Comics and the liberation from patriarchy

By: Jacob Høigilt, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

New media, new content

Warning: This is all work in progress, so it leaves much to be desired. But this subject is so fun working on that I wanted to share what I have even if it is still pretty undeveloped. OK, here goes:

During the last few years, the literary scene in Egypt has been enriched by a new kind of medium: Comics for grown-ups. Arab comics for grown-ups is a new cultural phenomenon which is only now beginning to attract attention, not least thanks to the efforts of Marcia Lynx Qualey, and it provides a rich, fun and stimulating window into contemporary Arab culture. In the course of a few years, we have seen manga-inspired horror stories, crime noir set in Cairo, and anthologies with stories ranging from the funny and surreal to deeply disturbing accounts of poverty and oppression. The most visible venue for the new comics is Tuk-Tuk, a bi-monthly independent magazine run by a collective of young artists.

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Tuk-Tuk, a bi-monthly independent magazine run by a collective of young artists.

Comics as such is of course not new to Egypt. There is a decades-long tradition of comics magazines for children in the country, like Samir, and some of the strips in these magazines are very sophisticated and may speak to adults as well as children. But the phenomenon I am writing about here is independent comics for grown-ups, with content of a nature that has necessitated “for grown-ups only” stickers on the cover. This arguably started with the publication in 2008 of Metro, Egypt’s first graphic novel, written by Magdi al-Shafi’i. Metro is a piece of noir fiction about a young computer programmer who robs a bank in desperation as the system prevents him from making it, filled as it is with corruption and crime.

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Front cover of Egypt’s first graphic novel Metro by Magdi al-Shafi’i.

In the year before and after the revolution, there was an intense blossoming of other kinds of comics, and in fact a publishing house dedicated to comics was recently established. These comics span a wide range of themes, styles. Many of them are not political at all, but just for entertainment.

But there is also a discernible tendency towards critique, whether it is couched in humorous or more serious terms, and this is what concerns me here. In particular, I want to comment on how comics may be a channel for criticizing patriarchal authoritarianism of Egypt, prominent before the revolution and resurfacing after it. Many of the artistic expressions during the revolution shared the same critical bent. One of the founders of Tuk-Tuk and a central figure on the Egyptian comics scene, Mohammed Shennawy, expressed the dual socio-political and artistic aims of Tuk-Tuk:

“We wanted to make stories, not only cartoons, for grown-ups, and light stories in ‘ammiyya about real issues in the street, not educational stuff. Also we wanted to export an Egyptian way of drawing. (…) And it would contain themes relating to government, to the family, all the traditions, the taboos, the clichés, we are against all that.”

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Shennawy’s signature character, a parking attendant in downtown Cairo, helps a tank find a free spot. Tuk-Tuk 11, p. 1.

Criticism of patriarchal authoritarianism

What do I mean by a patriarchal authoritarianism in Egypt? Here I focus on two aspects that have been particularly salient before and after the revolutionary moment: obedience to the father figure and devaluation and oppression of women. The patriarchal mindset of Egypt’s elite is combined with authoritarianism to produce a controlled public space, and a public sphere with little or no room for critical and independent news coverage or opinion. Especially after the military coup of 2013 the public sphere has been characterized by an unprecedented degree of partisanship, censorship and even brainwashing. In a print media landscape where most journals and magazines have gone into campaigning mode, comics provide a relief from the suffocating, state-sponsored discourse.

A salient example of neopatriarchy on the macro level is Husni Mubarak’s speech to the nation on 8 February 2011. He started it by saying: “I am addressing all of you from the heart, a speech from the father to his sons and daughters…” The answer he got from the people in Tahrir was booing and jeers.

In Tuk-Tuk, a story by the well-known graphic artist Andeel comments on the oppressiveness of this patriarchal system. The story is about an officer in the secret police who routinely tortures his victims until they die, as you can see on the left side. His assistant is left to clear up the mess afterwards. He displays the same bullying attitude in relation to his son, who decides he can’t take the humiliation anymore and simply jumps out of the window and commits suicide. There is a grim irony to the fact that the son jumps out of the window of the very office where his father routinely torture prisoners to death. The story does not end here – the officer becomes a broken man, a symbol of a failed and evil political system. Tuk-Tuk 5, in which this story featured, was published in January 2012, at a time when the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had overseen a massacre of largely Coptic demonstrators and a brutal crackdown on revolutionaries during the Muhammad Mahmoud clashes in October and November 2011, respectively.

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Andeel: The Shepherd and the Wolf, Tuk-Tuk 5, pp. 22.
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Andeel: The Shepherd and the Wolf, Tuk-Tuk 5, pp. 23.

The devaluation and oppression of women

The devaluation and oppression of women is of course an important aspect of patriarchy everywhere, and in the context of the Arab uprisings, it went hand in hand with authoritarian political practices. In the case of Egypt, the state is in fact actively involved in furthering sexualized violence against women, on Tahrir in particular (recall the blue bra woman and the so-called ‘virginity tests’).

In Egypt, the political process since 2011 has highlighted two contradictory trends: On the one hand, the existence of strong women who refuse to be put on the sideline, with Asmaa Mahfouz as something of an icon. On the other hand you have the Islamists’ and the military’s marginalization of women and the persistent problem of sexual harassment. The new comics for grown-ups comment on both, with a clear sympathy for women’s liberation and intrinsic worth.

Issue no 7 of Tuk-Tuk was in fact dedicated to the girls and women who read the magazine, and it contained several stories that revolves around the position of women in Egyptian society. First, a story featuring the classic street harasser, from the drawing of him it is pretty clear where the sympathy of the artist is. I won’t go into the details of the story, except mentioning that this guy eventually gets killed by the girls’ brothers, after it turns out that she is from Upper Egypt, a region that is strongly associated with family honour, blood feuds and violence in Egypt. What I would like to draw attention to here is the effect harassment has on him. His facial features get wiped out, so his face becomes completely blank. In the story this is attributed to witchcraft, supposedly hiding in an object inside the girl’s handbag, which she throws at him. But of course the facelessness may at another level be read as the storyteller’s comment on what harassment does to the human dignity of the harasser himself, while the girl stands out as the hero who won’t stand for it.

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Hisham Rahma: Disgrace by Hot Oil, Tuk-Tuk 7, p. 51.

Second, there is the wordless and more allegorical story of a cactus girl. What precedes the two pages I have pasted in below is that she wakes up in a pot, decides to leave it, is approached by a male hand that caresses her but is stung by one of her spines. She then takes off the ‘spiny’ clothes – her protection – and look what happens. Humorous, but also a quite damning comment on male treatment of females.

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Reem: “Thorn,” Tuk-Tuk 7, pp. 37.
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Reem: “Thorn,” Tuk-Tuk 7, pp. 38

Now of course many of the strips in Tuk-Tuk and other comics magazines are not about political or social issues as such – they are meant purely for entertainment, and also in some instances the artwork itself seems more important than the story. But I have tried to give just a taste of another aspect of these comics: their political edge, specifically their criticismof patriarchal authoritarianism and the situation of women. An analysis that is a bit more developed will emerge in not too long, hopefully!