Photo: Anne Kirstine Rønn

How to make feminist art in a cultural crossfire

This is a story about the creation of an art installation on sexual harassment, a Beirut artist struggling to get her message out right, and how I let myself harass on purpose by having bikini photos hung up in smartphones from the ceiling in an exhibition room.


Noor Haydar is an artist and my upstairs neighbour in Beirut. One day she asked me to be part of her next art installation. The subject was a beach called Ramlet el Baida. It is the only public beach in Beirut and the only strip of coastline available for people who cannot afford paying a 30-dollar entrance fee at private resorts. Although being public, the beach was not accessible for everyone, Noor told. If a woman shows up there in bikini, men will gather around her and take photos with their smartphones. “The phone has become a weapon,” she said. “When they catch a picture of you in a moment, it is like they own you permanently”. Ramlet el Baida is an example of the way women are seen and treated in public spaces all over Lebanon. Something Noor is fed up with. 

On the beach

The art installation would be based as a photo-shoot on the beach. A Sunday noon, Noor would take me and another friend of hers to Ramlet El Baida, set up a camera and watch the scenario unfold. I was feeling curious as we arrived and walked in the sand to find the right spot. I felt like I was on some kind of social sightseeing. We lay down with our magazines and books, while a camera on a tripod behind us was filming the sea. Shortly after, some young men and boys next to us started to show interest. They stood around 10-20 meters away, right in the angle of the video camera. They pretended to take selfies, but we could easily see that they had a different agenda. Their cameras were turned towards us. Now I saw what Noor had been talking about, I thought to myself, looked up for a moment and then continued reading my magazine.

When I later interviewed Noor, she told me she had the same feeling as I in the beginning: “I was excited to see what would happen and was very calm. I thought we might get a few looks here and there but nothing out of the norms.” The calmness however, did not last, she tells: “As time went on and the crowd started getting closer and closer, I got into this survival mode. This adrenaline state. And I wanted to be responsible because I had you girls with me. I was worried that you would not feel good as well.”

But in fact, Noor did not need to worry about me. I was outside my body that day, observing the scenario as if it was a film. However, I could feel how her frustration kept growing throughout the hours. At some stage, she got enough, stood up and ran after some of the boys who had been standing near us with their phones. When she approached them, they offered to take on the role of our protectors by telling the other boys to step away from us. Noor found this rather ironic: “I didn’t need them to do that, but I gave them the pleasure of thinking they are important for me so I would get less harrased.” From this point, her state of mind only got worse, and once we left the beach, Noor was, in her own words: “aggravated deep down inside.”

From the exhibition. Photo: Anne Kirstine Rønn/The Turban Times.
From the exhibition. Photo: Anne Kirstine Rønn/The Turban Times.

I was wondering why I remained so calm while Noor got sick in her stomach about the situation. Maybe it was simply because Ramlet el Baida was not my beach, Lebanon was not my society, and the harassment was not my problem. I was no more than a tourist who could watch and then leave. Noor on the contrary was living in the middle of it and had no way of escape. What we witnessed on the beach brought her in a discussion with herself over the rights and wrongs of her own society. As she later told me: “When I was in the space, I thought, ‘is it my fault?’ Am I provoking them? Am I doing something wrong? Because the majority thinks different than me. It was just us against all of these guys. But when I got myself out of the situation, I realized that they were wrong to do this.”

Stepping into the minefield

A few weeks later, we met in Noor’s apartment. She had invited over a small group of friends to show the videos and pictures from our beach trip and get inputs on her exhibition. Soon, a discussion evolved among us. Although we all found sexual harassment a problem, we were far from agreeing on how to address it. Noor was not surprised by the critical questions. She expected it. It was not the first time she had been doing art with a feminist agenda, and she often has these conversations, she says. 

One friend pointed to the fact, that Noor somehow invaded a cultural space and provoked the young men. She somehow made the situation happen by showing up in a bikini in front of people who come from a culture where women are supposed to be covered. Another friend felt sorry for the guys on the beach. They were victims of their own society, he argued. Just like on the beach, I was merely observing the discussion than participating in it. I followed the arguments and tried to identify the source of the disagreements. I narrowed the disagreement down to two questions – the first was the question of guilt: Were the young men responsible for their behavior, and was it dangerous to picture them as perpetrators? The second question concerned the difference between what is ethical and legal – since it was a public place, don’t people have a legal right to take photos? And if so – how can you prohibit something which is technically legal?

