Hannan's Monologue

Hannan Abu Hussein isn't the first to use the vagina as a means of conveying feminist messages through art, but the fact that she is a Muslim woman thickens the plot.

Neri Livneh PhotosReli Avrahami
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Neri Livneh PhotosReli Avrahami

The furious reaction of the Muslim establishment shouldn't have surprised artist Hannan Abu Hussein. Last week, an influential Jaffa imam called for a boycott of Abu Hussein's work, which is due to be exhibited next week in conjunction with International Women's Day. The work in question: a series of vaginas constructed of nylon stockings, thread and human hair. The artist got the hair from her mother. "A woman mustn't throw out the hair that she cuts off from her head. She has to keep it and when she's buried, it's buried with her," Abu Hussein explains.

Unintentionally, the Jaffa imam, who has not previously been connected with the art world, could well make Hannan Abu Hussein a much more famous artist than her work, or the simplistic and somewhat anachronistic messages she seeks to convey, might otherwise have done. My conversation with Abu Hussein took place in Jerusalem, the day before the proclaimed boycott of her work, due to be shown at the Notzar Gallery in Jaffa, was publicized in the Tel Aviv newspaper. Surprisingly, the artist professed to be deeply shocked when she heard the news.

"It's like what happened with Salman Rushdie, when they banned him without ever reading his book," she said in amazement.

Of course, Rushdie's prodigious writing talent had brought him international fame well before he became a victim of a fatwa and death threats. Abu Hussein is just starting out, and her background could prove as helpful to her career as her artistic talent. Not only is she a female Arab graduate of Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Art and Design (quite a rarity in itself, as only two other Arab women have ever studied there), but she is also a Muslim from a well-known family in Umm al-Fahm and a single 30-year-old who, out of respect for religious tradition, has chosen to remain celibate. Nonetheless, her art focuses on the female body, especially the vagina - a part of the body that is integral to the concept of family honor and thus subject to close inspection.

"Women aren't even allowed to talk about the vagina," says Abu Hussein. "They can only talk about it among themselves, and always in a whisper. Even if they're talking to a female doctor, the doctor talks to them about it in a very hush-hush way. And then there's the whole issue of `family honor' killings, which is something that men do. This killing is always because of the vagina, which the men feel is their property even though it's a part of the woman."

Hard-boiled eggs

Hannan Abu Hussein isn't the first Muslim woman to devote herself to the erotica of the female body - something that is considered absolutely taboo in her culture. Muslim artists like the Iranian Shirin Nashat and the Egyptian Rada Amar (whose works are displayed at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art) and Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum, who lives in London, have all gained a measure of international renown. They earned this fame not for ethnic, folkloric reasons, but because of the innovativeness of their art. Nashat painted verses from the Koran on her naked body and Hatoum filmed herself from the inside, by means of cameras that she inserted into her body.

Abu Hussein also isn't the first to use the vagina as a means of conveying feminist messages through art. In the West, this trend is already passe. It first appeared in Judy Chicago's famous work, "Dinner Party," from the 1970s, which featured a number of vaginas that were meant to symbolize all the women who are missing from conventional art history and history in general. This work, which is still exhibited all over the world, created a huge uproar when it was first shown.

Now, 30 years later, if Abu Hussein's work were to be exhibited in the West, it probably wouldn't arouse much artistic interest, though it would likely garner much attention from a political perspective, given the artist's Israeli-Arab origins and the subject matter. But here, too, she was preceded by another Palestinian. Manal Murkus, who was at Bezalel the year before Abu Hussein, has also sculpted vaginas. But Murkus is a Christian and was born on the West Bank.

Abu Hussein is an only daughter. She has four older brothers: One is a professor of dentistry in Athens, one owns an insurance agency, another works for the municipality, and the fourth is an attorney. Her father, who is now retired, owned an insurance company and was a school principal. Her two uncles on her father's side are prominent lawyers. In Umm al-Fahm, her paternal grandmother is thought to possess supernatural powers. "Women who couldn't have children and women who were sick and all kinds of people with problems used to come to her," her granddaughter recounts. Her grandmother was also entrusted with the job of confirming the virginity of women about to get married.

