Women Comic Artists, from Afghanistan to Morocco

15 August, 2021

Sherine Hamdy

Illustration by Sara Barackzay.
Illus­tra­tion by Sara Barackzay.

Whether to protest rape cul­ture, cor­rupt regimes or the oppres­sive patri­archy, since the 2000s there has been a for­mi­da­ble growth in what women from the Mid­dle East and in the dias­po­ra have pro­duced in comics, par­tic­u­lar­ly with the pop­u­lar upris­ings that began in Iran in 2009, in the Arab world begin­ning in 2011, and Turkey in 2013. With the brief open­ing of social and cul­tur­al move­ments, the pro­duc­tion of polit­i­cal car­toon­ing expand­ed to include first-hand accounts of peo­ple from mar­gin­al­ized groups. These also includ­ed sto­ries that expose the social forces of mar­gin­al­iza­tion, and those pro­duced by fem­i­nist and queer col­lec­tives to pro­mote aware­ness. The genre has been tak­en up enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly by Arab and oth­er Mid­dle East­ern artists who exploit the medium’s acces­si­bil­i­ty in order to influ­ence con­tem­po­rary visu­al cul­ture.

From Zainab Fasiki’s Hshouma.
From Zainab Fasiki’s Hshouma.

We recent­ly saw the emer­gence of Her­at-born car­toon­ist-illus­tra­tor Sara Barack­zay, who grew up under the Tal­iban. Barack­zay made head­lines ear­ly in 2021 as the first-known Afghan woman comics artist, whose sub­jects include peace, war and women’s rights. “Afghan women try so hard – maybe even hard­er than oth­ers,” she explained to the Guardian, “to reach their goals…I always had big dreams, but fight­ing for them was nev­er easy. Afghan women con­tin­ue to face many lim­i­ta­tions, and gain­ing my own free­dom is pos­si­bly the biggest chal­lenge I’ve faced – and it’s a strug­gle that continues.”

Barack­zay may have been influ­enced by the pre­em­i­nent fore­run­ner in her region, Iran­ian-French car­toon­ist Mar­jane Satrapi, whose auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal Perse­po­lis (2000) was per­haps the first book to tell the sto­ry in the first-per­son of a young Iran­ian woman break­ing free from her social stric­tures. Hap­pi­ly, Satrapi’s rebel­lious spir­it con­tin­ues to cast a wide net of influ­ence over oth­er young women, dri­ven to express them­selves in the genre.

A case in point is Morocco’s Zainab Fasi­ki, a car­toon­ist and women’s rights advo­cate who calls her­self an “artivist.” In response to sex­ism in the streets, Fasi­ki cre­at­ed the Women Pow­er col­lec­tive that encour­ages Moroc­can women artists via work­shops, which was hon­ored by Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al in 2018 on the Inter­na­tion­al Day of Women Human Rights Defend­ers. In 2019 she pub­lished her first book, Hshouma, which argues for Moroc­can women’s free­dom and sex­u­al­i­ty, often a taboo sub­ject in obser­vant Arab cul­ture. Indeed, hshouma trans­lates to taboo in Moroc­can dialect, Dar­i­ja. As Fasi­ki explains on her website:

In Moroc­co, nudi­ty in art is still hshouma, as are many per­son­al free­doms, and that is why I cre­at­ed this book…that explains gen­der iden­ti­ties, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tions and bod­ies, which are taboo in Moroc­co — we can­not learn about them in school or in the fam­i­ly. Hshouma is above all a sec­u­lar guide that details the body and sex­u­al­i­ty in Moroc­can cul­ture with a reli­gious neu­tral­i­ty — it is a call for tol­er­ance to Moroc­cans to end extrem­ism and vio­lence based on gen­der, ori­en­ta­tion and beliefs. Hshouma is the book I need­ed to read when I was 15. If I had, it wouldn’t have tak­en me years to under­stand myself in a soci­ety that penal­izes many rights.

