Text size

To enter Dalal Ezzi's Web site from this Lebanese cartoonist's home page, you must click on a cartoon woman. All are ample, with hairstyles that did not come out of a chic hair salon and clothing that is somewhat disheveled. Behind these rumpled figures, however, is the evidence of the talents of Dalal, as she refers to herself: beautiful oil paintings and charcoal drawings, and well-designed political cartoons. One, for example, depicts Lebanon as a man whose head is gripped painfully in a long-handled vise. On one handle are the words "Iranian and Syrian interests," on the other, "Israeli and American interests." In another cartoon, a small, pitiful Mahmoud Ahmadinejad carries a large missile under his arm, aimed not at Israel but rather at the heart of Lebanon. Still other cartoons use flags and symbols of Lebanon to show the country's distress. Dalal's Web site is at www.aldalalgallery.com .

Dalal Ezzi is one of only a few female Arab cartoonists. Of the 70 or so Arab cartoonists listed on arabcartoon.net, there are only three women - Dalal, Rasha Mahdi - an Egyptian who calls herself the first female Arab cartoonist - and Umaya Hijja, a Palestinian who has won worldwide acclaim for her sharp and witty creative work.

For some reason, in his study of the history of cartoons in the Egyptian media, Nasser Araq does not mention a single woman cartoonist, although it was Fatma al-Yusuf, the former actress and owner of the Roz al-Yussef weekly founded in Cairo in 1925, who afforded Egyptian cartoonists enormous freedom.

Here's a novelty: A young woman cartoonist named Hanaa Hajar has recently begun working in Saudi Arabia. In the past two years, she has published only 11 cartoons, all in the English-language Saudi daily Arab News. Hajar uses the cartoon character of a five-year-old girl called Kadbouna to express her criticism and amazement about the adult world. There are no attacks on the kingdom or the leadership in Hajar's cartoons, and respect is shown for religion and local customs. Hajar herself wears the traditional headdress.

Generally, when Saudi Arabia adopts a new phenomenon it means the trend has gone mainstream in the Arab world, but where cartooning is concerned the kingdom is actually an exception.

Arab cartoonists asked to explain the scarcity of women were quick to say that this is "a difficult and even dangerous field". Zaki Shafaqa, a Jordanian cartoonist whose work appears in the daily Al-Rai, explained in an interview that "the Arab heritage does not allow women to make their way in cartooning, because this is an art that demands courage. It touches on socially sensitive issues that women are embarrassed to deal with, such as male-female relationships."

Other cartoonists say the world of cartooning is frightening and threatening to women, who avoid the field because "by nature women give wide berth to criticism and negative reactions from society."

Hajar begs to differ. In an interview on the Internet site for Arab cartoonists (which includes many Israeli cartoons), she explained that "the absence of women from this field stems from men's monopolization of it.... We have to prove that we are not afraid of politics and to take over in this field, because women are creative and have the ability to express their talents." A woman has no difficulty in drawing men "in a comical way" and thus portraying the suffering they cause women, she claims in a rebuttal of Shafaqa's claims.

There is another obstacle to Hajar's vision, - newspaper editors are not rushing to hire female cartoonists. "When a [male] cartoonist draws something you don't like, you can tell him so to his face. When a woman brings a drawing of that type, I wouldn't know how to tell her it's not good without hurting her," explains the deputy editor of a Palestinian paper. "After all, they are much more sensitive than we are, no? In addition, when a woman brings a drawing of a ridiculous man, it's quite insulting."