"When I was little, I heard all kinds of whispering about hard-boiled eggs. I'd ask what they were talking about, but didn't really get an answer. When I was a little bigger, they explained to me that they used to use a hard-boiled egg to determine whether a girl was a virgin or not. That was my grandmother's job. She'd try to insert a hard-boiled egg into the girl's vagina. If the egg went in, it was a sign that the girl was not a virgin."

This custom inspired Abu Hussein to create a work that is currently being exhibited at Kol Ha'isha in Jerusalem. It consists of a bunch of stockings suspended from the ceiling, each one containing a ceramic egg.

"It symbolizes this custom," the artist explains. "On the one hand, you have the pantyhose that we all wear without thinking about, which become like a second skin, and within this, you have the egg, which they used to insert to check if we were all right or not."

This idea was also tried over 30 years ago, by a much more renowned artist. The pioneering feminist artist Eva Hesse exhibited her work, "Not Yet," in the late 1960s; it was composed of suspended, stocking-like sacks containing pendulous, polymer weights. The sacks, which resembled severed scrotums, created a big stir because of their blunt and aggressive feminist message.

Abu Hussein's vagina series, called "Stretched," which is meanwhile on display at Kol Ha'isha before being transferred to the Notzar Gallery, has a similar effect. The series is composed of very small wooden frames upon which pieces of pantyhose are stretched, with black thread and sometimes actual hair attached. In dreary shades of beige and black, at first glance, they seem devoid of charm or meaning. It's hard to tell right away that this is a symbolic representation of female genitalia, and that pleases Abu Hussein. She hopes that Jews, who are much more accustomed to the sight of female genitalia, will recognize the work as vaginas, and that Muslims will see it as just a bunch of pantyhose.

"I don't think it will cause me any trouble with the Muslims," she said the day before the imam made his opposition known. "First of all, Muslims aren't interested in art anyway, so they won't come to the show. And those that do come, like my family, won't understand anything about it. They'll probably just say, `Look at all this nonsense.'"

But you say that you created this work as a feminist protest about the status of women in Muslim society. What's the point if no one will understand it?

Abu Hussein: "Why no one? Jews can understand it."

Do you create art for Jews?

"I create art because I am an artist. I create art to express myself. But the audience for art is usually Jewish and not Muslim."

Between two worlds

Abu Hussein lives and works between two worlds. One world, which she protests against, but at the same time is very concerned about upsetting, is the world represented by her family and life in Umm al-Fahm. This is the world of traditional Muslim values.

"I love the values and the tradition," she says. "I think that it's better to be a traditional Muslim woman, and if I ever have a daughter, I'd also want her to be a conservative Muslim." But this also seems to be the world that she aims to protest against in her art.

"My family's honor is very important to me, and because I'm very grateful that my parents supported me in my decision to study art, I want to treat them with the same respect," she says, trying to explain. "That's why I can't even think about having a boyfriend and, of course, living with a man before marriage would be inconceivable. If I get married, it will definitely be with a religious, conservative Muslim man. But a man like that may not want to marry me, because having an artist for a wife isn't the most accepted thing. Men like that don't like women who speak freely and who work in something that's not about the family."

For the past eight years, she has been returning to this world on weekends from the other world she lives in. During the week, she lives alone in the Issawiya neighborhood of East Jerusalem, far from the prying eyes of her father and brothers, and teaches in the local school. She reads Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth, and often goes to the Cinematheque or to cafes in town. She is a regular customer at the cafe where this interview takes place. At least half of her friends are Jews, mostly other Bezalel graduates. She began her academic studies at the Jezreel Valley College (on a scholarship) before transferring to Bezalel. Now she is working on a master's degree.

At Bezalel, some say Abu Hussein was an example of affirmative action. "Because she was an Arab woman - you could even say that she was the `token Arab woman' - she got a tremendous amount of special treatment from everyone," says one teacher. "I don't remember another student whom everyone went out of their way to help like they did for Hannan," he says.

