Co-authored by Maria de la Guardia.
The street has long served as a medium for collective voices to incite change in the Middle East, by hosting demonstrations, revolutions and even funerals. In Jordan, women are redefining the streets as a canvas for expression through art. If not challenging the stereotyped perceptions of women in Arab society.
The street is also the place where capoeira, a Brazilian variant of traditional martial arts, was born and recently introduced to Jordan. This unique combination of self-defence and dancelike movements is thought to have emerged in the framework of colonisation, used by the oppressed as a way to assert their cultural identity and right of freedom denied by the ruling power – similarities shared among socio-political and geographical coincidences in the Middle East.
With a flourishing graffiti scene and the newly brought in practice of capoeira, streets of Jordan are now offering women the opportunity to make their voice heard and their roles socially and culturally redefined.
Braving the street to turn gender perspectives
Born in Jordan, Yara recently returned to Amman after living between Dubai and North America. Fellow artists in Dubai first encouraged Yara to get involved in street art and later invited her to Cairo to take part in Women on Walls. The event centred around female artists using walls to talk about feminist issues, painting in a prominent streets near where the revolution took place.
The UAE street initiatives are part of festivals or organised events, temporary and scripted, where artists are invited and paid for. Graffiti making is more an entertainment or show. In Jordan, street art lives up to its name, being done in the street – an organic, individual act with personal motives.
Public walls and street art have been seen to address issues that communities regard as taboo or embarrassing. Subjective or literal, the work is derived from inside each artist and remains an anonymous but very public message to society as a whole.
Whether in Jordan or the Middle East, Yara admits there are very few women on the scene. “I think the reason is that the street art scene is not that big, and more women have not been exposed or encouraged to join it. Anyway, I have not experienced differentiation here between me and the guys I work with, we are all treated the same and we are all just artists in the eyes of the people who pass by.”
Rethinking solidarity and pursuing identity
Kasandra relocated to Jordan from the United States in her early 20s, born to Syrian and Mexican parents. Her days are split between the streets and private classrooms. With the original goal of leading one female-only capoeira class in Amman, the project went further, with capoeira classes run also in Azraq refugee camp and Azraq town. As a female trainer for the UK charity Capoeira4Refugees, she uses capoeira to build a foundation of harmony among youth who have experienced the trauma of war and displacement.
Capoeira encompasses dance, martial arts and acrobatics, but the primary element is music. “Refugee girls we interact with get excited when they listen to the captivating sound of berimbau [a single-string percussion instrument] and look forward to the beginning of the game.”
Capoeira implies a gentle dialogue between players more than a fight itself. Movements mimic attack and defence principles applied by martial arts, with the exception that bodies are in a constant flow where they never touch each other, thus developing positive synergies rather than violent behaviours. There are no winners or losers, but a paramount mutual understanding between players as they have to cooperate and listen to one another.
“This is a unique feature which makes capoeira a variant of traditional sports, far from the competitive mechanisms which they entail. Capoeira teaches refugees how wrong is the logic that lies behind conflict – when one prevails and the other fails. It has the role of an emotional support and physical outlet for children, while also helping them learn to exist harmoniously with each other.”
This is especially important for women who have often been exposed to violence and struggle with the shock of living in a refugee camp; they need to regain awareness of their capabilities and the great significance of relationships in their lives.
“As a woman, I feel empowered by capoeira and committed to sharing its values with female youth who belong to different social groups of the community I live in. As a half Syrian, I see in capoeira the ideal way to combine a natural instinct of solidarity with the pursuit of my cultural identity.”
In most other martial arts, if someone kicks you you block it. In capoeira if someone kicks you, you move with the kick and you respond to it. If society and women were to learn how to move with these blocks then the world would probably change, Kasandra explains.
Bonding over a shared dance
Women in Jordan generally want to play sports, but society dictates they should spend their time doing housework and raising children. Younger girls lack strong role models needed to become stronger and more independent, able to break the boundaries set by men for women.
Since October 2015, Daniah Abu Salimeh has been playing capoeira on a weekly basis in all-female classes run by Capoeira4Refugees in Amman. Class by class, capoeira has made her physically stronger and mentally focused. “I was impressed by how this sport infused dance, which sounded somewhat bizarre to my friends, was helping me build inner strength and psychological confidence. When I play capoeira I feel physically empowered, emotionally united to my counterpart, confident of the new ways I can express myself.”
Daniah’s drive is no doubt a reflection of her best capoeira partner – her mother. “I love to play with my mum, having her around to show new moves. The best thing about playing capoeira with her, however, is putting together our energies and bonding over something we genuinely enjoy. It’s like talking to each, keeping eye-contact and proximity with no physical contact,” she says.
Indeed, capoeira is a dialogue reliant on understanding between both parties as they must cooperate and listen to one another. Daniah emphasises how important the role of dialogue is in both the domestic sphere and the public life, and how capoeira informally encourages the free exchange of ideas and opinions.
As part of the game, capoeira requires synchronised and fluid movements. “This is something that contributes to bringing us closer together; reminding me that my mother is the mirror image of myself, as well as a positive model to look up to.”
For Daniah the street is a metaphor for freedom, and Jordanian women should be further encouraged to take to the streets of their neighbourhood, their country and beyond, to freely and creatively share their thoughts, ambitions and world-changing ideas. “I wish capoeira would keep enabling women in Amman to connect with each other and apply its principles of respect, equity and cooperation to real life.”
Women of the Middle East have much to say about themselves. Whether through graffiti or a dancelike fight, what they need to get their point across is just a street – and the strong sense of freedom that comes with it.
Camilla Caraccio is a content writer at Bayt.com, the Middle East’s leading career site, and digital editor at Al-Bawaba News, a pan-Arab media website. She is currently based in Jordan, where she covers entrepreneurship and innovation for various local magazines and international blogs.
Maria de la Guardia is a multi-awarded professional photojournalist specialised in humanitarian and documentary coverage. She has travelled to Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Kenya, India, Bangladesh, Mongolia and Sierra Leone to document stories of daily life. Her work has been featured on the BBC, LA Times, the Guardian, British Airways, among others.