Women impacted by war and conflict are made to overcome a number of immense challenges. Rape and sexual violence, for example, are commonly used as weapons of war to terrify and devastate communities. As one can imagine, female refugees and migrants in particular may experience a range of traumatic events, from the pre-migration to the post-migration phases of their routes to safety, away from conflict, war, human rights violations and other life-threatening situations. Without a doubt, these worrying and terrifying events accompanied by their psychological sequelae can have an impact on the refugees’ acclimatisation in their host countries, and occasionally have enduring effects on mental health. Under these circumstances, access to mental health support and treatment following conflict, fragility and violence are crucial.
Supporting conflict-affected communities mentally can be done in a number of ways. In recent years, the use of the creative arts has helped individuals to recover from conflict, displacement and trauma. Creative art therapies — art, music, dance, drama, storytelling and movement, for example — have united individuals and helped to encourage integration, thereby allowing positive transformation and therapeutic change. The aforementioned therapies usually generate a temporary home for refugees and migrants in the acculturation process, by serving as a secure and transitional space. Understandably, this secure space can amplify individuals’ voices and the opportunity to heal.
It has been identified that art therapy with individuals, especially refugees, helps to provide a voice, establish trust, discuss stories and explore identities, as well as discover new “selves”. In addition to constructing the bridge between individuals’ countries of origin and their new environments, the creative arts, including those noted above, can come to represent a safe space in which individuals are encouraged to integrate different parts of their identity via self-expression and creativity.
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In the Middle East and North Africa region, a number of art initiatives have been introduced to individuals and communities either living through or emerging from war. Interestingly, the initiatives have helped generate a new form of communication and an innovative tool to highlight the silences and grief that are usually portrayed as indescribable. In Yemen, for example, engagement in art-focused activities has been an important healing process used to deal with the aftermath of the 2011 Yemeni Revolution. Moreover, the use of art in Syria has helped young children to express themselves when articulating traumatic events has proven to be difficult. For example, the use of art has been incredibly useful to children who have not yet established the verbal skills required to explain the horrors of war that they’ve witnessed whilst growing up.
With a particular focus on women’s community groups, art initiatives to help with post-war recovery in Syria have also included the traditional Arab craft of tatreez, embroidery. This handicraft, originating from the Arab region and conserved by Palestinian artisans, has allowed women to unite and use art to encourage economic empowerment while simultaneously discovering a space to participate in a hobby that helps overcome trauma and the anguish of displacement. As is known, the war in Syria has left the vast majority of Syrians affected by the bloodshed and its consequences, with many enduring mental hardship and post-traumatic stress disorder. In Lebanon, Art of Hope, a local non-profit organisation, also uses art to help vulnerable communities and displaced persons with trauma relief and psychosocial support.
Focusing particularly on art and post-conflict recovery after migration to a new host country, the recent work of the Oxford-based Iraqi Women and War (IWAW) group is noteworthy. Founded by Iraqi archaeologist and freelance artist Rana Ibrahim, the IWAW group helps to throw the spotlight on Iraqi women’s oral history of their country’s wars over the past few years, helping to keep the Iraqi identity alive, and passing on stories to the new generation. At the same time, the group offers Iraqi women affected by conflict the chance to deal with their experiences and communicate their stories through art. Also known as IWAW19, the group aims to be a voice of Iraq’s “Tishreen Movement”, a protest movement that has been demanding systemic reform in Iraq since October 2019.
The work produced by members of the group over the years has led to a new exhibition called “Of Ordinary Things”. Featuring cherished yet “ordinary” objects, photographs and images, the exhibition was first presented online via the IWAW website due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now that Covid restrictions have eased in Britain, the exhibition is being held at the Museum of Oxford. Thus far, it has helped to develop trust, unity and a sense of identity amongst the IWAW members. How participation in the IWAW group has helped to promote recovery after conflict can be best understood by shedding light on some individual experiences.
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One example is the case of IWAW’s founder Rana. Like most of IWAW’s committee members, she is a child of war. Having grown up during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, she was forced to flee from Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003. After settling in Britain, Rana found the strength to commence her work on the IWAW group in 2017. Giving a presentation about the exhibition during a curator’s talk at the museum on 14 March this year, Rana discussed some of the different ways in which women, herself included, depended on art to help with post-conflict recovery: “When we talk about war, it is very distressing. There’s a lot of trauma and bad memories. I try to use art because that’s how we can express ourselves in a safe way.”
A second example is the case of Basma, an IWAW member originating from Kirkuk, a governorate in northern Iraq. During a recorded interview conducted with IWAW members, Basma mentioned the death of her father and son who were kidnapped and killed by Daesh Iraq-Syria. As mentioned in the video, her engagement with IWAW and self-expression predominantly through painting and writing has helped Basma to find comfort. In her own words: “Sharing a tragic memory is a relief. There is less to carry.”
Besides post-conflict recovery, the use of art has encouraged memory and remembrance amongst IWAW members. An integral feature of the exhibition is the “Wall of Memories” consisting of handmade collages responding to and displaying Iraqi women’s blissful yet painful memories of their previous life in Iraq. The work presented on the wall comprises small boxes covered with drawn, painted and collaged colour and black and white images. Representing women’s outlooks about their homeland and journeys, the memorialisation components and additional artistic efforts have provided alternate stories about the Iraqi conflict.
Through metaphor and imagery, the wall also highlights the silences and taboos that have emerged after the different conflicts in Iraq. Moreover, the wall offers evidence of the brutalities committed during the Iraqi wars, exposing the realities about the past. For example, one of the boxes on display shows an image of the Museum of Baghdad with two nails on the side signifying the eyes of Daesh. What the box may be referencing is the terrorist group’s destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq, the Mosul Museum, for example, and Iraq’s untouched cultural sites at risk of violent and oppressive action at the hands of Daesh.
Commenting on how IWAW’s exhibition can encourage peace and reconciliation after conflict, Rana Ibrahim explains: “We are after peace. Our overall aim is peace. Our exhibition does not encourage war, but instead talks about the wars we lived through. Our hashtag for this exhibition is #KafiHurub, which in Arabic means ‘Stop War’. The use of art has played a big role in encouraging peace, and as a group, it’s even better.”
The “Of Ordinary Things” project will be on display until 22 September. Other exhibitions run by Rana also focusing on women’s’ artwork can be found at the Oxford Soldiers’ Museum.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.