Abu Hussein herself attests that she was twice awarded the Sharett Fund prize without having to append the customary teacher recommendations. "It was enough for them to see my work and to hear where I came from to give me the scholarship without any teacher or curator recommendations," she says proudly.

Naturally, she received a studio at the artists' workshops located at Teddy Stadium. She exhibited her work in group shows at the Ramat Gan Museum and at the Tel Aviv University gallery. In the mornings, she teaches art at a school in Issawiya, and in the afternoons, she teaches sculpting in the Israel Museum's Youth Wing. But despite the warm embrace of the Zionist establishment that she has eagerly accepted, she insists on calling herself a Palestinian, rather than an Israeli Arab, and in the past has complained about the discrimination that Palestinians like her are subjected to by the Israeli establishment. However, in our conversation at the Jerusalem cafe, she repeatedly says that she hates being tagged with the label of "Palestinian artist."

"I don't want people to think of me as a Palestinian, but as an artist. That's why I don't do art that's a political protest against the occupation, as people would expect me to. I do feminist art. I want to express a feminist protest against the use that men make of the vagina as a tool to oppress women."

But in a phone conversation the following day, once she's heard about the imam's call for her work to be banned, she has this to say: "What does he want from me? I'm not doing anything provocative. I'm not making any provocation. It's not like I painted a naked woman or something. I create works from ready-made materials, and if you didn't know what they were, it would be impossible to even guess. I don't do anything that goes against our tradition."

So who are the men that you're protesting against? Men in Western society?

"No, my protest is against the Muslim tradition. But Muslims don't have to understand this. These sheikhs aren't coming to my shows anyway."

`Time of her life'

Hannan Abu Hussein began painting when she was a young girl. When she grew up, she applied to Bezalel in spite of her brothers' objections. Attending the school meant she had to leave home. "It's not an accepted thing for a girl to leave home unless it's to get married," she says. "And the only reason that they permit it in a conservative family is for school."

At first, she lived in a rented apartment in Issawiya with two Arab women roommates, also students. Later on, she lived on her own. "The time I was at Bezalel was the best period of my life," says Abu Hussein.

Back in Umm al-Fahm, her family was not enjoying it quite as much. "Even though it's a city, Umm al-Fahm is really a village. Everyone knows everyone else and people were constantly asking my parents why their daughter didn't live at home, and when was she going to come back home and get married? But my parents supported me. Two of my brothers were always on my side, too, though the other two still want to know when I'm going to give up all this nonsense and come back to the village and get married like everyone else. They tell me that I could also be an art teacher here. A few months ago, one of my uncles even told me that he'd found me a job as an art teacher in the village. I pointed out that he hadn't even asked me if I wanted to come back. They don't have any understanding of what it means to be an artist and to want to be alone."

One of the works that Abu Hussein exhibited during her time at Bezalel was a series of still photographs showing her removing the hair from her legs using a hot mixture of lemon and sugar as a wax substitute. "I chose this wax that's made from sugar and lemon because it's exactly the same material from which the greatest childhood sweet is made - the candy apple coated in red sugar. The same material simultaneously symbolizes the wonder of childhood and the pain of the girl who has become a woman - because this hair removal is a painful, masochistic thing that leaves marks. We also have the custom that before a girl gets married, a woman comes with a tray with this mixture on it and all the women together remove all the hairs from the girl's body so that she'll be completely smooth for her husband."

Defying her family's expectations, Abu Hussein did not return to Umm al-Fahm when she finished her degree. She decided to continue studying for a master's degree in art history and is now close to completing it.

"I have one brother who says, `In the end, you'll be all alone with your artwork.' He means that because of my art, I won't get married and won't have children, which, in terms of our values, is the worst thing that could happen to a woman."

Do you want to get married and have children?

