Reclaiming Spaces from the Streets to the Gutter: Sketching Feminisms in Contemporary Arab Graphic Narratives

By Rasha Chatta

This article was originally published by Mai Feminism

In a region where authoritarian and patriarchal regimes have held the monopoly on what circulates publicly and where spaces of contestation are under scrutiny, graphic narratives[1] or qisas musawwara as they are referred to in the Arabic language[2]—alongside other popular arts such as graffiti or street art—have carved out a new arena of dissent that was made possible by the hopes for social and political changes instigated in the wave of the so-called Arab Spring. Indeed, as Ghaibeh has demonstrated, the Arab uprisings accelerated the spread of comics ‘through their use as a medium for commentary, criticism and dissent’ (2015: 325). It is important to recognise that the conditions of creation, production, and circulation of adult comics differ from a country to another, despite the fact that, in recent scholarship, the appellation ‘Arab(ic) comics’ has underplayed the distinctive local specificities and suggested the idea of a homogenous, essentialised ensemble.[3] Nevertheless, an initial foray into the increasingly large corpus of feminist graphic narratives in the region uncovers the existence of common preoccupations and key thematics which are emblematic of an emancipatory comic-space, a space where non-normative and marginalised subjectivities are re-framed and re-configured, where the quiet and silenced anxieties related to gender ‘issues’ are deconstructed, articulated and visualised, and where alternative dreams, desires, and possibilities are sketched. Albeit to different degrees, Arab (feminist) comic artists share a determined stance against censorship in its many incarnations, whether the censorship is state-imposed or societal—or both. They seek to intervene by translating and transposing everyday hardship and resistance into powerful narrative creations thus enabling the weaving of a diverse collective voice.

After providing a general overview of the field of Arab comics for adults and a necessary contextualisation of the emergence of an Arab feminist comics scene, I flag up recurrent themes and proceed to analyse the redeployment of key tropes centred around feminism, sexuality, and gender thus delineating an overarching analytical scaffold and articulating its specific aesthetics. I investigate the various ways in which these graphic narratives challenge patriarchy in its multiple forms and re-negotiate the marginalisation of minority voices through their self-representation, thereby conferring them a sense of agency.

This article does not purport to account for the exhaustivity of Arab feminist comics from the past decade; rather, it is conceived as an assessment of the non-linear trajectories of feminist thought in comics, while being resolutely anchored in the present time, a time of continuous socio-political and economic crises, and, equally, an opportune standpoint to look back at the lessons garnered since 2010.[4] This reflection also entails a political turn towards the possibility of a hopeful future inasmuch as it lays out the tools that feminist comics strive to offer as a form of ethics against erasure and submission—always conceived in its intersectional dimension, as Lebanese comic artist Nour Hifaoui Fakhoury’s opening illustration suggests.

Preamble: From Political Cartoons to the Materialising of an Adult Comics Scene Post-2010

Two canonical scholarly books, both published in the 1990s, Allen Douglas and Fedwa Malti-Douglas’s Arab Comic Strips and Fatma Müge Göçek’s edited collection Political Cartoons in the Middle East constitute a landmark in the field of Arab comics. They map out the role of comics as a potential instigator for change and a tool for manifesting dissent or for exposing different opinions. The contributors to these volumes argue that comics cannot be dissociated from the socio-political sphere in which they are inscribed and further highlight the predominant role of censorship and the dialogic tensions that participate in defining the contours of the comic strips. Having to comply with the demands of a restricted page-space while creating a story or a snippet through the combination of image and text effectively means that the ‘message’ has to be concentrated, sharp, and succinct. Comics, then, have served as powerful vehicles both to propagate and to criticise ideology.[5] Even though the focus of their research was specifically bounded to political cartoons, satire, and caricature, Douglas, Malti-Douglas, and Göçek have laid out the genealogy of the longer historical background in which today’s comics have been incubated. This signals that there is a history of engagement with the visual as a vector of social and political critique but also a receptive public who possesses the analytic tools, the sensibility and resonance (Høigilt 2019, Khoury 2018, Ghaibeh 2018).

The end of 2010 marked the dawn of a new era in the historiography of the Near and Middle East: rising up against corruption, poverty, and political repression, protesters leading the Jasmine revolution succeeded in overthrowing Tunisian president Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali. Various revolutionary waves or uprisings subsequently followed throughout the region, in a ripple effect: in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere, as documented by the outburst of images and footage of millions of protesters calling for change. Concurrently, citizens and protesters began investigating new spaces and venues for expressing themselves. It is specifically at this juncture that graphic narratives addressed to adults started booming, thanks notably to the efforts of the comic collectives and their establishment of various platforms for creative expression. An earlier initiative named Muhtaraf Jad [Jad Collective], developed in Lebanon by Georges Khoury (aka JAD), Lina Ghaibeh, and others in 1986 at the height of the Lebanese Civil War, represents a landmark in the way artists and authors established the collective model. Over a decade and a half later, Lena Merhej, Hatem Imam and others re-appropriated and re-configured the initial concept of the collective model and further developed it to found a pioneering collective and its eponymous fanzine, Al-Samandal, in 2007. Al-Samandal then served as an inspiration for the creation of the Egyptian collective and fanzine TokTok in 2011. Both al-Samandal and Tok Tok played an active role in cultivating a space dedicated to the freedom of expression, while providing the means for the creation of a vibrant comic scene through fanzines, workshops, festivals, and various events throughout the region. Significantly, collectives started proliferating at a time when long-standing authoritarian regimes were being challenged: Lab619 (founded in Tunisia in 2013), Skefskef (in Morocco in 2013), Habka (in Libya in 2015); Masaha (in Iraq in 2015), Garage (Egypt 2015), Zeez (Lebanon 2017) to mention a few (Khoury 2018; Ghaibeh 2018; Chatta 2020).