Lina Ghaibeh, “An Education in Fear,” The Nib
Lina Ghaibeh, “An Edu­ca­tion in Fear,” The Nib

Con­tem­po­rary comics counter misog­y­nis­tic visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions in a digestible way for Arab read­ers who are, as Jacob Høig­ilt not­ed, in “Egypt­ian Comics and the Chal­lenge to Patri­ar­chal Author­i­tar­i­an­ism” (Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Mid­dle East Stud­ies, 2017), over­whelm­ing­ly burnt-out by overt polit­i­cal dem­a­goguery. Egypt­ian comics post-2011 “present a damn­ing pic­ture of the author­i­tar­i­an, patri­ar­chal order of con­tem­po­rary Egypt­ian society…they crit­i­cize the mar­gin­al­iza­tion of women and cur­rent gen­der dynam­ics…” Thus, for adult read­ers, comics are being used to cre­ative­ly pop­u­lar­ize infor­ma­tion and pol­i­tics, explore gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty issues, and chal­lenge dom­i­nant dis­cours­es that nat­u­ral­ize hetero-patriarchy.

Par­tic­u­lar­ly excit­ing is comics’ acces­si­bil­i­ty both in pro­duc­tion and recep­tion. Comics-mak­ing requires as lit­tle as a pen and paper, and can be passed from per­son to per­son with­out the use of tech­no­log­i­cal appa­rati, or the infra­struc­ture of pub­lic air­waves, broad­cast sta­tions, satel­lite chan­nels, inter­net access, or film view­ing devices.

Let’s briefly out­line four major themes in the nar­ra­tives of Mid­dle East­ern women and gen­derqueer com­ic artists, focus­ing most­ly on Mid­dle East­ern com­ic artists in Anglo­phone pub­lish­ing. This out­line in no way com­pro­mis­es a com­pre­hen­sive overview; most of these artists are in the dias­po­ra and many have forged con­nec­tions with com­ic artists based in the region.

The first theme includes per­son­al accounts of the rav­ages of mil­i­tarism and war­fare — often, but not always, nar­rat­ed from the per­spec­tive of a child. These include works fea­tur­ing the effects of polit­i­cal con­flict on Syr­ia (Lina Ghaibeh 2017), Turkey  (Saman­ci 2015; Sezen 2015), Iraq (Find­ak­ly and Trond­heim 2017), Pales­tine (Abdel­razaq 2015; Ata 2017; Dabaie 2018), Egypt (Hamzeh and Tarzi n.d; Hamdy et al. 2017), and Lebanon (Abirached 2012, 2014, 2015; Mer­hej et al. 2015).

From Iasmin Omar Ata’s Mis(h)adra.
From Ias­min Omar Ata’s Mis(h)adra.

The sec­ond theme, graph­ic fic­tion, is emer­gent, par­tic­u­lar­ly in book-length forms. Most notable here are the works of Deena Mohamed (Al Qahera, and Shubeik Lubeik) as well as Ias­min Omar Atalla’s Mis(h)adra and the forth­com­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion Jabs, which I wrote with illus­tra­tor Myra El Mir, who has illus­trat­ed sev­er­al books pub­lished in the Arab world, includ­ing two books by Samar Mah­fouz Bar­raj: Khatt Ahmar (Red Line) (Dar al Saqi Press), which won the Arab21 award in 2015, and Ummi wal-tad­khin (Mom Smok­ing) (Asala Press) which was short­list­ed for the Eti­salat Award in 2012. Myra has also worked on ani­ma­tion, includ­ing The Adven­tures of Sal­wa, a Lebanese cam­paign against sex­u­al harass­ment that aired on Lebanese tele­vi­sion and cinema.

The third theme I loose­ly call fem­i­nist ped­a­gogy — comics that explic­it­ly con­vey infor­ma­tion about gen­der inequal­i­ty in order to raise aware­ness. These include pub­li­ca­tions by researchers from the Cairo-based Women and Mem­o­ry Forum, such as Mad­khal ila qadaya al-mar’a fi sutur wa suwar (Kamal 2002). Man­al Hamzeh, an Arab aca­d­e­m­ic researcher based at New Mex­i­co State Uni­ver­si­ty, worked col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly with the Silk Road the­atre team in Chica­go to pro­duce an 11- minute ani­ma­tion (fea­tured at the top of this overview), based on her aca­d­e­m­ic text Ped­a­go­gies of Deveil­ing (Hamzeh 2012), The Four Hijabs (2016) in an online open-access site.

