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Muslim Women Find Expression Through Cartoons

Fri 18th Dec 2009

One of the amazing fields where Muslim women have shown extra special skills in self expression is working as cartoonists. The skills of two Muslim women working in the same field but separated by a wide geographical and social distance is highlighted here, one in Pakistan and the other in Palestine.

I guess a very small number of people in the West know much about Muslim women creative artists. Most Muslim women are stereotyped by the Western media, painting a gloomy picture of oppressed women whose freedoms are highjacked by men - their role is likened as limited to bearing children and cooking. This view suits the Western media well, because a great deal of such images are recycled to justify political aggression and interference in a number of Muslim countries. Even though some stories are right, not many in the media want to go through the effort of finding out how accurate they are.

Omayya Joha is a well known cartoonist in the Middle East. She is the first Palestinian and Arab woman political cartoonist who has worked for a daily newspaper, and the first to establish her own business of Joha Toon. Joha was born in Gaza on February 2, 1972. She graduated from the Mathematics Department at Al Azhar University in Egypt 1995 with the highest degrees of honour and distinction. She is a member of the Naji Al-Ali Assembly of Fine Arts in Palestine, and the Palestinian cartoonist who drew 40.000 political cartoons and created the Hanthalh character, the pair footed Palestinian child who appears to be watching what is going on, and thus we always saw his back and never saw his face. Joha is so good that she has won the Arab Journalism Award for her work in 2001 in a very competitive field dominated by men.

The other Muslim woman cartoonist is Nigar Nazar, the Pakistani, who invented the character of Gogi to express her views about diverse subjects ranging from male chauvinism to suicide bombers. Nazar has chosen Gogi to be her main character as a long-lashed, short-coiffed, polka dot-wearing, pixie-faced modern Pakistani Muslim woman.

The Palestinian cartoonist Omayya Joha has chosen to highlight many personalities in her society and not to focus on a woman character to express her views regarding the Israeli occupation that left women, men, and children of all age categories equal in pain. Joha herself, however, is a victim of Israel's aggression that destroyed her city - Gaza -and killed both her first husband by gunshot wounds and her second husband by denying him the right to seek medical help under the siege.

There is a deep touch of sadness and feeling of oppression in every drawing she creates. Her subjects are refugees, oppressed Palestinians, prisoners, and a great deal of bereavement and despair and criticism of the International community for its hypocritical stand of the Palestinian plight. And as much as she has expressed her anger of the Western international stand, she has expressed the same anger towards Arab political establishments and leaders for letting the Palestinians down.

Nazar's work, on the other hand, shows womanly humour in a male-dominated society where she seeks social freedom. Pakistan, her country, is not suffering occupation. Pakistan suffers other kinds of problems like being a male dominant society, where illiteracy seems to be infesting in its own communities and where there are some radicalization of the youngsters. Naza is striving in her work to see social progress by conquering ignorance which happens to be an inside enemy, while Joha shows lots of pain and longing for political freedom from the Israeli oppressor who happens to be an outside enemy.

Nazar who is based in Islamabad, lectured at Colorado College for a short period, hoping to help Americans rid themselves of what she suspects is a typically one-dimensional perception of Islamic society and culture, while Joha, who was born during the occupation, has never been able to travel to the West because of the Israeli siege. She longed to share her experience on an international level but she could not attend many invitations, even though she is the most prominent female cartoonist in the Middle East.

Nazar, whose father worked in the Foreign Service when she was young, spent several years in America. Her cartoon character Gogi began as a daily comic strip in a Pakistan newspaper called The Sun in 1970 when Nazar was 22. She also animated a cartoon for Karachi Television about that time. Later she freelanced for The Herald monthly before publishing books of Gogi cartoons. Her first published book came on the market in 1975.

Joha on the other hand started her career by working as a teacher for three years, then resigned to focus on her work as a cartoonist. She worked for ‘Alrisalah' newspaper since 1979, and worked for ‘alquds' newspaper from 1999-2002, and since February 2002 she has worked for ‘ Alhayat Al-Jadeeda' newspaper besides her work for the Qatari newspaper ‘Al-Raya'.

Nazar's character of Gogi reflects gentle humour. But some might misinterpret her sense of humour, especially when she makes a point of criticism related to her culture. She pointed out once in one of her strips that the traditional headscarf, the chaddar, actually has advantages, such as hiding one from creditors. This hint about a high section of her poor society and many who suffer debts might be misinterpreted as criticism or disrespect of a Muslim Pakistani traditional costume that equals wearing the hijab in other Muslim societies. Her created character Gogi and friend once remarked as well on the reaction to male births and female births since her Pakistani society prefers have a baby boy as is the case in many societies. "When a son is born, the father passes out cigars. When a daughter is born, a father simply passes out" she commented. "That was my first meaningful cartoon," Nazar said. "Newspaper editors in Pakistan are not always receptive to Gogi as a mouthpiece for modern urban women," she said.

Joha is unlike Nazar. Her cartoons are direct political messages. Nazar said "I don't do political cartoons until I get very, very angry. And then they don't get published" she said, so it is not quite clear if she has chosen social caricature because she is not angry enough, or because she has fears that her work might not be published.

Unlike Nazar, Joha has had a very sad life. She was married twice and both husbands died. The first husband was Rami Khader Saad, who was killed by Israeli forces in Gaza in 2003 for being a fighter in the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam, one of Hamas groups; the second husband was Wael Oqailan who died due to the Israeli siege when he was prevented from leaving the Gaza strip to seek medical treatment after being injured in an explosion in the stomach. Aqilan died in May 2009. Both Joha's personal life and nation's difficult history is reflected in her work which is focussed on the political messages, while Nazar's messages are social and tackle almost everything from sexual harassment to equal education opportunities. Eventually her work began appearing on the sides of buses in Islamabad and Lahore.

With the high illiteracy rates in Pakistan, Nazar saw that cartoons are a good way to get messages across. Through Gogi, Nazar has tackled topics such as AIDs, arranged marriages, domestic violence, government corruption and sectarian strife, and even health and hygiene illustrations that she was assigned to do by UNICEF. She's written and drawn children's storybooks on the environment as well, such as "The Garbage Monster." She's painted hospital murals and illustrated comic books to help children avoid recruitment as suicide bombers.

Joha uses her home key symbol as her signature; the key appears in many of her works as a reminder of her hope like all Palestinian refugees to return back to their homes, the homes they were forced out from by the Zionists in 1948. Since then, they have become refugees more than once. The Peace dove also is present in many of her drawings along with the blood and the children and their mothers. Palestine's map, which appeared in her work, seems to shrink by the years with Israel's policies of expansion and confiscations of Palestinian lands. The chains are highlighted in her work as well, since almost 11,000 Palestinians are imprisoned in Israeli jails. One in every four Palestinians has been arrested at least once in his life time, which is considered the highest percentage in the world.
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