Whereas ‘its seeds stem from the region’s wealth of local heritage and experiences’ (Ghaibeh 2015: 324), the conditions of emergence of an adult Arab comics scene are closely tied to the unfolding of the uprisings and, one could further argue, comics can be perceived to represent one of the outcomes of the so-called Arab Spring. Evidently, social media contributed to facilitating their dissemination and cross-pollination throughout the region and beyond.

Whilst the issues, styles, topics, and languages vary greatly among artists and within national settings, most graphic narratives are anchored in, and reflect, everyday realities.[6] This is significant, as the focus on everyday realities reveals how the social becomes the political. This, in turn, serves to endow the creations with a trans-national and trans-cultural force that resonates across borders. The artists, in the words of Lebanese comic author Lena Merhej, ‘push the very limits of this medium’ (2015: 6). They are revealed in the artistic impulses and practices themselves, and in how they bring forth the intensities of the moment, social and human dimensions, character types and situations, and the shared histories and memories. And above all, how they succeed in their specific visions and treatments to effect resonance among the artists themselves in a collectivising act (the creation of collectives, for example), as well as among receptive audiences that rally out of a sense of being understood and heard. A certain enabling of agency works simultaneously at the level of the creative act and form, and at the level of reception, all with an immediacy of the visual.

Women at the Forefront of Arab Graphic Narratives[7]

Scholars specialising in North American and Western European comics tend to recognise the overarching predominance of a male-centred focus that has shaped and tainted the field since its inception (Gibson 2016; Aldama 2021; Chute 2010; Brown & Loucks 2014). In the words of Brown & Loucks: ‘The comics industry has typically been characterised as a masculine domain … [c]ertainly the comic book industry is, and always has been, dominated by men and masculine themes. Men constitute the majority of writers, artists, editors, letters and colourists. Men also serve as the default characters … and mainstream comic book stories tend to focus on masculine heroic struggles. And male consumers have historically been the largest demographic for comic books’ (Brown & Loucks 2014). That is not tantamount to saying that female creators did not exist but rather that they have largely been eschewed in mainstream comics and ignored in ‘serious’ research.

Only recently has there been an increasing scholarly interest in what Aldama terms ‘diversity comics’ attested by the amount of publications devoted to non-mainstream comics: ‘today’s “diversity” comics scholarship seeks to clear a space for creating new possibilities of representing and embracing non-normative subjectivities and experiences- and to set the record straight (and with it the mainstream imaginary) concerning problematic stereotypes and attitudes toward women, people of colour, LGBTQIA+ peoples, and those differently abled, among others’ (Aldama 2021: 7).

In contrast to its North American and Western European counterparts, significant space has been occupied, since the early burgeoning of the field of Arab comics, by women, queer people, and more generally those posited at the social margins. As Ghaibeh puts it: ‘while cartoons tend to be a male-dominated field in the Arab world, from their onset as an adult medium, comics in this region seemed to gather a reasonable number of female authors and artists, evident in the contributions to the contemporary comic publications’ (Ghaibeh 2015: 327). Indeed, in the effervescence of the uprisings, which unravelled a new world of possibilities, Arab women comics artists forcefully seized graphic narratives as a medium and a tool, to ‘be legible, [and] visual[ly] drawn’ on the page, they did assert their presence in ‘putting contingent selves and histories into form’ (Chute 2010: 3). As will be further detailed in the sections below, feminist and queer motives, as well as gender ‘issues,’ have constituted early topoi in terms of content, and comics have come to constitute ‘modes of gender intervention’ (Rizkallah 2015: 12).

Furthermore, gender constitutes a centrally contested arena that reveals the bankruptcy of systems of domination, social, cultural, political, and religious, in their hidden or declared alliances. Ultimately, gender serves as the fulcrum and possibility of exposure of the naturalised conditions of sociality under colluding systems of domination. As such, gender activism also reinforces the empowering impulse of the artistic practice itself. They are equally forms of intervention in social realities.

To a large extent, the sense of empowerment conveyed by the uprisings and the reclaiming of the streets opened a breach for bringing to the fore endemic situations faced by women and queer people, and for denouncing recurrent problems faced in everyday patriarchal societies: ‘the gender question was an important part of the revolutionary process’ (Høigilt 2017: 90). As such, feminist pursuits were intrinsically inscribed politically, socially, and ethically, and by definition decidedly intersectional.

Graphic narratives fulfilled their function as ‘not only instruments for the continuous representation of evil versus good but also means through which alternative histories and narrations of racialized [or marginalised- my addition] groups are being shared’ (Carlton quoted in Rizkallah 2015: 5). They offered a channel and a medium to express subversiveness and ‘antipatriarchal views that were indicative of the revolutionary process in 2011′ (Høigilt 2017: 113).

Of Arabic Feminist & Gender Terminology and the Turn to Visual Language

The fundamental impetus behind feminism as a movement, according to hooks, is to put an end to women’s oppression (hooks 2000: 26). While this statement holds true, I argue that feminism—an inclusive movement—cannot be separated from a theoretical language without which it does not exist as thought and practice. In other words, concepts and vocables play a detrimental role in naming and articulating what is at stake, in the local milieus in which they are embedded. My purpose here is not to provide an extensive history of Arab feminisms[8] and their inherent language; rather, I wish to note that feminist and gender terminology has posed ‘a major concern for translators and scholars writing about gender issues in Arabic’ (Kamal 2016: 67-69). Although the term al-nisawiyya (al-nisawiyy in the masculine) which has emerged with the first wave of Egyptian feminists to designate feminist and feminism, is very much in use today, Kamel argues that gender, contrastingly, is a Western-originating concept that has travelled across languages and cultures, resulting in aljender after failing attempts to circulate more Arabic-based words.[9]

The quest for an up to date ‘localised’ feminist and queer language can in part account for the turn to graphic narratives. In this respect, Lebanese comic author Joseph Kai also signals the lack of an adequate queer/-ed language as an underlying challenge (New Archival Practices 2018). The need for an accessible language can be fulfilled by resorting to the visual and to visuality—conceived together with the written—as a popular and intelligible medium: ‘the visual language of comics offered a powerful alternative to the written word, enabling comics and cartoons to reach a wider audience. Moreover, living in a world with a prevailing image culture made the medium far more influential’ (Gameel quoted in Ghaibeh 2015: 325). I would also add that the majority of today’s graphic narratives are written in the local Arabic dialects, which contributes to re-enforcing the popularity of the medium, as well as its accessibility and intelligibility.[10]

Haddad, Jeem.

