope.

Palestinian art feature sidebars


Art Exhibition
What: “No”: Palestinian Artists Confront Violence Against Women
When: Dec. 4-5
Where: Board Room, second floor, University Capitol Centre (Old Capitol Mall)
Admission: Free
More information: The exhibition, which is sponsored by UI Middle East & Muslim World Studies program, Iowa Women Initiating Social Change, the Women’s Resource and Action Center, UI International Programs, The Framer’s Intent, and Dick Blick Iowa City, is accompanied by a series of events on Dec. 4 and 5. Featured events include:

  • Introduction to the exhibit by curator Julia Bailey, Dec. 4, 6:30pm. Live music by Marisa Handler, a Jewish American woman in the UI Writers Workshop, to follow. Handler will also speak about her activism in Israel and read from her book, Loyal to the Sky, the winner of a 2008 Nautilus Gold Award for world-changing books.
  • Videoconference with several of the artists in the show, Dec. 5, noon.
  • Round-table discussion, Dec. 5, 2-3:30pm, Participants include: UI Geography Professor Rex Honey, whose studies in political geography focus on how people use space and place to gain control over their lives; a representative from the UI Center for Human Rights; Angela Gadzik of Iowa Women Initiating Social Change; and Kenda Stewart, a UI Ph.D. candidate in sociocultural anthropology who has worked with the Mossawa Center, an advocacy center for Palestinian Arab citizens in Israel, and done research on the cultural political implications of women’s soccer in Israel.
  • Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, a UI professor of art education, will speak about the social responsibility of art. Date and time TBD.

For more information on programming, email Julia Bailey at

Information on December events celebrating human rights:

What: “The Challenge of Universal Rights: Realizing Dignity and Justice for All”
When: Dec. 5-7
Where: Various locations. For a full schedule of events, visit, or call 319-335-3900 or email for more information.
Admission: Free

It’s been 60 years since the United Nations recognized that the “inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” by adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In celebration of this anniversary, The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights, International Programs, American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, Iowa United Nations Association, and the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council are presenting this free, public colloquium. Special nod to justice-oriented students: an hour of credit is up for grabs if you participate. Just log on to ISIS to register.

Featured free, public events include:

  • A keynote address by former Iowa Congressman James Leach, Dec. 6, 10 a.m. Old Capitol Museum Senate Chamber.
  • Panel discussions throughout the weekend with artists, leading civil rights and law experts, and members of The University of Iowa community
  • A musical performance by UI School of Music vocal professor Katherine Eberle, Dec. 6, 7 p.m. Senate Chamber.

Art Exhibition
What: Eye Witness: Daniel Heyman’s Portraits of Iraqi Torture Victims
When: Through Jan. 4
Where: Hanson Family Humanities Gallery, Old Capitol Museum, University of Iowa Pentacrest
Admission: Free
More Information: Call 319-335-1727 or go online to

Many artists have documented their beliefs about human rights abuses in Iraq. Painter and printmaker Daniel Heyman got to go one step further when he was invited by a team of lawyers to travel to the Middle East and witness interviews with former Iraqi detainees.

Drawing on his first-hand experiences, Heyman created portraits of more than 25 released prisoners of all ages, occupations and backgrounds. A selection of these works is on view through January 4 in the exhibition “Eye Witness: Daniel Heyman’s Portraits of Iraqi Torture Victims,” the first show from the UI Museum of Art (UIMA) since the flood.

In his spare, expressionistic prints and watercolors, Heyman has filled the space surrounding his subjects’ figure with direct transcription of his or her words.

“You look at the picture of the person in the hood, and you hate torture, but you don’t think of that person,” he said. “It’s hard to think that this person is someone who may have been taken from his family in the middle of the night. The story of who they are is not there.”

Surrounding free, public events include:

  • Artist’s talk, Dec. 4, 4pm, Old Capitol Museum Senate Chamber.
  • Panel discussion on KSUI’s “Know the Score LIVE!” Dec. 5, 5-7pm, Old Capitol Museum Senate Chamber. Reception to follow. Participants include: Artist Daniel Heyman, Joshua Casteel, a UI playwrights Workshop and the Nonfiction Writing Program student and the author of Letters From Abu Ghraib (2008); UI Professor Paul Kramer, author of The Blood of Governments: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines (2006); and Kristin Antin, community builder for the Center for Victims of Torture.

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