Whispers of Freedom: When Data Meets Socially Conscious Art

First featured here - May 2016 

The sound of birds chirping is an unexpected greeting for the visitor of the ultra-modern Design Media Center of the Massachusetts School of Art and Design this week. The high ceilings, slick glass panels and concrete floors couldn’t be farther from a verdant setting. Yet surely enough following the sounds leads you to three avian structures suspended from an arc, flapping their wings as if happy to see you. Step closer and the flapping slows – it almost stops in recognition of your attention – and the humming and chirping turns into audible language: ‘I want to live alone. I want to be on my own’; ‘I want to disregard what I’m told to do or not to do. I want my life to be full of living’; ‘I hate being forced to depend on others because the country is the way it is.’ These uncanny mantras are at the heart of Whispers of Freedom, an interactive installation that gives an audience to more than four hundred Saudi women’s responses to the question: ‘What are you currently lacking that would make you more empowered?’ The project is part of MIT’s Data Storytelling Studio and was created by Reem Alfaiz, Felipe Lozano Landinez, Jyotishka Biswas, Mike Drakovitch and Argyro Nicolaou.

 

Few issues highlight the challenges of cultural relativism as the rights of Saudi women. In a scathing article for Vanity Fair in 2010, Maureen Dowd noted what she described as ‘imperceptible changes’ to the condition of women in the country: ‘The big Gloria Steinem advance in recent years is that women now wear abayas with dazzling designs on the back (sometimes with thousands of dollars’ worth of Swarovski crystals) or Burberry or zebra-patterned trim on the sleeves.’ This kind of comparison, that imposes a western standard of advocacy and activism ignoring the sociocultural specificities of their country, is something that many Saudi women take issue with. For Fatima Al Banawi, a writer and artist and the lead female actor of Barakah Meets Barakah, a Saudi romantic comedy film that premiered at the Berlin Film Festival this year, the way in which Saudi women are represented in western media isn’t keeping up with Saudi women’s changing perceptions of the world. ‘Through the use of Internet and social media, Saudi women know more about the world but the world doesn’t necessarily know more about them. The image of Saudi women as projected by mainstream western media hasn’t changed even as women in Saudi have.’ The issues surrounding Saudi women, therefore, are as much about human rights as they are about representation.

Whispers of Freedom tackles the issue of representation head on. The installation is based on an original survey featuring 26 questions, designed by Reem Alfaiz, a Saudi national and a current Masters student in design at MassArt. Her objective was to collect the opinions of as many individual Saudi women on the subject of empowerment as possible. The installation showcases the different answers to the question: ‘What are you currently lacking that would make you feel more empowered?’ but the survey itself included other questions such as whether women feel more empowered when they are in charge of a family; whether they feel their empowerment is affected by cultural expectations and requirements; and whether they feel more empowered in Saudi or abroad. Alfaiz distributed the survey to a network of friends, family and acquaintances using Twitter and Path, a private messaging and photo-sharing service. More than 400 responses were recorded in 24 hours.  

In statistical terms, Alfaiz’s dataset is ‘skewed’: it cannot be said to represent the entire female Saudi demographic. This is because 85% of the women that took the survey have at least a Bachelors degree. But according to Alfaiz, this isn’t a problem.

‘I don’t want to speak on behalf of all of Saudi women. I don’t think that I am entitled to do that. No one is,’ said Alfaiz. ‘What I am trying to do is give a voice to women who, like me, share an experience of feeling limited and even guilty by the social and cultural conditions in my country.’

Some of the survey results might go against conventional Western perceptions of Saudi women. For example, despite the dominant narrative in the west of the required dress code (the long black cloak and headscarf called abaya) for women in public as being itself a cause of oppression, 71% of women polled said they did not feel less empowered in public than in private. What’s more, within the group of women surveyed for the project, a university education did not necessarily mean that a woman was also a self-described ‘liberal’. In fact, most women with at least a Bachelors degree described themselves as either ‘religious’ or ‘traditionalist’ (329 out of 371).

The question ‘In general, do you think you have control of your life and your choices?’ elicited a more challenging set of answers. Only 20% of the respondents said that they felt they were always in control of their lives and choices. 60% of the women surveyed said they felt in control most of the time while 20% said they felt in control only sometimes. This begs the question whether the feeling of being ‘in control’ of one’s life would be more prominent among women who are more ‘liberal’ and are actively working to push the sociocultural limitations imposed on them; or whether feeling ‘in control’ would be something felt by women who are reluctant or resistant to change. What does being in ‘full control’ of your life even mean? One of the most important accomplishments of the survey, then, is to showcase the diversity of responses within this (small) group of Saudi women, and to highlight the challenging task of defining concepts such as ‘freedom’, ‘empowerment’ and even ‘tradition’ across cultural boundaries.

Whispers of Freedom is in conversation with prominent Saudi artists like Manal Al Dowayan, whose large-scale installations and participatory artworks have attracted the attention of the global art scene. Al Dowayan’s 2011 piece ‘Suspended Together’ consists of 200 fiberglass doves hanging from the ceiling, each featuring a real permission document, issued by an appointed guardian whenever a woman has to travel. Another of Al Dowayan’s projects asked women to write down the names of women in their family, in response to a longstanding superstition in Saudi Arabia that pronouncing a woman’s name is bad luck. Asked about the participatory nature of her work, Al Dowayan responded via email that her artistic process ‘is a constant struggle between form and content, between conceptualism and activism. In my participatory projects I try to create art that is not something you just look at and receive, rather, I prefer to create an engagement and an exchange between the artwork, the participants, and in-turn the larger society that the participants belong to. The spaces where participation in an artwork are created, also become new platforms that exist for a specific time for social questioning and activism that normally is not accessible to the general public.’

The popularity of participatory or crowdsourced artworks coming out of Saudi Arabia is not unrelated to the social media boom in the country. According to a report published in March 2015 by the Social Clinic, a social business consultancy and social media agency based in Jeddah, 5.4 million Twitter users tweet more than 210 million tweets a month. Approximately 50% of social media users are women. Such platforms have also helped female activists become internet celebrities. Loujain Hathloul, a Saudi woman arrested for attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia from the UAE, whose story was recently featured on Frontline’s documentary Saudi Arabia Uncovered, has a staggering 270,000 Twitter followers despite the fact that she has been criticized by the authorities repeatedly for being an advocate of women’s right to drive. As an Economist article put it, Saudi women who do not have the chance to travel or go abroad for university can now compare ‘their own world and the virtual one to which [they] escape for hours every day’. Social media seem to be catering to the need for a communal space capable of fostering social dialogue among women in Saudi Arabia. By drawing from the individual voices of more than 400 Saudi women, Whispers of Freedom powerfully articulates that need.

Asked about how she aims to bring about change through the installation, Alfaiz said she doesn’t ‘want to change anything. I want women to find a community, a space to connect with one another. I want the installation to express how I as an individual feel so that it becomes an invitation for other people who might feel the same to reach out and support each other.’ In this sense, the installation is relevant to any group that is marginalized, oppressed or voiceless, urging its audience to get closer and listen to what such groups, and the individuals that comprise them, have to say.  If this doesn’t count as an attempt to change the situation for women in Saudi Arabia, it might be because ‘change’ is also caught in a definitional limbo, carrying different connotations, and often even qualifying as taboo, depending on who you talk to.