It is precisely this challenge that Haytham Haddad attempts to tackle in his ‘Kayfa utarjim queer basarían wa as’ila wujudía ukhra’ [‘How I Translate Queer Visually and Other Existential Questions’] (Jeem).

Over the space of four pages, the Palestinian illustrator strives to reflect on the origins of the term ‘queer,’ and proceeds to trace its genealogy and its potential subjective translations into the visual realm. Further, its relation to both the political and the personal is laid out. The result consists of a twenty-two-step narrative interspersed with a variety of sketches, and a hint of self-derision and sarcasm.

Haddad’s short graphic narrative is thus representative of the kind of artistic exploration that comic authors and illustrators have pursued specifically in their quest to transpose gender ‘issues.’ As such, as Aldama contends: ‘comics have always been an important place for the radical exploration of feminist and non-binary sexualities and identities’ (2021: i).

Advocating Feminisms through Graphic Narratives

The forcefulness of the genre, as well as its ability to reach larger publics, explains the endeavour of local feminist organisations who have opted to resort to graphic narratives as a medium deployed to tackle topics related to feminism and gender while providing a space for debate and discussion. Concomitantly, comic collectives have also, at times, published special issues entirely devoted to questions of sexuality, women, gender, queerness. Likewise, some comic artists have individually published short- or long-format graphic narratives centred around specific thematics related to gender. I showcase and discuss an example of each of the categories mentioned below.

The Role of Feminist Organisations

Created in October 2014 under the auspices of the feminist non-governmental organisation Nazra lil dirasat al-nisawiyya [‘Nazra for Feminist Studies’] and promoted as ‘the Middle East’s first feminist comics magazine looking to address issues faced by women and men from a feminist and human rights perspective,’ Al-Shakmagia’s [‘Treasure Box’] main concern was to give space and voice to marginalised groups, both as authors and as character-types. Stories addressing Egypt’s endemic sexual harassment issues[11], gender inequalities, gender-based violence, or yet again the ineffectiveness of obsolete laws such as the one requiring the presence of two witnesses to record a case of domestic violence, were disseminated in an effort to raise up awareness and, perhaps, offer counter-narratives of empowerment (Rizallah 2015; Høigilt 2017; Høigilt 2019).

Al-Shakmagia #1, 2014.

In the words of its then editor-in-chief Fatma Mansour: ‘We’re not merely stating the facts and saying that this is how it is or how it should be. We are trying to provide hope and solutions, telling people that they can be proactive and there is a lot that they can do and contribute as individuals.’

Mansour relied on the contributions of comic artists who were part of the collective TokTok, and the first issue was available for download from the website Kotobna, thus allowing for easy and free access to the magazine.

However, al Shakmagia was forced to be discontinued in Egypt shortly after President El-Sisi seized power and placed considerable restraints on human rights organisations, such as Nazra. In 2019, the Lebanese feminist organisation Warshat al-Maʿaref [‘the Knowledge Workshop’] made the decision to publish the second issue from Lebanon, in an act of solidarity, and as a sign of mistrust towards the political situation in Egypt.

Al-Shakmagia #2, 2019.

As stated in the introduction to the second issue: ‘Al-Shakmagia is published in Beirut because it likes Cairo and it doesn’t like the imposed silence on the friends in Egypt. It presents stories about love in our Arab region. This issue stems out at a time when revolution is taking place in the background, in Iraq and Lebanon, a revolution of pure love for life that our people deserve; a revolution against doubt in the words of Um Kulthoum, the doubt in our ability to realise a specific dream or a general one. While this issue is about love, it also is a revolutionary statement against shitty love.’ The issue published in Beirut is a clear testament to how transregional feminist solidarities operate equally within the comic scene. The comics included range from across the region, some having already been published elsewhere.

By way of example, I briefly mention Lebanese comic artist Tracy Chahwan’s graphic narrative titled ‘Don’t you know who my mother is?’ as a tweaked reference to an Arabic saying, ‘don’t you know who my father is,’ which is at once a marker of power and undefeatability that is linked to the father figure. Chahwan is a co-founder of the Lebanese collective Zeez [‘Cicada’], and regularly contributes to other fanzines and comic projects, in addition to working as an illustrator. Her album Beirut, Bloody Beirut was published in France in 2018. ‘Don’t you know who my mother is?’ is a brilliant depiction of a society where gender roles have been inverted. In the first panel, the creation of a special ministry devoted to men’s affairs and led by a woman is mentioned and has been set up in an effort to include men who are marginalised subjects and citizens. Chahwan depicts a society ruled by women, where men are harassed and catcalled on the streets, where men cannot venture out unaccompanied without being subjected to violence from women, and where fathers are afraid for the well-being of their sons. The story shifts the perspective from powerful to powerless, from central to marginal, in order to shed light on what women and minorities in general undergo in their everyday life.

Tracy Chahwan ‘Don’t You Know who My Mother is?,’ al-Shakmagiya (2019: 56).

