Women and the Veil: the art of Laila Shawa

In conversation with Amira Nagy

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Laila Shawa had a privileged and sheltered childhood between Gaza and Cairo, until 1948, when she was eight years old. Growing up in a politically engaged family in a country under occupation and in a constant state of war, she grew up with a persistent sense of uncertainty and of imminent danger, which she still carries with her today.

It also initiated a life-long desire to understand, and a compulsion to transform experiences of injustices and oppression into compelling visceral works of art.

When was the moment when you decided to become an artist and how did society see art and female artists at that time?

About three weeks after having joined the American University in Cairo to study Politics, I was having lunch with my father and an architect friend when they asked me how I liked university. I did not. My father’s friend offered to enrol me at the art college where he was teaching. He thought I was quite gifted. I agreed, my father too, and my life changed course from that moment. There weren’t many women artists in our region at that time. My parents believed in education and for them pursuing art was as good as any other line of study. I am not certain whether they thought I would become the next Michaelangelo or not - it did not seem to matter very much. They supported me. Of course, whilst my parents encouraged my serious pursuit, others probably looked at art as a mere pastime which would end once I got married!

You gradually developed into one of the most famous artists of the Arab and middle Eastern region. What major challenges did you face establishing yourself as an artist nationally and internationally? Do you think it made a difference that you are a woman?

I have faced and still do face many hurdles as a woman, Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, who belongs to a certain class. They manifest in various locations and situations. Overcoming that is only due to the fact that I do not get intimidated, and I am very serious about my work. But it has never been easy. One of the worst challenges to my work was my husband, who initially seemed proud of my work, but later was extremely jealous of my success, and tried in many ways to discourage me from pursuing my work.

Being a female artist in a male dominated world means that an implicit role as a “woman” should come first: as a wife, daughter, mother and the like. Germaine Greer, a major feminist voice of the 20th century, called it 'the obstacle race' in a book about the fortunes of women painters and their work. It happens that male artists try to reduce my importance in the Arab arts or that when I feature in a book about art I am sidelined and ignored while others who comply, who are not controversial but “harmless”, are praised. Being controversial, challenging people, and igniting discussion by itself comes at a cost.

But it's not all about men. Once, for a solo exhibition of my series Women in the Veil in Amman, there were concerns about showing my piece The Bride of Galilee, because of the naked woman in it. During the criticism in the run up to the opening, a woman who had begun to veil recently, said, “As women, we are very disappointed in you, how could you be so nasty to us?” She hadn’t seen the exhibition yet, so I invited her to come and discuss instead of condemning things beforehand. I had to be guarded for security reasons as a group of about 40 veiled women came and gave me a lecture consisting of prefabricated opinions. I pointed out where exactly and how the hijab is mentioned in the Qur’an and the discussion ended there. They didn’t expect the profound thoughts behind the work pointing at concepts that are man-made and thus in need of analysis. It was a disturbing experience to find women going against their own kind. Women are accomplices in keeping young generations down.

Your paintings tend to carry socio-political messages. Your enormous body of work shows a sophisticated intellectual project about Muslim women and the various themes of their reality. What is your motivation?

As a woman, primarily, and a Muslim I resent the degraded status of women in the Muslim world today. Islam, 15 centuries ago, liberated women from centuries of abuse, and gave them rights that women in the West only achieved about a century ago. In my view, this decline is partly due to the inability for Muslim thought to progress with time. The interpretation of the Qur’an (ijtihad) came to a grinding halt in the 10th century, isolating Islam from any thought process associated with logic. This led to a decline in the status of both men and women, under rigid laws applied. With the revival of extreme Islam and the prevalence of fanaticism, given the high degree of ignorance and illiteracy in the Muslim world, women have become prime easy targets. 

If as an artist I can speak out and criticise, and reach the minds and hearts of Muslims, perhaps I can contribute to spreading some awareness that may lead to change.


Perhaps translating a call for change, your painting The Prisoner explores female identity and stereotypes. A young woman, entrapped by “camouflaged” veiled women, stares at us, holding a bird.

The Prisoner could apply to either the girl in the centre of the picture, with open eyes in contrast to the blank eyes of the surrounding figures, or to the bird she is holding in her hands. I was posing a question, rather than giving an answer: Who is really the prisoner, the girl or the bird? Art works with symbols and often subconsciously. The bird just appeared in front of my inner eye to be put there. It may stand for something different in different people’s perception. But it is a piece about the circle of control. 

As a young artist you broached the dichotomies in society which manipulate women. You began questioning marriage and produced works on prostitution. What made you include the idea of arranged marriages in it? 

I looked at marriage as a form of bondage, and to take it to extremes, a form of prostitution. In my family, many brilliant female cousins who seemed to have great academic potential were married off before they could reach it, because that was the expected norm. At times I noticed that marriage was greatly dependent on the financial status of the husbands. Also, it seemed to be the only way to “contain” a woman, which I find degrading. Women and girls seemed like a burden and a liability that must be gotten rid of, traded under the banner of respectability, with no regards to what they actually wanted.