"No, I have no desire to get married. I don't need a mate. I have my art. My art is my mate. I live with my art. I go to sleep with my art and get up with my art and live with it and it fills my life. But in our society, the expectations are that I'll return to Umm al-Fahm, get married, have children and be a secretary or a teacher. Because as a woman - if you do something else and are successful, all the girls and women immediately look at you askance. And as a woman, whatever you do is everyone's business. Here in Jerusalem I can do what I want. I can decide that I want to go to a gallery in Tel Aviv or to a movie at the Cinematheque. I can decide whom I'm going to get together with, when I come and when I go. But when I'm in the village, it's all decided for me - where to go, whom to invite over. My brothers and my parents live in the same big house. So even if I just want to go to the grocery store, I not only have to tell my father and brothers where I'm going, I also have to answer to all my nephews, and if I'm late getting back, then all my nephews ask me what took me so long and I have to give them an answer because they're also the men in the family and I'm a woman and not married, and men can do what they want. But, as a woman, I cannot do anything without their permission."

But you said before that you love this kind of old-fashioned upbringing and that if you had a daughter, you'd want her to be raised the same way.

"Yes, I do love it and respect it, but I can't always live in it, and that's why I'm not going back to the village."

Two weeks ago, a show called "Tzaleket" ("Scar") opened at the municipal artists' studios and gallery beneath Teddy Stadium. It features works by Abu Hussein and two other Israeli women artists - Ariane Littman-Cohen and Chen Shish.

"They're not really interested in the matter of national, ethnic origins. They relate to one another as friends," writes exhibit curator Hedva Shemesh.

Shish is showing works related to the Israeli-Mizrahi experience; Littman-Cohen is showing political works related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and Abu Hussein is showing works intended to convey a radical feminist message.

Besides the vaginas, she is also showing a work called "Mother's Blanket." In Arab custom, the prospective bride sews her own blankets to take to her new home with her husband. Abu Hussein took the blankets that her mother sewed before her marriage and attached fragrant flowers to them, then juxtaposed those blankets with a blanket that she sewed herself and to which she attached tufts of female hair as a reference to the aforementioned custom of not discarding shorn hair.

"My Arab girlfriends who came to see the show were stunned. They asked how I had the guts to present such things from my tradition, and whether I was afraid," says Abu Hussein.

You're not afraid to say that you are a feminist?

"I am afraid, but I still say it. Most Muslim women who are feminists don't acknowledge it. Because feminists are perceived as women who won't get married or have children, and there's nothing worse in society's eyes."

According to Abu Hussein, the status of women artists in Muslim society is so low that even at the school where she teaches in Issawiya, she keeps the fact that she is an artist secret. She showed her work at a gallery in Umm al-Fahm only after her father persuaded her to do so.

"He said, `Look how you're embarrassing me. What will they say in the village? That your daughter is exhibiting her work in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but she doesn't see fit to show her work here?' And some people were also telling my father things like, `Your daughter just lives in the city. She's only telling you that she's an artist, but she really isn't. She just lives in the city so she can do all kinds of things.' So only for my father's sake, and for my family, so people in the village would stop talking, I showed some of my work in Umm al-Fahm. The only thing I could show was the final project I did in my fourth year at Bezalel - some carved figures in wood."

And what were the reactions?

"There weren't any, but people started to believe my father when he told them I was an artist. But that doesn't satisfy everyone. I have one brother who's always disparaging me for being a feminist, and another who's always yelling about the fact that I'm not married."

You seem to subscribe to a very odd brand of feminism. While you do not submit to the tradition that demands that you marry and have children, you also do not fully partake of the freedom of the Western world. Basically, you're compelling yourself to live a life of celibacy.

"For me, feminism doesn't mean living like a Western woman in Tel Aviv or London or New York. For me, feminism means being allowed to speak about what I want. There are two things that a Muslim artist cannot talk about - religion and sex. I want to break those taboos. I want to be able to talk about my sexuality - to talk, not to do. Of course, I can't do that much. Islam forbids a woman from having a relationship with a man who isn't her husband and I realize that I won't be able to remain an artist if I get married.

"I don't know any Muslim man who would agree to wait for me at home and take care of the kids until I get back from the studio. I'm sure there are some modern, urban and secular types like that, but I want a traditional Muslim man, so I can't marry just anyone. I also have the sense that men who are more educated and liberal aren't actually that fond of educated and progressive women like me. It threatens them."

So, you'll end up alone with your art, like your brother said?

"Maybe. It would be awful for my parents, but it's fine with me."



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