Launched in 2018 as a project of the German cultural association Goethe-Institut and independent since 2022, the not-for-profit media organisation Jeem adopts an ‘intersectional approach, [through which] we produce and disseminate critical knowledge about gender, sexuality, sex, and the body that challenges dominant discourses in traditional media’ (Jeem). It further includes a section solely devoted to comics, with another devoted to illustrations. In an interview I conducted in July 2022, co-founder and managing director Dalia Othman justified the choice of including graphic narratives as follows: ‘Some stories simply have to be drawn in a comics format. Visual narrative is extremely powerful when it comes to representing, to seeing the body, sexuality, body language, gender issues. Jeem was conceived as a multimedia format in Arabic (though we do translate 20% of the content into English) precisely to fill in a gap in the region and produce knowledge related to gender, sexuality, and feminism in different formats. Some of this content deserves to be visualised and this explains why we’ve commissioned artists to produce comic strips.’

‘Revolution in my 40s’ is a sequence of seven instalments of which three have been translated into English. As indicated by the title, the series follows the ‘trials, tribulations and revolts’ (Jeem) of forty-year-old Maya, a Beirut woman, on a background punctuated by cycles of never-ending crises in Lebanon. Turmoil is a constant thread and underlying leitmotif, and it often takes different declensions and forms in each one of the series. ‘Revolution in my 40s’ is the result of a collaborative work between comic artist Lena Merhej and Jeem managing editor Joelle Hatem. Written in Lebanese Arabic dialect, each series represents a short snippet tied to a specific thematic. Thus, the first sequence opens with the ammonium nitrate explosion that destroyed and shattered much of the city of Beirut on the 4th of August 2020, thereby inscribing it locally from the outset. Maya returns home only to be blown by the explosion, she is then trapped under the weight of the mattress which, as she exclaims, she ‘hates.’ In a twist, the graphic narrative is able to produce a centring effect to portray how a major, collective event affects a lesbian woman personally. Indeed, Maya ‘hates’ the mattress as it embodies the fights she had with Roula, her ex, and others. As soon as she is released, she sighs, sheds tears, and exclaims: ‘the mattress is gone!’ as if this was the outcome she had desired, and she were now finally delivered from the figurative weight, eschewing the gravity of the explosion outside.

Merhej & Hatem, Jeem 2021.[12]

The next six instalments tackle relationships with ex-lovers in times of destruction, self-care and self-pleasure, taxonomical questionings on gender, thinking through priorities and everyday hardships in a collapsing economy, and bodily perceptions in a traditional gender-conformist society where non-heteronormative appearances are discouraged. Ultimately, the series represents a depiction of how the socio-political environment is reflected and mirrored in the personal and subjective, and further articulates what being a feminist in these circumstances really entails.

Comics paying tribute to local feminist figures and feminist movements have recently been on the rise. With funding from the Rosa Luxemburg foundation, Where to, Marie? covers a century of feminisms in Lebanon, through the story of four fictional personal narratives, that are available online, in the original Arabic and in English translation. Vehemently intersectional in their approach, the authors and artists at the heart of the project have relied on extensive archival research and critical scholarship to recontextualise feminist movements locally, against the accusation that feminism is an imported movement. In their words: ‘Feminism(s) in Lebanon have always been under harsh scrutiny, taking a backseat to “priorities” set by other movements. While women have actively taken part in nationalist and anti-capitalist struggles, from national independence to resisting Israeli occupation, and have played integral roles in class struggles as part of workers’ and students’ movements, their male comrades have tended to appropriate their struggles, alienating and pushing against their feminist agendas under the pretext that “women’s issues” are not revolutionary priorities’ (Daou et al. 2021).

Daou et al. 2021, ‘Where to, Marie?’
Daou et al. 2021, ‘Where to, Marie?’

The caption of the opening chapter reads: ‘The vexing question of how to start a comic on feminism(s) in Lebanon was solved by reality. ‎Soon after we began working on the script, an uprising erupted on 17 October 2019. While ‎participating in various debates and actions related to the uprising, we noticed the clearly gendered power dynamics at play during demonstrations and meetings. How could we not start there?’

This statement is eloquent, inasmuch as it emphasises the challenges that feminists still face within revolutionary circles. The need, then, to adopt an intersectional approach in the understanding of the unfolding of socio-political events is all the more justified. To a certain extent, Where to, Marie? serves as a pedagogical manual, laying out how feminist practice is embodied.

In a similar vein, al-Samandal released a booklet of eight short graphic narratives centred around eight prominent Arab female figures who have contributed to the cause of feminism in one way or another. Hunna (2019) celebrates and tells the stories of activists, sportswomen, doctors, artists, and others who are viewed as sources of inspiration. The excerpt below, for example, recounts the journey of Syrian activist and political opponent Samira al-Khalil who was kidnapped and disappeared during the Syrian war.

Azza Abu-Rabia, ‘Samira al-Khalil,’ Hunna 2019
Special Issues Published by Comic Collectives

TokTok’s seventh issue, published in 2012, is entirely dedicated to women, and contains seven graphic narratives denouncing gendered violence and harassment. One story by Algerian comic artist Rim Mokhtari titled ‘Shawk’ [‘Thorn’] tackles various forms of sexual violence against women. Using no text at all, the sequence of panels focuses on a woman wearing a bodysuit covered in thorns. In a very slow motion, an oversized hand that is bigger than her body begins to caress her. At one point the finger bleeds, supposedly because of her thorns. The woman then removes her cap and the hand proceeds to uncover her progressively, revealing her breasts, bottom and eventually her nude body. In an unexpected twist, the hand picks her up and places her in the mouth of a man whose nose and mouth only are visible and swallows her. The final panel represents her bodysuit which is left behind. The silent story makes apt use of aesthetic devices available in comics: the slow sequence of black and white panels combined with the effects of progressive zooming in and the visual techniques contrasting the size of the victim—posed as powerless—and the perpetrator are able to convey the sense of pervasive violence that it epitomises. Shaker goes as far as interpreting the comics as a condemnation of rape culture (2017).

