Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat – Are editorial cartoons in the Arab world a male dominated art form? Yes may be the obvious answer, and perhaps this affirmative response is proved if one looks at the various examples published in Arab press on a daily basis. Moreover, most of the time, it is men rather than women who practice this art as a profession. In the absence of female cartoonists, the opinion of this significant part of society is also missing.
There is a slight interest shown by women in practicing the so-called troublesome art, according to Saad al Din Shihata, a cartoonist at the Egyptian daily al Ahram. “It is a matter that has cumulated over a period of time during which women were not present,” he says, referring to names of females who recently began to draw editorial cartoons as a profession.
Salim al Hilali, a cartoonist at Saudi Arabia’s daily Okaz, says the road to practicing this art as a journalistic profession is a “difficult” one for men let alone women, who he described as “impatient.”
Similarly, cartoonist Hassan Bleibel from the Lebanese paper al Mustaqbal attributes the lack of women within this field, unlike the other plastic arts that enjoy a large female influence throughout the Arab world, to the fact that “there are some fields in which women do not excel and editorial cartoons is one of them,” explaining why he emphatically calls editorial cartoons “a male art”.
Bleibel attributes the lack of female influence in this field to the fact that cartoon is a satirical art marked by severity and hostility as it portrays the negative aspects of particular individuals in society with whom the cartoonist clashes to the point of retaliation sometimes. According to him, such hostility is not appropriate to the nature of women, characterized by emotion and compassion. Another reason, he adds, is that “editorial cartoons are usually political, and women, in Arab societies particularly, rarely practice or deal with politics.”
Abdulaziz al Rubaie, al Riyadh’s cartoonist in Saudi Arabia does not concur with the above opinion on female disinterest in this art. “I cannot find any convincing reason for the absence of women from the field of editorial cartoons. It is an art, just like the other arts, such as sculpture, photography, directing, design, literary writing and so forth, in which women excelled just like men did,” he added. Also, he does not accept attributing the lack of female presence in the art of editorial cartoon to a female weakness or inability to deal with society and therefore interact with its issues, particularly in Saudi society, where there is much separation of the sexes. He emphasized that the problem is a global rather than Arab or Saudi one. “Interest in the art of cartoon is weak even in Western societies where women have achieved freedom and have been given several practical opportunities by society,” he added.
Zaqi Shaqfa, a cartoonist at Jordan’s al Rai newspaper, maintains that despite the recent emergence of new [female] names in the field, their experience does not match that of their male counterparts. According to him, this is clearly due to “the Arab social traditions that did not enable women to be present in this field.” He associates this to the fact that “cartoon is a bold art that deals with socially sensitive issues that women are too shy to portray, criticize and deal with, such as Khula’[divorce in which the wife gives husband compensation], marital life and so on.”
However, what are the opinions held by female cartoonists about the female absence?
Saudi cartoonist Hana Hajjar, who embarked on a career path to journalism less than two years ago and who works on a free-lance basis for a local Saudi English-language daily Arab News, states that the vigor of this art and its sharp, bold satire do not justify the lack of participation by females. “Everyone has the right to express their opinion. I express my views through cartoons and consider my work a kind of intellectual jihad,” she argued.
Hana points out that in her early twenties, she brushed up on her talent on her own without specialized study due to the lack of institutes or an academic major of cartoon design that would ensure development for talented women in Saudi Arabia, therefore she is considering the idea of studying the art in London. Hajjar, who took to drawing political cartoons two months ago and who has had eleven of her cartoons published so far, does not see that there is a reason for disinterest in this field shown by female plastic artists, especially as she is one of them. “I find this shortage unusual in the field of editorial cartoons, especially as women are characterized by being more sentimental in paying attention to detail, which would allow women to succeed in this field.” However, she considers the ability to draw editorial cartoons an inherent talent of a human being. She indicated that men have satirized women for many years through cartoons, portraying women as a comical heroine. “It is time for women to try to defend themselves, and this is what I will try to do—stand up for women. However, this does not mean that I will not criticize negative actions of women in a satirical manner; I will focus on criticizing unusual behavior, whether from men or women,” she explains.
But has the absence of female Arab artists from the editorial cartoon field in the Arab press led to the absence of female perspectives vis-à-vis the male viewpoints that deal with issues from a male perspective? “Certainly,” replied al Rubaie. “Sometimes we see many cartoons satirizing women or attacking some of her actions without actually portraying her own problems which she knows better than any man. Meanwhile, we do not see cartoons defending women against this attack.”
For her part, Saudi female social worker Umaima al Anbari told Asharq Al Awsat “It is natural that the female absence from this art leads to a deficiency in dealing with female issues of which only she is aware. That does not mean that there are no male cartoonists who handle female issues objectively.”
– Edwina Dumm (1894-1990), the first American woman to work as a full-time editorial cartoonist.
– Signe Wilkinson, an American cartoonist whose works were published in Philadelphia Daily News and The Washington Post Writers Group’s publications. She is the first female cartoonist to win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1992.
– Etta Hulme, an American cartoonist whose works were published in Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She won the National Cartoonist Society Editorial Cartoon Award in 1981 and 1998.
– Claire Bretecher, a French cartoonist whose works were published in the French weekly, Le Nouvel Observateur, from 1973.
– Kate Salley Palmer, an American cartoonist who has won several awards. Her works were sold and reproduced in over 200 publications. Retired in 1987, she dedicated herself to illustrating books for children.