Manal Hamzeh, still from The Four Hijabs
Man­al Hamzeh, still from The Four Hijabs

More recent­ly, Man­al Hamzeh col­lab­o­rat­ed with Egypt­ian artists to depict oral his­to­ries of women sur­viv­ing mass sex­u­al assaults in the polit­i­cal upheavals in Egypt between 2011–2013 in the stun­ning work Three Women of Tahrir.

The book Lis­sa: a Sto­ry of Friend­ship, Med­ical Promise, and Rev­o­lu­tion, is a work I cowrote with Cole­man Nye, illus­trat­ed by Saru­la Bao and Car­o­line Brew­er (Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Press, 2017). Lis­sa is the first pub­li­ca­tion in a new series from UTP called ethno­GRAPH­IC. The fem­i­nist themes of the book are evi­dent in the con­tent but also under­gird the method­ol­o­gy as its pro­duc­ers echoed the sol­i­dar­i­ty and col­lab­o­ra­tion between the two fic­tion­al pro­tag­o­nists — Lay­la and Anna —  through the co-writ­ing, co-illus­trat­ing, and cross-dis­ci­pli­nary nature of the project.

Lissa: a Story of Friendship, Medical Promise, and Revolution cowritten by Sherine Hamdy/Coleman Nye, illustrated by Sarula Bao & Caroline Brewer.
Lis­sa: a Sto­ry of Friend­ship, Med­ical Promise, and Rev­o­lu­tion cowrit­ten by Sher­ine Hamdy/Coleman Nye, illus­trat­ed by Saru­la Bao & Car­o­line Brewer.

The Lis­sa team was mind­ful of the ways in which we were broad­en­ing the gen­res of both ethnog­ra­phy and com­ic nar­ra­tive. We wrote and spoke reflex­ive­ly about the “behind the scenes” process of its cre­ation (also result­ing in a doc­u­men­tary film The Mak­ing of Lis­sa  — which includ­ed the Lis­sa team’s vis­it to Cairo’s fem­i­nist Women and Mem­o­ry Forum — and a dig­i­tal archive at lissagraphicnovel.com).

The fourth group­ing includes alter­na­tive or self-pub­li­ca­tions, either indi­vid­u­al­ly online, such as Deena Mohamed’s extra­or­di­nar­i­ly well-received Al Qahera, which fea­tures a super­heroine who res­cues vic­tims of sex­u­al vio­lence in Cairo, or as the prod­uct of col­lec­tive grass­roots ini­tia­tives. These have the advan­tage of poten­tial­ly bypass­ing the gate­keep­ers of cor­po­rate pub­lish­ing, rely­ing in some cas­es on donor fund­ing for civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions tar­get­ing gen­der issues. In Egypt, for exam­ple, the fem­i­nist orga­ni­za­tions “Women and Mem­o­ry Forum,” “Nazra,” and “Wla Wogoh Okhra” have all pub­lished fem­i­nist comics col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly via their own pub­li­ca­tion venues, bypass­ing main­stream industry.

In the U.S., an Arab group of fem­i­nist com­ic artists sim­i­lar­ly cre­at­ed their own col­lec­tive alter­na­tive pub­lish­ing venue, Maamoul Press. In this sense, col­lec­tive cre­ations sup­port­ed by fem­i­nist fund­ing allow for var­i­ous and diverse female and gen­derqueer voic­es. Small alter­na­tive press­es have pro­vid­ed out­lets for mate­r­i­al that has been dif­fi­cult to locate in main­stream pub­lish­ing hous­es in the U.S. as well, such as Dabaie’s The Hookah Girl (2018) and Abdelrazak’s Badawwi (2015). Some cas­es, such as Hoda Fahmy’s Yes, I’m Hot in This, orig­i­nat­ed as web­comics and lat­er found cor­po­rate pub­li­ca­tion venues.

An excerpt from Lissa.
An excerpt from Lis­sa.