To evade censorship and possible lawsuits which they had already been subjected to, al-Samandal’s 2016 issue devoted to sexuality and titled ‘Ça restera entre nous’ [‘it will stay between us’] was published by Alifbata in France. The issue stemmed from a couple of workshops on censorship, sexuality, and youth. In her editorial, Lena Merhej reflects on the importance of occupying space—not just physically, but also in the comics scene itself—on the pages. She emphasises the freedom that is vital in terms of one’s body, one’s sexuality, and equally the freedom to talk and debate about desire, sexuality, and any related issue: ‘I think that it is essential to talk about sexuality in comics as a literary genre, essential and urgent for Lebanon, as well as for the entire Arab world.’

One of the twenty-six contributions includes a comic by Egyptian artist May Korayem titled ‘ʿanha lil-mar’a’ [‘For women’], a story drawn entirely in black and white, on the harassment women are subjected to in Egypt. She asks: what happened for Egypt to have become the worst country in terms of sexual harassment? The author then proceeds to examine the phenomenon from within the role that women have played historically, in the 1919 revolution, in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the 2011 revolution, with a mantra that repeats itself: ‘there’s no use/ there’s nothing we can do.’ Korayem includes historic and archival documents to sustain her claims in demonstrating that women have been essential actors in all of the country’s political and social changes, and equally instigators of positive change. The comic ends with ‘when will harassment stop?’

Individual Publications

Harassment, sexual and gender violence, the body, and feminism constitute central preoccupations in the work of comic authors who publish individually, i.e. outside of fanzines or special issues, such as Egyptian artist Deena Mohamed or Moroccan Zeinab Fasiki, amongst others.

Deena Mohamed’s Qahera represents one of the most popular comics throughout the region—and especially in Egypt—in terms of readership, with more than half a million hits within a year of its publication (Dubbati 2017: 438). Drawn entirely in black and white, except for the eponymous main character Qahera, who is depicted in grey, the series of twenty webcomics (ten in Arabic and ten in English) published between 2013 and 2019 presents itself as a reappraisal of the place of women in society, and the criticism of commonly spread stereotypes about the veil, about discourses on submission and liberation in both Western and local Arab settings. Thus, in each of her adventures, Qahera (whose name translates into ‘the Conqueror’ but also ‘Cairo’ in the Arabic language), strives to combat misogyny, islamophobia, and sexual harassment in the streets of Cairo. Mohamed explains her endeavour as follows: ‘I wanted to create a superhero to face some of the things that frustrated me [especially the patriarchy and misogyny evident in post-revolution Egypt]. I feel like there is a need for female Muslim superheroes who actually deal with the real-life issues we face instead of fictional super villains (because let’s face it, half of the things Muslim women have to deal with feel like they’ve been concocted by super villains)’ (Rizkallah 2015: 63).

The Arabic and English content differ at times, precisely because, as Mohamed explains, she is aware that audiences—and therefore the issues that matter to them—differ. Dubbati summarises Mohamed’s position by arguing that ‘she fights against an invisibility enforced by a Western discourse that wants to ‘liberate’ her by transforming her into a spectacle of difference that needs assimilation, and by an Arab misogynistic discourse that regulates her visibility through street harassment, gender roles and sexism’ (Dubbati 2017: 434).

This is particularly evident in the comic strip titled ‘On Femen’ which is only available in the English section, and which strives to put into question the ideological discourse on the liberation of women from a Western viewpoint. A member of Femen exhorts Qahera to join them: ‘sister, take off your oppression! Join us!’ to which Qahera responds: ‘You have constantly undermined and ignored women. You seem unable to understand that we do not need your help, and I doubt there is much I can do to teach you.’ She then leaves them hanging on a tree and adds: ‘the question is, who’s going to rescue you?.’ Mohamed complicates discourses on agency and demonstrates that no matter what attire she chooses, a woman is always posited in a tensed relation between the imposed need for her liberation and the need for her submission, as the first comic series in Arabic, in which the story of a woman harassed by men on the streets on Cairo is depicted, shows.

Harassment and men’s control over women’s bodies are key thematics in Zainab Fasiki’s work. The comics artist who considers herself an ‘artivist’, —i.e. an activist who relies on art—published a cartoon online about the girl who was raped in a bus in 2017 and the image provoked much heated debate and eventually participated in unleashing the #TaAnaMeToo campaign voicing sexual victims’ testimonies.

Bild 13 Fasiki ‘Buses are made to transport people, not to rape girls.’ Screenshot captured on Twitter.

Fasiki published a comic book titled Hshouma. [‘Shame in Moroccan Darija’] in 2019 in France. As she explains, Hshouma is a book that ‘liberates our sexuality, our desires, liberates our bodies.’ It details the genealogy of control over women’s bodies as well as the laws that were made by ‘men to control women’s desires, their uterus, and their sexuality’ (Fasiki 2021). Hshouma encapsulates the dictatorship established by patriarchy: ‘every woman is told that women’s issues, feminism, is an imported cause, that it isn’t local. Freedom of our bodies, freedom of women was not invented by anyone. Everyone is free… Egyptian women in 1920’s, African women … [w]e must talk about our co-existence, so that there is no more hshouma about these subjects: we are living a social and sexual crisis that we must resolve’ (Fasiki 2021).

At a talk she gave on 02/06/2022 at the Free University of Berlin, Deena Mohamed remarked that graphic narratives carry the burden of representation. The case of recent Arab feminist comics, in its many forms, shows that the shift, from being presented to being represented, encapsulates a necessary takeover of co-opted narratives. Feminist comics show and tell stories from within. As such, the regaining of positionality and the switching gaze constitute a statement of presence, of existence posited against the silencing of women’s voices, in the public spaces but also in the gutter where projection and interpretation happen. They fulfil the function Chute assigns to them, as ‘a cross-discursive form [that carries the potential of] providing a model for a politically conscious yet post-avant-garde theory and practice’ (2010:2).

