Where Are All the Women in Ai Weiwei’s New Exhibition?

When I walked into the New Industries Building where the Ai Weiwei @Large exhibit is housed on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay, I was greeted by a giant Chinese dragon. Suspended from the ceiling, it snaked through the prison’s old work space, where model prisoners were once allowed to sew uniforms or do other jobs. As I explored the room, the dragon seemed a fiery ally, tasked with guarding an exhibit that brings attention to bloggers, artists, activists and human-rights advocates, all jailed for speaking out against their governments.

A quote by Weiwei, who has been imprisoned and whose passport was taken away by the Chinese government, hangs as part of the dragon’s body and powerfully sums up the exhibit’s message: “Everyone of us is a potential convict.”

In the next room, I came to one of the most famous aspects of the exhibit: the pop art-inspired portraits of many of the world’s exiled or political prisoners (pictured at left). Here, portraits of political prisoners held in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and North America are laid out side by side across the cement floor. Some portraits are instantly recognizable—Martin Luther King, Jr., Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning—but many are not. There’s a sense of equality here, famous prisoners next to those not everyone knows. Regardless, they all share floor space in a grid of interlocking, colored Legos that taken as a whole look like a giant mosaic of faces.

Male faces that is. Out of 176 prisoner portraits, I counted only 13 women. Looking out across the sea of male portraits, I couldn’t shake the irony of this disparity. The exhibit is humane and moving, giving a much-needed voice to the silenced, but why aren’t more women included? Aren’t there more women activists in prisons across the world?

A quick internet search proved there were.

Online, I was able to more than double the number of women who had been included in the exhibit. If I could double the numbers, why couldn’t the artist himself? By under-representing the number of women political prisoners, the exhibit prevents their stories from becoming better known, and more importantly prevents the public from getting involved in their campaigns and advocating for their release.

Part of the exhibit features a book of biographical information on each prisoner. This book gives vital information on that prisoner’s plight and struggle, detailing who has been released and who is still jailed. The fact that so few women are included in the portraits means that the people who visit Alcatraz from all over the world during the seven-month run of the exhibit will leave with the misguided impression that only men suffer, sacrifice and have the courage to stand up for what they believe.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth—and I’m here to share some of those women’s stories.

Among the women I found on my search was Mao Hengfeng, a longtime Chinese women’s rights activist who challenged China’s forced abortion policy in the late 1980s. Because she had refused an abortion for her third child (China allowed only one child per woman at the time), she was arrested and tortured. She continued to call attention to forced abortions and has been imprisoned repeatedly. Her treatment has been abysmal and she was finally released due to poor health in 2011. She was repeatedly beaten and denied basic medical care while incarcerated.

While the exhibit includes a number of male Iranian political prisoners, as well as five Iranian women, there are still more women prisoners of conscience in Iran who could have been included.  Maryam Shafi’Pour, for example, is a 27-year-old leading Iranian student activist and human rights campaigner. She was arrested in 2009 because she campaigned for an opposition leader and was a member of a political women’s committee. She is currently being held in the women’s wing of the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran. Amnesty International reports that she was kept for two months in solitary confinement with no access to a lawyer.

Another Iranian activist who could have been included, Hakimeh Shokri, 44, was arrested on December 5, 2010, along with a group of other individuals after she participated in the memorial service that followed a crackdown on demonstrations against a disputed presidential election. She was a member of the “Laleh Mothers’ Group,” which used to be known as “Mourning Mothers,” a group composed of women who had lost their children in the mass prison executions of the 1980s, and later in other protests against the government. 

In addition to activists and human rights workers, women journalists are especially vulnerable to imprisonment. Reporters Without Borders relays that as of July 2014, there were 10 women journalists imprisoned in Iran, many on charges of “plotting to commit crimes against security and insulting Islam.”

The erasure of women’s stories isn’t even the most disappointing ramification of Weiwei’s show. One of the most moving aspects of the exhibit is the opportunity to send a postcard to a detained prisoner. It’s intended to be an active component, to get people to reach out and to advocate for political prisoners who have been silenced. Postcards are displayed inside the old mess hall where prisoners used to eat in silence. Now, visitors flip through the books of biographical information about political prisoners, choose someone they want to write to, find the postcard already addressed to them and compose a message of hope or thanks. While postcards may not be enough to change an unjust sentence, they can send a message to repressive governments that this person’s life is valuable, that her work is vital and that the world is watching. Just as important, they can also send a message of hope and solidarity.

When I sat down on the wooden bench to send a card, I chose one featuring a luminous lotus blossom addressed to Irom Sharmila Chanu, an activist who has been on a hunger strike for 14 years against repressive laws enacted by the Indian government. I was personally moved to have the opportunity to write Chanu a message and to know the card would be sent to, and hopefully read by, her. But after I handed the card to the friendly docent standing by, I couldn’t help but wonder how many more women sitting in dark cells right now need us to know about them, need our help in demanding their release. Not highlighting more women’s stories in an otherwise powerful exhibition is truly a missed opportunity.



Leslie Absher is a journalist, essayist and author. Her memoir Spy Daughter, Queer Girl was published by Latah Books and was a finalist for the Judy Grahn Lesbian Nonfiction Triangle Publishing Award. She is a regular contributor to Ms. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Salon, Independent., Greek Reporter and San Francisco Magazine. She was awarded an honorable mention for non-fiction by Bellevue Literary Review and lives in Oakland, Calif., with her lawyer and comic book writer wife. Visit her at leslieabsher.com.Visit her at leslieabsher.com.