art · racism · women · women's rights

‘A personal attack on Muslim women’: Ms Saffaa mural defaced in Melbourne as featured in the Guardian

Leading story on Guardian Australia's Culture page.
Leading story on Guardian Australia’s Culture page.

A Melbourne street-art mural featuring a Muslim feminist protest paste-up by prominent artist and activist Ms Saffaa has been defaced in an act of vandalism the artist has labeled a “personal attack on Muslim women”.

Featuring pictures of well-known Saudi activists and artists, women in headscarves, Saudi poetry and a pink stencilling of the words “radical Muslim”, the mural was defaced on Saturday night, with the faces of the women blacked out and the words painted over.

The defaced mural. Picture: Hana Assafiri.

Ms Saffaa collaborated on the mural with a handful of emerging and well-known female artists, including the American writer and artist Molly Crabapple. Saffaa said she believed the vandalism was fuelled by a political climate of rising anti-Muslim sentiment.

“I almost wanted to cry … it’s quite disheartening,” said Saffaa, a Saudi-Australian artist. She expected the work to be tagged by other street or graffiti artists, but says the extensive defacing had more aggressive overtones.

The self-funded work, which went up in December, took months of preparation and ten eight-hour days to complete, she said.

 “I feel like it’s not just an attack on me but them too,” she said, referring to the Saudi women represented in her work. “What do I tell these women? You have to fight the misogynist men back home and the Islamophobic racist bigots in this country?”

The mural forms part of the #iammyownguardian campaign, a movement protesting Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system which prohibits women from travelling, marrying or even leaving prison without the permission of a male guardian. Saffaa’s imagery – featuring a face shrouded in the Saudi shemagh – became emblematic of the movement.

Crabapple said the work was a reflection of the complexity of the Muslim western experience that challenged conservatives on both sides of the spectrum.

“I couldn’t decide if the perpetrators were Islamist misogynists, infuriated by the mural’s opposition to Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system – or Islamophobic racists, infuriated by the mural’s depictions of proud Middle Eastern women and assertion of multifaceted Muslim identities,” she said.

The original mural. Picture: Supplied.
The original mural. Picture: Supplied.

“No matter who did it, those who try to blot out art reveal only their own impotence. Censors always lose.”

The mural is featured on the wall of Morroccan Deli-cacy cafe, run by feminist activist Hana Assafiri.

Assafiri, known for hosting public salon-style conversations at her Melbourne restaurants, says she discovered the vandalism as she was opening the cafe on Sunday morning.

Assafiri, who employs only women, says vandalism in Melbourne’s progressive inner-city enclave highlighted her fears around security at the restaurant.

She also expressed concern at the ripple effect from the election of President Donald Trump in the United States on local artists and communities, particularly the recent executive order barring Muslim migrants and refugees from certain countries from entering the US.

“That this sort of rubbish and the expression of hate can be had in East Brunswick … it’s a manifestation of an attitude of continued bigotry and hate being fostered in all political climates.”

Saffaa said she felt “heartbroken and drained” at the prospect of repairing the wall.

“This has taken its toll on me [but] of course I will redo it bigger and better.”