graphic artists in the arab countries

Comics show Arab women’s struggles

BEIRUT: The women depicted in the new issue of Lebanese comic magazine Samandal always seem a few steps ahead of their present.

In one comic, an Iraqi woman breaks the taboo against women cycling in Baghdad. In another, a Mauritanian woman teaches herself about the history and techniques of film, and attends numerous international festivals.

The emphasis in each is less on what these women had to overcome than who they are and what they managed to achieve.

Titled “Hunna,” the issue contains eight comics which each tell the story of a different woman from the Middle East and North Africa.

It was produced in collaboration with Oxfam, which provided resources and found the women whose stories would be featured in the edition, taking nominations through social media and their regional field offices.

“In traditional media women’s stories either have no place or are scrutinized or get twisted to become more appealing to public opinion,” Gender and Advocacy Advisor at Oxfam Farah Kobaissy told The Daily Star. “We wanted to tell them honestly in order to challenge what is considered moral or appropriate in the public sphere.”

They chose to tell these stories through comics, she continued, because of their readability in the genre and the ease in which they can tie an idea or a feeling to a concrete image. “We decided to work with Samandal because of all their experience and talent and the wide audience that they can already reach.”

For Samandal co-founder Lena Merhej, who interviewed the women and drew the comics, the challenge of depicting someone else’s struggles forced her to modify her own style.

“When you’re just depicting your own fictional scenario you have the freedom to make up crazy images to express emotions,” she said. “Here it was more like making a documentary: everything had to be real and every word had to be referenced.

“I tried to look for specific images and moments in the women’s lives,” she continued, “where I would be able to express emotion by exaggerating or using some kind of symbolism.”

The other challenge, she added, was maintaining a documentary style while also giving each comic its own aesthetic to match the uniqueness of the story.

The fact that she was too busy to ink the drawings and had to leave that to other Samandal artists might have been an asset, said Karen Keyrouz, who inked two of the comics.

“The combinations were a little bit spooky,” she said.

“If you saw [Nour Hifaoui’s] inkings they looked like Lena’s comics and Nour’s comics had a baby and it was that comic.”

Merhej agreed, though she admitted it was hard at first to accept how her work had been transformed by the other artists.

“Actually what I wanted from the beginning was not to highlight the people who made the comics but the stories of the women themselves,” she said.

“And to do that I think it was great that the issue was informed not just by my perspective but the perspective of four other women.”

One week before the launch, Samandal and Oxfam held an introductory comic workshop for 16 women and gender nonconforming people. Two flew in from Egypt.

“The goal was to give them the skills to tell their stories and to teach them about drawing and framing and word choice,” Kobaissy said. “The Samandal artists were really equipped for it and the people who attended told us that their communication skills grew a lot as a result.”

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