Yet, it seems legitimate to re-appraise the role feminist comics play today, at a time of acute crises throughout the region, and to delineate the contours of a possible future.

Where Do We Go Now? Hope as a Feminist Tool: On Haunting Presents and Seedling Futures against the Spectres of Failure

Following an initial phase of euphoria and effervescence initiated in the wake of the Arab uprisings, one cannot help but recognise that we are living in times of political, social, economic, and feminist crises, where the gains of the last decade seem fragile and futile, and where achievements are being called into question and re-evaluated. As Coleman & Ferreday articulate: ‘hopelessness is not just as an ethos to the post Arab uprisings era but is also as inherent to feminist politics itself, viewed as a generational model of progress which is widely imagined to have failed’ (2010: 313).

The question then arises: what does hope—on the flip side of the coin—mean in the present time; a moment charged and haunted by the spectres—and perhaps even an inevitability—of failure? How can one rethink and articulate the affirmative in the face of destruction, stagnation, and constant crisis?

I find Nadia Yala Kisukidi’s concepts of ‘entêtement’ [‘stubbornness,’ ‘obstinacy’], ‘points d’échappées’ [‘vanishing points or moments that allow us to take some distance’] and ‘lignes de fuite’ [‘escape routes’] (Nadia Yala Kisukidi 2022) fruitful, inasmuch as they allow us to consider alternative ways of being and of anchoring ourselves in the affirmative, perhaps in a similar vein to Sara Ahmed when she writes about the imperative of happiness as ‘a willingness to refuse to consent to its truth’ (2007: 7).

In many ways, Maya, the protagonist of ‘Revolution in my 40s’ (Jeem) personifies and embodies this posture—in which theory and imagination are intrinsically connected to life—thus espousing Spivak’s statement where she declares that ‘bringing to crisis is an enabling moment’ (Spivak 2002: 173).

Gesturing towards a politics of hope can also be considered as a feminist tool, as Jeem’s special issue titled ‘There is hope: feminism in the time of revolutions’ indicates (2020).

In ‘Hope as a Feminist Tool,’ Islam al Khatib, a Palestinian illustrator living in Beirut, deploys a simple narrative envisaged as a reflection on the deterioration of the situation and the increasing sense of uselessness or irrelevancy of feminist activism that accompanies these charged times. The frames are deliberately blurry, and represent horizons of cityscapes, tied with emotions stemming from depression or despair. The young woman articulates her thoughts represented in captions at the fringes of the frames or within the drawings. Al-Khatib articulates how escapism, evasion, the inability of facing ‘our responsibilities, our principles, ourselves’ results in removing any kind of hope. A dramatic shift is operated aesthetically with the introduction of the next panel, drawn in darker tones of grey against a black background: ‘I never thought that hope is a feminist tool.’

al-Khatib, 2020.

What follows is an appeal to solidarity and the re-inscription of hope at the core of feminist thought: ‘Hope does not mean continuing on a blocked road. … Hope [also] means being shocked. Hope means being sad. To shut our eyes and dream a little. To open them a little and begin to build slowly. And to arrive’ (al-Khatib 2020). The progression of the layout indicates a form of empowerment: from predominantly grey and black panels to the progressive introduction of pastel colours, and to the introduction of multiple colours as if to signal the complexities and multiple linearities of hope. Thus, what ‘hope does’ (Coleman & Ferreday 2010: 315) begins by articulating the vulnerabilities and reinforcing the ties between the singular and the collective. Hope as a feminist tool is that which ties the community together.

al-Khatib, 2020.
Conclusion

Comics, and feminist comics in particular, have the potential to reclaim the public space on a wider scale. While their effectiveness is not necessarily to be measured or quantified in terms of reach, they are subversive because they voice the struggles of the dominated and the marginalised and they draw attention to silenced narratives, as the case of Arab feminist graphic narratives shows. They not only bear witness to realities that are kept silent and contested, but—as a result of their critical impulse—they also seek to intervene by empowering. The forms of visuality that they create and deploy have the power of both immediacy and resonance.


Notes:

[1] I employ the term ‘graphic narratives’ interchangeably with the more commonly-used term ‘comics’ as an all-encompassing category comprising various sub-genres, or art forms, such as manga, comics albums, graphic novels, bandes dessinées, i.e. any kind of sequential art narrative published either in print—in magazines and book format—or online—on websites and blogs.

[2] Shara’et musawwara—literally ‘comic strips’—is also encountered in the field.

[3] In the words of Lebanese filmmaker and comic artist Fadi Baki, aka FDZ: ‘A Lebanese comic is not an Egyptian comic, nor an Algerian comic’ (Baki, quoted by Rizkallah 2015: 15).

[4] While the revolutionary trajectories undertaken in each country differ, there seems to be a general consensus around the fact that, over a decade after their spark, the Arab uprisings have not fully materialised, despite undisputable achievements and breakthroughs. See for example El-Affendi & al-Anani (eds.) (2021); Bayat (2017); Bayat (2021).

[5] As one could witness at the exhibition on ‘Arab Comics in the Curriculum’ curated by Hana Sleiman and Kaoukab Chebaro, organised at the American University of Beirut in March 2016. https://www.aub.edu.lb/Libraries/News/Pages/ArabComics.aspx

[6] It is also important to note that not all comics are political.

[7] I use the term ‘women’ inclusively.

[8] I deliberately use the plural form ‘feminisms’ to underline the many forms and intersections this theory—as thought and practice—embodies in different places and times, preferring it to the expression ‘sub-feminisms’ employed by Kamal (2018: 137). See also Makdisi et al. 2014.