I was very fortunate to have had enlightened parents who insisted on education, and totally rejected the idea that a woman must remain dependent on her husband. My mother was an ardent follower of the feminist and existentialist writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, and totally believed that a woman must have an education that will enable her to be independent regardless of marriage. It should not be the ultimate goal, nor should it define women.

In The Bride of Galilee, I was trying to emphasize the innocence of the bride, the central figure, who is being prepared for her wedding night. She is fully nude with open eyes. What she does not suspect is that she will lose her innocence (in actual fact, her freedom as a woman) and will end up as part of a blind herd of anonymous veiled women around her. Her body is being prepared to be consumed by the husband who will marry her, after which that same body will need to be covered in order to protect her from the eyes of other men, taking away her will power and her ability to decide for herself.

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Your series from 1987 forms a critique of the veil. An Endangered Species shows veiled women in uniquely designed veils which are mask-like and appear empty. What inspired it?

This was a direct reaction to one cousin in Gaza being threatened by some youth on the street to cover her face or else they would throw acid at her and her daughter. This was 1988, just when the first Intifada had started to boil over. During the years of the uprising, women stood up to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to defend their children who were pursued when they threw stones at the soldiers. The menfolk were hiding for fear of losing their jobs in Israel’s factories where Palestinians were employed as cheap labour. Children lost respect for their fathers, and mothers became the defenders.

I believe that faced with this unexpected empowerment, the proud peasant women, who never covered their faces but wore the traditional Palestinian dress with a head cover loosely worn, were suddenly forced to veil, by their men, in an attempt to restore the lost authority and respect of the husbands. With a slow resurgence of political Islam in the region, this form of control over women began to manifest. Once you can cover them, they cannot challenge or threaten men. The image that sparked in my head was of herds of women with no identity, hence the series that followed regarding the re-veiling of women.

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So your intention was to point out that the veiling of women results from socio-political events and is cultural rather than Islamic. Did this trigger your painting of Ayesha?

A distant connection is the last wife of the Prophet who was very strong willed and defiant. The question of protection of wives of the Prophet arose because of an incident that happened to her. Later this eventually led to women being veiled. In the Qur’an, the word hijab was metaphorical, and never imposed in a literal sense. It stressed on the distinction of the wives of the Prophet only. The Arabs copied the veil from the Byzantines in the 7th Century after they invaded Syria, where Byzantine women of the upper class covered their face. It was never part of Islamic teachings by the Prophet, and therefore is a bid’aa, but very convenient for men to keep control!

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Your piece Impossible Dream shows women with cones of ice-cream in front of their veiled faces. What did you hope to convey by it?

I often try to disguise my message by using humour. This work is about the conflict that Muslim women face, while attempting to westernize themselves, albeit superficially, and their failure to do so. After 26 years of painting that work, I still come across heavily veiled women from the Gulf, in Italian restaurants in London, trying hard to eat spaghetti!! The conflict, however, is much deeper than eating ice-cream or spaghetti.

Since foreign models of women’s liberation aren’t always transferrable, what do you recommend?

Women must understand the price of achieving their rights and equality with men. Women in the West fought for those rights and many of them sacrificed a great deal in their pursuit. Nothing comes out of compliance and servitude, no matter what! Education of both men and women would be the only way for change to take place. Knowing and truly understanding their religion is paramount in changing their perception and understanding of their own religion.

Given the need for women’s liberation and for enlightenment in Muslim society, do you think political revolutions like the Arab Spring are capable of advancing female empowerment? 

I think the empowerment of women can only come as a result of true education and awareness for both men and women. Patterns of behaviour are deeply rooted and the required social transformation is a process. Political revolutions may bring change, although I am very doubtful in the case of the Arab Spring where women were abused and beaten up and called sluts by their attackers. No, I’m afraid I’m too sceptical to see such a change as a result of the Arab Spring. I feel that Muslim societies in the Arab World have been kicked back a few centuries under the banner of change, particularly the frightening spread of radical Islam which resulted. When a revolution results in an unprecedented number of fatwas directed solely at women and reducing them to mere sexual beings, there is something very wrong with the contents and the intentions of such a revolution. It reveals how people don’t understand the mechanisms of oppression if they wish to get rid of political oppression as a group but not of the oppression of women in the same male dominated societies!

While addressing injustice and exposing oppression, you are never afraid of controversy and engage critically on issues of women in the Arab world, fundamentalism, war, and politics. Would you like to encourage women’s political participation in Muslim societies?

Yes, of course. The political is personal. Women are half of the world. There is no way that this half can disappear, become non-existent and have no influence. This is totally unacceptable. To be invisible, that I should not have a voice and not a say in anything – there is no way for that to happen. When we look at the time of the Prophet, women had a different presence, they were not told to go away and keep out of things. What is happening today is contrary to the heart of Islam and not acceptable. Women have to participate. More than that, it is women who will have to break that chain and accept the price of doing it.

From Women in Islam, Issue 2 (2015)