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Breaking the Comic Ceiling: Female Arab Graphic Novelists Make a Mark

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A growing band of Arab women is shaping the future of the region’s comic book industry, defying odds like their characters do.

  • A growing band of Arab women is emerging as a central part of the future of comic books and graphic novels in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • At a time when the genre is gaining popularity across the region, their books are vehicles of change — as are they themselves.

If you could buy a wish at a neighborhood kiosk, what would it be? That’s the bold and fantastical question Egyptian comic artist Deena Mohamed asks in her three-part graphic novel Shubeik Lubeik. Mohamed self-published the first part, Aziza, and sold it at the Cairo Comix Festival in 2017, where it won two prizes. Now, the third story is on the way in Arabic.

The English version of the consolidated trilogy is scheduled to be published by Pantheon Books in the U.S. and Granta in the U.K. next year, but Mohamed is focused on her domestic audience.

“I want to tell Egyptian stories for an Egyptian audience, instead of worrying about how my words will be interpreted by international audiences.” 

Mohamed is part of a growing band of Arab women emerging as central figures in the future of comic books and graphic novels in the Middle East and North Africa. At a time when the genre is gaining popularity across the region, their books are vehicles of change — as are they themselves, in a world where Muslim women are often boxed in to stereotypes.

In the Arab world, especially in Lebanon and Tunisia, a lot of artists today are women.

Lina Ghaibeh, director, Arabic Comics Initiative, American University of Beirut

There’s no regional database, but industry insiders believe that most comic book artists and storytellers emerging in the region today are women. Their rise is aided by the emergence of comic publishing collectives such as U.S.-based Maamoul Press, and Lebanon-based Samandal and Tosh Fesh. Comic festivals are recognizing the quality of work produced by female artists in the form of awards such as the ones Mohamed won in Cairo. And apps such as Rusumat are catering primarily to Arabic fans of comics, graphic novels and Arabian manga.

Meanwhile, the American University of Beirut hosts an Arabic Comics Initiative. The initiative runs an annual award for comics, graphic novels and children’s book illustrations, and its director, Lina Ghaibeh, says that a large chunk of this year’s entries has come from women.

“Social media has helped women to promote their work themselves,” says Ghaibeh. “In the Arab world, especially in Lebanon and Tunisia, a lot of artists today are women.”

Aya Krisht, who co-founded Maamoul Press in 2019 with comic artist Leila Abdelrazaq, says they want to publish stories “by us, for us.” She adds: “In the comic world in the West, there are rigid ideas about what kind of stories get a platform, or what story someone from an Arab or South Asian background should tell.”

This new generation of creatives is fiercely determined that their work be recognized for its quality and not because of their gender. “I am generally tired of empowerment conversations, and I am also weary of conversations that highlight my work only because they need to fill a feminist quota,” says Mohamed. “It is very transparent when it’s only superficially or even offensively engaging with your work as a diversity measure.” 

They face challenges that won’t be easy to overcome. Most female Arab comic artists have other day jobs. They’re “either graphic artists, illustrators or screenwriters who don’t make a living out of comics or graphic novels,” says artist and publisher Lena Merhej. “We have to fight to make our market grow.”

The comic publishing collectives that are boosting their work themselves largely depend on cultural grants, donations and partnerships with global nonprofits like Oxfam. The publishers work voluntarily and also have full-time jobs. “Most of the revenue is funneled back to artists,” says Krisht.

But what the women do have is a treasure trove of stories and a determination that mirrors the guts of their characters. That’s not surprising, since these artists frequently draw from their life experiences when crafting their stories.

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Merhej started drawing after the 2006 Lebanon War. Her critically acclaimed Yoghurt and Jam, which was published as a comic series by Samandal, speaks to her fraught relationship with her German mother. Merhej is a founding member of the collective. Her upcoming book is a silent comic on the refugee crisis in Europe, which she witnessed firsthand living in Marseille. Similarly, Mohamed made her comic debut with the online series Qahera, centered on a Muslim superheroine. “I read a very misogynistic article on a website run by Muslim men, and I made a satirical comic as a response to it,” she says. Her character “addresses issues such as misogyny, liberal feminism, Islamophobia and sexual harassment through the lens of superhero tropes.”

This rise of female comic artists in the Middle East is also helping drive a rare, new phenomenon: women characters who are featured front and center in new works by men.

Odai Karsou’s Layaal And The Search For Sanity talks about the adventures of a young, mentally challenged girl from medieval Arabia. “It’s rare to find male writers who write about female protagonists,” he says.

That’s changing. Women — as authors, illustrators and characters — are leaving their mark on the Arab graphic novel industry like never before.

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