[9] Namely al-junusa deriving from the root jns (sex/sexuality) proposed by a group of scholars from the American University in Cairo (Kamel 2018: 142-143). See Kamel 2018 for an extensive discussion of the usages of feminism and gender in Egypt. See also The Gender Dictionary (2016) on travelling concepts and usages in Lebanon.

[10] Unlike earlier comics (for children for example) which were written in Modern Standard Arabic (Ghaibeh 2018; Khoury 2018).

[11] Høigilt states that 99% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed. The State recognised the extent of the problem, as well as sexual violence, in the 2000s but failed to link it to State repression used as a dissuasion tool against activism, as the Girl in the Blue Bra image revealed (2019: 97).

[12] The English translation is available on Jeem.


References:

Ahmed, Sara (2007) ‘The Happiness Turn,’ Happiness, special issue of New Formations, no. 63, pp. 7-14.

Aldama, Frederick Luis (2021), ‘Gender and Sexuality in Comics: The Told, Untold Stories,’ in Frederick L. Aldama (ed), The Routledge Companion to Gender and Sexuality in Comic Book Studies, Abingdon & New York: Routledge, pp. 1-12.

Bayat, Asef (2017), Revolution Without Revolutionaries. Making Sense of the Arab Spring. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Bayat, Asef (2021), Revolutionary Life. The Everyday of the Arab Spring. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Brown, Jeffrey A. & Melissa Loucks (2014), ‘A Comic of Her Own: Women Writing, Reading and Embodying through Comics,’ ImageText, Vol.7, Issue 4: https://imagetextjournal.com/a-comic-of-her-own-women-writing-reading-and-embodying-through-comics/ (last accessed 15 September 2022).

Chatta, Rasha (2020), ‘Conflict and Migration in Lebanese Graphic Narratives,’ Kevin Smets et al. (eds) (2020), The Sage Handbook of Media and Migration, London: Sage, pp. 597-607.

Chute, Hillary (2010), Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Coleman, Rebecca & Debra Ferreday (2010), ‘Introduction: Hope and Feminist Theory,’ Journal for Cultural Research, 14:4, pp. 313-321

Douglas, Allen & Malti-Douglas, Fedwa (1994), Arab Comic Strips: Politics of an Emerging Mass Culture. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Dubbati, Barkuzar (2017), ‘The Woman in Hijab as a Freak: Super(Muslim) Woman in Deena Mohamed’s Webcomic Qahera,’ Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Vol. 8, No. 5, pp. 433-449.

El-Affendi Abdelwahab & Khalil al-Anani (eds.) (2021), After the Arab Revolutions. Decentring Democratic Transition Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Ghaibeh, Lina (2015), ‘Telling Graphic Stories of the Region: Arabic Comics after the Revolution,’ IEMed. Mediterranean Yearbook 2015, pp. 324-329.

Ghaibeh, Lina (2018), ‘From Behind the Doors Into The Streets: Women in Comics from the Arab World,’ Nouvelle Génération: La bande dessinée arabe aujourd’hui/The New Generation: Arab Comics Today. Exhibition catalogue. Marseille: Alifbata, pp. 30-39.

Gibson, Mel (2016), ‘Comics and Gender,’ in Frank Bramlett, Roy Cook, Aaron Meskin (eds), The Routledge Companion to Comics, 1st edition, New York: Routledge, pp. 285-295.

Høigilt, Jacob (2017), ‘Egyptian Comics and the Challenge of Patriarchal Authoritarianism,’ International Journal of Middle East Studies, 49 (1), pp. 111-131.

Høigilt, Jacob (2019), Comics in Contemporary Arab Culture. Politics, Language and Resistance, London & New York: IB Tauris.

hooks, bell (2000), 2nd edition, Feminist Theory: From Margins to Center, London: Pluto.

Kamal, Hala (2016), ‘Translating Feminist Literary Theory into Arabic,’ Studia Filologiczne, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 57-73.

Kamal, Hala (2018), ‘Travelling Concepts’ in Translation: Feminism and Gender in the Egyptian Context,’ Synergy, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 131-145.

Khoury, Georges (JAD) (2018), ‘Rebellion Resuscitated: The Youth’s Will against History,’ Nouvelle Génération: La bande dessinée arabe aujourd’hui/The New Generation: Arab Comics Today. Exhibition Catalogue. Marseille: Alifbata, pp. 12–21.

Makdisi, Jean Said, Noha Bayoumi & Rafif Rida Sidawi (eds.) (2014), Arab Feminisms. Gender and Equality in the Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris.

Merhej Lena et al. (2015), Muqtatafat. Cambridge, MA: Ninth Art Press.

Mikkola, Mari (Fall 2022), ‘Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender,’ Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2022/entries/feminism-gender/ (last accessed 15 September 2022).

Müge Göçek, Fatma (ed.) (1988), Political Cartoons in the Middle East. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener Publications.

Rizkallah, Sara (2015), The Visualization and Representation of Gender in Egyptian Comics. What is the Fuss All About. MA Thesis, unpublished.

Shaker, Sara H. (2017), ‘Gender Binaries and Sexual Violence in Adult Comics During Post-Revolutionary Egypt,’ Kohl,Vol.3, No.2 (Winter 2017) Sex, Desire and Intimacy. https://kohljournal.press/gender-binaries (last accessed 15 September 2022).

Spivak, Gayatri (2002), ‘The Rest of the World,’ in Zournazi, M. (ed.), Hope: New Philosophies for Change, Sydney: Pluto Press, pp. 172–191.

The Gender Dictionary (2016), Lebanon Support: https://civilsociety-centre.org/resource/gender-dictionary-traveling-concepts-and-local-usages-lebanon-قاموس-الجندر-مفاهيم-متنقّلة (last accessed 15 September 2022).

Comics:

Al-Khatib, Islam (2020), ‘Al-’amal ka ’adaat nasawiyya’ [Hope as a feminist tool], Jeem: https://jeem.me/مجتمع/إسلام-الخطيب/الأمل-كأداة-نسوية (last accessed 15 September 2022).