However, Noor insisted: “The young men did do something wrong.” As she later explained to me: “The point of my exhibition is not to pinpoint at the guys who have never seen a boob or ass. Except, they have. This is not Saudi Arabia. They see it everywhere in Beirut. When you just walk down the street, people are in shorts or in tops. They have access to pornography. It is just a part of their behavior that it is okay to talk to women like this.” On the other hand, she admitted: “If you think about just that incident. Maybe they were provoked to see girls in bikini. But I have experienced the same thing in different places, with different men.” She explained, that if she had more time she would have experimented more with other public spaces, like public transport, cafés, and restaurants. “Maybe I chose the beach because it is summertime now. And how free it is to just go down to a beach in Beirut and not have to drive hours and pay hundreds of dollars. Maybe this beach was something I was looking forward to and maybe cannot have.

We did not reach to an agreement before the video screening night ended. Nevertheless, it had been clear to Noor that it was important to stress, that she was putting the blame on something bigger than the boys on the beach. What needed to be addressed, she told me, was the system, which is supposed to protect all kinds of public places. “These guys are allowed to be there with whatever background and culture they have, and so am I. That is why it is called public.

From the exhibition. Photo: Anne Kirstine Rønn/The Turban Times.
From the exhibition. Photo: Anne Kirstine Rønn/The Turban Times.

Setting the scene

About a month after the Sunday at Ramlet el Baida, it was finally time to set up the art installation. The location was an exhibition room in a basement, with concrete walls and pillars. We built a wooden frame in the middle of the room, about 5 meters long and 3 meters broad and filled it with sand to make the visitors feel like they were standing on the beach. At the end of the sand box, we put up a wide screen, showing video footage from Ramlet el Baida. From the ceiling, we hung three smartphones with pictures of ourselves in bikini. Noor had taken the pictures, but the purpose was to simulate the pictures the boys had captured on their smartphones.

Before putting up the exhibition, Noor had chosen to make a few fine tunings. When she edited the movie, she chose to cut out some of the boys. She had also taken photos of the young men standing with their smartphones. These photos were left out as well. The discussion in her apartment had shown how easy it was to create the impression that the central message of installation was a judgment of the behavior of the boys on the beach. Even if Noor thought they were acting immorally, she wanted to avoid this perception: “I did not want to spoon feed people and make them think, ‘oh these men’, even though that was our experience. I want them to just see a small example of these three or four boys that came into the shot every once in a while and ask themselves why there are photos of girls on the phones hanging from the ceiling.”

Noor wanted the viewers to understand that harassment happens everywhere. Whether or not you show up in bikini at Ramlet el Baida, you will never avoid it. To emphasize this even more, she printed sheets with national women’s laws and put them on a table at the entrance to the exhibition. In Lebanon, there are no general laws for women. Specific laws apply to different sects and different religions. Noor chose the paragraphs, which were the most unified. “I just wanted to print it on this pink paper with stickers on. Because women here are treated as if they were flowers. You have to open her door and pay for her dinner and be nice and protecting. Whereas our laws are so harsh against women. It’s like society is trying to make up for something – but it’s doing it in the wrong way.”

From the exhibition. Photo: Anne Kirstine Rønn/The Turban Times.
Noor Haydar taking a picture of the exhibition. Photo: Anne Kirstine Rønn/The Turban Times.

The show

The exhibition opened. Noor was ready to welcome and respond to questions. I was there too and did not know what to expect. Would the audience understand that it was more than just about boys on a beach? Would we open a fire? How delicate was this subject to the public? Noor had one particular concern: “There is lots of stuff going on in Europe about refugees harassing locals. Because those boys who were on the shore perhaps looked non-Lebanese, I was worried that this would be the thing. I dont want to show that thing about refugees here. I wanted to focus on the male thing. Because my experience with the women I have spoken to, this happens with all guys.”

The reactions of the audience was mostly curiosity. And Noor was satisfied: “It wasn’t like an art critique. They just talked about their day to day experiences on the street and in public spaces which was gratifying.”

When everything was packed down, I asked Noor what difference she thought it made to do an art exhibition about harassment. Did it change anything at all? The visitors who came there were probably all members of the creative class in Lebanon. They had nothing in common with the boys from the beach, and I found it hard to imagine that they would be the kind of people who harass women in public. Noor said it was hard to reach a broader audience. “I tried to reach NGO’s, but with no response. Maybe next time, when I push the idea further. There could be something bigger where we approach.” With her first show, which was also about the way women was viewed in society; Noor had a workshop with school students that appeared to be a great success. “They loved it,” she said. She is not finished working with harassment in public spaces, and she hopes that she can involve more people in her next project. To spread out the debate. She was hopeful and optimistic. To a limit.

“When I asked Noor, whether it would change anything if she showed the art installation to the boys on the beach, she shook her head: “I can already picture the boys´ reaction. They would just laugh.”

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