Kharabish Nasawiya (خرابيش نسوية), which loosely translates to “Feminist Doodles,” is a Facebook page that was launched on March 8, 2017, International Women’s Day. The creator, a feminist and researcher based in Beirut, wanted to transform pop art images she found on the Internet and create comics that deconstructed sexist messages in a humorous and relatable way. As she told Muftah, Arabic comics about feminism already exist, including Qahira and Shekmgiya from Egypt. However, whereas these comics are creating their own images to talk about sexism, Kharabish Nisaiyeh is subverting pop art to share these messages.
Now, a year after its founding, Kharabish has a following of over 20,000. The comics have been translated from Lebanese Arabic into Armenian, Greek, Hindi, Turkish, Moroccan , Tunisian, English, French and more. The creator, who prefers not to disclose her identity in an effort to keep the focus on the messaging, recently spoke with Muftah about the themes behind these comics.
Muftah: What inspired you to create these comics?
Kharabish Nisaiyeh: The thing is, Kharabish started as a joke. I posted one of the comics on Facebook after an incident with a friend. We were in a bar, and a guy approached her and asked her, “Sweetie, why are you sad?” Although we had been laughing a minute before. And this question is always there – “Sweetie, why are you sad? Sweetie, smile.” It kind of renders women as esthetics in the public sphere, for the male gaze to enjoy their presence, rather that for women to coexist in the public.
So, my friend told him to go away. And I told her, “You should have told him because of “male dominance over public space.” And we laughed, and I thought “Oh my, I’m going to make a comic about that.” I made the comic and posted it on Facebook, then I was asked by a friend to make the comic public, and that’s when it went viral. Women from the region started sharing it and asking for more. So this is how it all started.
It never occurred to me to start a page until a few months later when I created a comic in which one of the “comrades” says to his female counterpart, “But comrade in this revolutionary moment, there is no space for women rights, it is not a priority.” The woman responds with “Dear Comrade, ‘kol khara’” (which translates to ‘eat shit’).
After posting this comic, I was surprised by the amount of messages I received from women from the region, with stories about the left’s misogyny. I knew from experience that organizing with leftist men is always a challenge, because queer and feminist agendas get tossed away and dismissed, but I did not realize how much women from all over the Arabic speaking world could also relate. And that’s when I realized I needed to start the Kharabish Nasawiya page, because of the amount of messages of solidarity, and how women related to the misogyny in the leftist movement.
M: Why did you feel that comics and pop art would best transmit feminist messages?
KS: I have a very juvenile answer for that – I am a big fan of flashy colors – I don’t wear them, but I like them. Pop art is easily consumed, it is some kind of commodity that spreads very fast. To our generation, it also looks very familiar and unthreatening. It was just intuitive to choose pop art rather than strategic.
M: In one of your posts, a man says: “I don’t like feminists but I have a feeling you’re different.” Many of the posts make a statement about how feminism is received in society. As the #MeToo movement has become more visible, do you feel people have been more comfortable with coming forward as feminists?
I don’t see the “Me Too” movement as a milestone in the Middle East, because women in the Middle East and North Africa have been saying “I am a feminist” for a long time, especially after the 2011 revolutions, but before as well. Feminists were and have been organizing, and acknowledging that they were feminists for a long time. In addition, to that, the Me Too movement is about sexual harassment; conversations and campaigns about sexual harassment in the MENA region were taking place long before the Me Too campaign. We existed before Me Too and have been talking about sexual harassment for a very long time.
What pisses me off is that trends in the West are used to measure why people come out as feminists. I was very happy with Me Too campaign because it underscored how much women get harassed. I am a big supporter but I also want people to acknowledge that the Me Too movement is not some milestone that made us more vocal about feminism or about being feminists.
M: You have a post about this year’s UN Campaign “Because I am a Man.” (#لأني_رجل) Could you tell me a little bit about your reaction to the UN campaign?
On their website, UN Women says that violence against women is a grave violation of human rights. So now, in this campaign, what they’re doing is saying “I don’t hit her, I don’t beat women up because I am a man.” I know where they are coming from, from this “talking to masculinity” [point of view], but this discourse about protecting women also centers men as the authoritative figure over women. It becomes a decision not to beat women, rather than an act of violence. It waters down violence against women so much, it just becomes a favor for men not to beat women up. Deaths from violence against women is massive, especially in the region. In Beirut recently, there were 8 women killed in two months. For UN Women to come forward and say no, “because I am a man I don’t hit her,” is a catastrophic discourse that has a lot of consequences. In addition, the campaign shows how UN Women is divorced and very distant from feminist debates happening in the region about feminism and structural violence against women.
M: Why do you often use the word comrade in your comics?
KS: It is a word used by leftists.”Rafiq” – it’s about comradeship. I use it as something positive, but other times I use it as a critique of comradeship. Sometimes “comrade” becomes a fraternity from which women are excluded. They just want us as figures for their liberal quotas. They don’t want to listen to us or further our agendas.
M: Who do you hope is reading your comics?
KS: Everybody. When I am creating these comics though, I am especially thinking about women, trans women, queer women, feminists, refugee women; but also women who are at home, thinking this is all normal and ok; also women who are at home, thinking this is not normal and not ok, to be in oppressive structures, but don’t have relief. I just want women to laugh – I mean cis women and trans women.
M: In addition to laughing, what do you hope they take away from your comics?
KS: I want to help translate the Arabic words that express structures of patriarchy. I do those translations with the assistance of a feminist translator who is an expert on gender. “Mansplainer” does not have an Arabic translation, nor does heteronormativity. These words that we use in academia, to talk about gender and sexuality and feminism, are not as used in Arabic. In the comics, I try to translate these terms, which capture a certain social act and ideology. It’s feminism in Arabic. I translate mansplainer, for example, as “tafseej” from tasfeer and rajol (man and explaining). By translating words like this into Arabic, they will reach an audience that does not speak English. It’s not like women didn’t know what mansplaining was before there was a word capturing it. But when it got named, we could talk and think about it more easily.
M: You also mention refugee women as part of your audience, and delve into issues of forced migration in your comics. How do you feel forced migration and feminism are intertwined?
Feminism is about intersectionality. It’s about the intersection of struggles. None of us are free until all of us are free. To me, it’s not only about refugee women, it’s also about refugee men who get demonized a lot, who are turned into docile bodies who are very much oppressed by the stereotype of the “savage Arab man.” Borders limit mobility and force people to become refugees. Of course, women and transwomen are the first to be harassed and violated, but men are also impacted. Feminism is about injustice. It’s about tackling injustice whenever you see it.