Al-Samandal (2016), ‘Ça restera entre nous’ [It will stay between us], Samandal & Alifbata.

Al-Samandal (2019), ‘Hunna’ [They, in the feminine plural], Beirut: Alphapress.

Al-Shakmagiya (2019), second issue, Beirut: Al-Warsha.

Fasiki, Zainab (2019), Hshouma. Corps et sexualité au Maroc, Paris: Éditions Massot.

Haddad, Haitham (2020), ‘Kayfa utarjim queer basarían wa as’ila wujudía ukhra’ [How I translate queer visually and other existential questions], Jeem: https://jeem.me/جندرجنسانية/هيثم-حداد/كيف-أترجم-queer-بصرياً-وأسئلة-وجودية-أخرى (last accessed 15 September 2022).

Kai, Joseph (2021), L’Intranquille, Paris: Castermann.

Kai, Joseph (2018), Bros, https://grandpapier.org/joseph-kai/bros?lang=fr#page1 (last accessed 15 September 2022).

Merhej, Lena & Joelle Hatem (2021-2022), ‘Thawrati ʿala al-‘arbʿin’ [Revolution in my 40s], 7 instalments, Jeem: https://jeem.me/%D8%B1%D8%B3%D9%88%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%AA (last accessed 15 September 2022).

Merhej, Lena, Karen Keyrouz, Nour Hifaoui, Azza Abourabia et al. (2019), Hunna [They, in the feminine plural form], Samandal Comics: Beirut.

Mohamed, Deena (2013-2019), Qahera

https://qaherathesuperhero.com/tagged/qaherainarabic/chrono (last accessed 15 September 2022).

Mokhtari, Rim (2012), ‘Shawk’ [Thorn], TokTok, issue 7, Cairo: Toktok Mag, pp. 35-38.

Nagy, Farid (2022), ʿadasat lasiqa [Lenses & other stories], self-publication. (‘Lenses’ available here: https://www.behance.net/gallery/144135505/Lenses- ; ‘I can travel alone: second category available here: https://www.behance.net/gallery/123096727/I-can-travel-alone-comic, ‘Waiting for Spring’ available here: https://www.behance.net/gallery/94363149/Waiting-for-Spring-comic last accessed 15 September 2022).

Daou, Bernadette, Yazan al-Saadi et al. (2021) Where to, Marie? Stories of Feminisms in Lebanon, https://wheretomarie.net/en (last accessed 15 September 2022).

Films & Audio:

Crayon au poing, un vent de révolte au féminin (2021), dir. Eloise Fagard and Lizzie Treu: https://www.arte.tv/digitalproductions/fr/crayon-au-poing-un-vent-de-revolte-au-feminin/ (last accessed 15 September 2022).

Nadia Yala Kisukidi: une nouvelle pensée des mondes noirs (2022), Laurent Correau, ‘Philosophes d’Afrique, penseurs du monde’: https://www.rfi.fr/fr/podcasts/philosophes-d-afrique-penseurs-du-monde/20220904-nadia-yala-kisukidi-une-nouvelle-pensée-des-mondes-noirs?ref=fb&fbclid=IwAR1eYSfE9EdsWPABusRlZZMGEx7CMaC2Jqacj7IjG_-2f3ERRDM-2UYq-6g (last accessed 15 September 2022).

Zainab Fasiki: Hshouma (2021), Alka Kurian: https://soundcloud.com/user-45135439/zainab-fasiki-hshouma (last accessed 15 September 2022).

New Archival Practices: Rasha Chatta in Conversation with Joseph Kai (2018), Rasha Chatta, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/15129 (last accessed 15 September 2022).

Organisations:

Jeem: https://jeem.me/ (last accessed 15 September 2022).

Nazra for Feminist Studies: https://nazra.org/shakmgia (last accessed 15 September 2022).

Warshat al-Maʿaref/ The Knowledge Workshop: https://www.alwarsha.org/ (last accessed 15 September 2022).


Cover Picture: Our Feminist, Queer, and Marxist Fists will Smash Patriarchal Capitalism. Nour Hifaoui Fakhoury, 2019


Rasha Chatta is a comparative literary and cultural studies scholar and has held teaching positions at SOAS, Bard College Berlin, and NYU London. She received her PhD in Cultural, Literary, and Postcolonial Studies from SOAS, University of London. She has published essays on migrant literary theory, Arab diasporic literatures and cultures, and Arab comics in venues such as The Sage Handbook of Media and Migration, Diasporic Constructions of Home and Belonging, the Literary Encyclopedia amongst others. Her research interests include visual aesthetics and memory, approaches to world literature, Arab migrant and diasporic literatures, ‘alternative’ archives, and war literature with a focus on Lebanon and Syria. She is currently completing her first monograph on Arab comics and migration. Rasha was a EUME-Forum Transregionale Studien Fellow and a MECAM postdoctoral fellow between 2017 and 2021, before joining the Freie Universität Berlin as Einstein researcher. She serves as Chair of the MLA’s Global Arab and Arab American Forum.


Further articles on the TRAFO-Blog by Rasha Chatta:

Rasha Chatta, Comics as Witness and Testimony: An Interview with Jennifer Howell, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 31.03.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/34409

Rasha Chatta, Pascale Ghazaleh, Lamia Moghnieh, Alia Mossallam, Workshop Report: “Out of the Archives New Archival Practices: Towards Alternative Historiographies, Voices, and Spaces”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.12.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/15573.

The First to Wake up Played the Music of His Choice” – 5in10 with Rasha Chatta, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.04.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/9294.


Citation

Rasha Chatta, Reclaiming Spaces from the Streets to the Gutter: Sketching Feminisms in Contemporary Arab Graphic Narratives, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 06.04.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/46320


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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  1. 2. Mai 2023

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