In Lebanon, a grass­roots group of fem­i­nist activists launched The Adven­tures of Sal­wa, men­tioned above, in 2010, which is both a comics and ani­ma­tion series, direct­ly drawn from dis­cus­sion groups of young women nar­rat­ing their own expe­ri­ences of sex­u­al harass­ment.  Sex­u­al harass­ment was also the sub­ject of Shak­ma­gia’s first issue (2014). Self-pub­lished by Cairo-based Nazra for Fem­i­nist Stud­ies in 2014, Shak­ma­gia is a col­lec­tion of sto­ries explor­ing vio­lence and sex­u­al harass­ment against women at a time when Egypt­ian soci­ety was forced to face the issue.

We have been impressed with the ways that col­lec­tives work togeth­er to sur­mount seem­ing­ly closed chan­nels for dis­sem­i­na­tion. Fem­i­nist and queer com­ic art col­lec­tives, such as the Pales­tin­ian Ter­wi­ha (n.d.), or the Lebanese Kika fil Mad­i­na (2019) have also adapt­ed the use of plat­forms such as Insta­gram, that were orig­i­nal­ly designed for indi­vid­ual cre­ators. Wla­ha Wogoh Okhra (n.d.) pub­lished print vol­umes of a a comics anthol­o­gy (pre­vi­ous­ly avail­able on their web­site) in a cel­e­bra­tion of the 5th-year anniver­sary of the orga­ni­za­tion, while Ter­wi­ha and Kika fil Mad­i­na dig­i­tal­ly post their seri­al­ized comics peri­od­i­cal­ly: Ter­wi­ha is sup­port­ed by the LGBTQ rights orga­ni­za­tion Al-Qaws, where­as Kika Fil Mad­i­na is pub­lished anony­mous­ly by a group of six cre­ators, most­ly women and gen­derqueer peo­ple in Beirut.

Comics works such as these, cre­at­ed in activist set­tings out­side of tra­di­tion­al pub­lish­ing struc­tures, offer more diverse peo­ple the oppor­tu­ni­ty to have a voice in the genre, espe­cial­ly in con­texts in which there is lit­tle to no sup­port for the arts or for women’s work. At the same time, the poten­tial viral­i­ty of web-based pub­li­ca­tions allows for the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a sin­gle con­trib­u­tor, to bypass a col­lec­tive press and have a large impact, such as the pre­vi­ous­ly men­tioned Qahera by Deena Mohamed.

Whether online or in print, I urge read­ers to dis­cov­er the trea­sure trove of works now com­ing out of the region, includ­ing the works of Sudanese doc­tor and com­ic artist Alaa Musa, Lebanon-based Rawand Issa, Saman­dal, Tok­tok, Garage, Khara­bish Nisawiyya, the Egypt­ian polit­i­cal car­toon­ist Doaa el Adl, and many oth­er emerg­ing voices.


Fur­ther Reading

  • Abdel­razaq, Leila, Bad­dawi, 2015, Char­lottesville, VA: Just World Books.
  • Abirached, Zeina, A Game for Swal­lows: To Die, to Leave, to Return, 2012, trans­lat­ed by Edward Gau­vin. Min­neapo­lis, MN: Graph­ic Uni­verse, and I Remem­ber Beirut, 2014, trans­lat­ed by Edward Gau­vin. Min­neapo­lis, MN: Graph­ic Universe.
  • aman­daa­ba. 2010. “The Adven­tures of Sal­wa.” YouTube, 9 March 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Zt1IZGROmk.
  • Ata, Ias­min Omar, Mis(h)adra, 2017, New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Chute, Hillary, Why Comics: From Under­ground to Every­where, 2017, New York: Harper.
  • Dabaie, Mar­guerite, The Hookah Girl and Oth­er True Sto­ries, 2018, Green­belt, MD: Rosar­i­um Publishing.
  • Dem­r­dash, Dina. 2013. “Egypt’s New Hijab-clad Super­heroine,” 2013, British Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion.
  • Drag­one, Francesco, The Mak­ing of Lis­sa, 2017, Vimeo, 22 Novem­ber 2017.
  • Elsad­da, Hoda, Omaima Abou-Bakr, Rainia Abdel-Rah­man, Hala Kamal, Hoda Sahar, and Hoda El-Saa­di, An Intro­duc­tion to Women’s Issues in Words andImages, 2002, illus­trat­ed by Maher Sabri, and Sara Enani. Cairo: Women and Mem­o­ry Forum.
  • Elsad­da, Hoda and Elbendary, Ami­na, Intro­duc­tion to Islam­ic Endow­ments, 2006, Cairo: Women and Mem­o­ry Forum.
  • Fah­my, Huda, Yes I’m Hot in This: The Hilar­i­ous Truth About Life in a Hijab, 2018, New York: Adams Media.
  • Find­ak­ly, Brigitte and Lewis Trond­heim, Pop­pies of Iraq, 2017, trans­lat­ed by Hel­ga Dasch­er. Mon­tre­al: Drawn & Quarterly.
  • Ghaibeh, Lina, “An Edu­ca­tion in Fear,” 2017, The Nib.
  • Guy­er, Jonathan, “From Beirut: The Ori­gin Sto­ry of Arab Comix,” 2015, Insti­tute of Cur­rent World Affairs, and “Under­stand­ing Arab Comics,” 2016, Los Ange­les Review of Books.
  • Hamdy, Sher­ine and Mona Damlu­ji, “Reflec­tions on Arab Comics: 90 Years of Pop­u­lar Cul­ture,” 2015, Teach­ing Cul­ture.
  • Hamdy, Sher­ine and Myra El Mir, forth­com­ing. Jabs. New York: Penguin.
  • Hamdy, Sher­ine and Soha Bay­ou­mi, “Egypt’s Pop­u­lar Upris­ing and the Stakes of Med­ical Neu­tral­i­ty,” 1016, Cul­ture, Med­i­cine, and Psy­chi­a­try 40: 223–41.
  • Hamdy, Sher­ine, Saru­la Bao, Car­o­line Brew­er, and Cole­man Nye, Lis­sa: A Sto­ry of Friend­ship, Med­ical Promise, and Rev­o­lu­tion, 2017, North York, Ontario: Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Press.
  • Hamzeh, Man­al, Ped­a­go­gies of Deveil­ing: Mus­lim Girls and the Hijab Dis­course, 2017, Char­lotte, NC: Infor­ma­tion Age Pub­lish­ing, and The Four Hijabs, 2016 direct­ed by Liz Wuer­feel, and Three Women of Tahrir, 2017.
  • Høig­ilt, Jacob, “Egypt­ian Comics and the Chal­lenge to Patri­ar­chal Author­i­tar­i­an­ism,” 2017, Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Mid­dle East Stud­ies 49 (1): 111–31.
  • Mer­hej, Lena, “Man­al and Alaa: A Love Sto­ry,” 2015, in Muq­tatafat, edit­ed by David Lewis, Anna Mudd, and Paul Beran. Ninth Art Press.
  • Mohamed, Deena, Qahera, 2013–20, and forth­com­ing. Shubeik Lubeik, New York: Pantheon.
  • Nazra for Fem­i­nist Stud­ies. 2014. Shak­ma­gia (Jew­el­ry Box). Cairo: Nazra for Fem­i­nist Studies.
  • Roll­man, Hans, “Is ‘Lis­sa’ a Trail­blaz­er in Bridg­ing Acad­e­mia and Comics?” 2018, Pop­Mat­ters.
  • Rosen­berg, Al, “Diver­si­ty in Mus­lim Super­heroes: The Web­com­ic Qahera,” 2015, Women Write About Comics.
  • Saman­ci, Özge, Dare to Dis­ap­point: Grow­ing up in Turkey, 2015, New York: Far­rar, Straus, and Giroux.
  • Satrapi, Mar­jane, Perse­po­lis: The Sto­ry of a Child­hood, 2000, trans­lat­ed by L’Association. New York: Pan­theon, and Perse­po­lis 2: The Sto­ry of a Return, 2004, trans­lat­ed by Anjali Singh. New York: Pantheon.
  • Sezen, Bel­dan, Snap­shots of a Girl, 2015, Van­cou­ver, BC: Arse­nal Pulp Press.

AfghanistanEgyptgraphic novIranLebanonMoroccoTurkey

Sherine Hamdy is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research and teaching focus on medical anthropology and science and technology in the Middle East. She is the co-author of Lissa: A Story About Medical Promise, Friendship, and Revolution.