Sunday, 6 April 2014

STEREOTYPES AND WOMEN RIGHTS: CARTOONISTS SPEAK

Biting humour from Australian cartoonist Cathy Wilcox

Is there ever anything “funny” about the topics of inequality, violence against women or sexist attitudes in the workplace? Cartoonists from around the world had a go at answering some of these questions at an off-beat festival in the southern French region of Hérault this weekend.

The second International Festival of Press Cartoons, titled L’Hérault Trait Libre (Herault draws a free line), brought together 18 cartoonists from 10 countries for a series of challenging debates about women rights and media portrayal, and also launched a provocative exhibition of drawings about these issues.

“It’s important to have a meeting like this of cartoonists from different regions to talk about clichés and stereotypes,” said Plantu, a well-known French cartoonist and president of Cartooning For Peace, which co-organized the festival with Hérault’s district council and a local press club.

“We use clichés in our work to draw attention to certain subjects, but are the clichés themselves a problem? Can we escape them?” he added.

The answer to that might be “no”, judging from some of the drawings produced during the festival itself. But many cartoonists are actively trying to promote dialogue and change attitudes, especially regarding gender.

Venezuelan cartoonist Rayma Suprani. (Photo: McKenzie)
In fact, a growing number of women cartoonists, from countries ranging from Tunisia to Venezuela, have made women’s rights a major theme in their work, even as they themselves confront sexism in the male-dominated cartooning sphere.

“I think women have a huge responsibility in the current era, of trying to create one’s own space and one’s own way of being,” said Rayma Suprani, a journalist-turned-cartoonist who works for the newspaper El Universal in Caracas, Venezuela.

“Nowadays, we have the privilege of greater freedom. My grandmother didn’t have the option of choosing to be a cartoonist, choosing not to be married or opting for an alternative lifestyle, for instance,” Suprani told SWAN.

In a country where machismo is a reality, using cartoons to poke fun at certain attitudes is only to be expected. Where Suprani faces problems, however, is in the political domain; she has received threats because of her work criticizing the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and both Cartooning for Peace and Amnesty International have drawn attention to her case.

“I don’t think the threats are based solely on gender,” Rayma told SWAN. “It’s not because of your genital organs, but it’s because you have a brain and you can think.”

Tunisian cartoonist Willis from Tunis (Nadia Khiari), whose trademark character is an acerbic cat, has also faced threats, but she said that continuing to protest, whether on the streets on in cartoons and blogs, is one way to change things.

Willis from Tunis and Rayma Suprani drawing live.
Photo courtesy of Cartooning for Peace.
Her cartoons deride attempts to suppress women and freedom of expression, but like other cartoonists, Willis sometimes worries about how her work is perceived. For instance, when she tackles a subject such as rape perpetrated by members of the “security” forces, she’s concerned that the victim doesn’t see herself as being mocked, she said during the festival.

Sexual violence is in fact one of the most sensitive topics for cartoonists, and some male participants in Montpellier created drawings that made observers question whether they comprehend the effects of such violence.

But the issue isn’t only a male-female one, says Portuguese cartoonist Cristina Sampaio, it’s one of personality and sensibility. Aded to this is the question of whether there should be limits on freedom of expression.

“It’s a slippery slope,” Sampaio told SWAN. “There must be a balance between being a cartoonist and the audience’s ability to not take things too personally.”

For André Vezinhet, chairman of Hérault’s General Council, “freedom of expression is the mother of all freedoms and the work of cartoonists is a good indicator of the health of a democracy”.

A cartoon by Willis from Tunis
Still, the concept that freedom comes with responsibility - whether in the area of gender, ethnicity or religion - is the idea behind the founding of Cartooning for Peace.

Created by Plantu and former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan in 2006, following the protests sparked by the controversial Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, the initiative was meant to highlight the notion that cartoonists’ influence comes with a “responsibility to encourage debate rather than inflame passions, to educate rather than divide,” Annan says.

Alice Toulemonde, editorial director of Cartooning for Peace, told SWAN that in choosing cartoons for the exhibition launched during the festival, she didn’t see a real difference in the work of male and female cartoonists.

“The new generation of women cartoonists draw differently from the older generation, and may have a different approach to women’s rights as that is not their only concern,” she said. “The work also depends on the country because the gender context varies.”

Some countries may have greater levels of equality, but the public generally continues to perceive particular professions in a certain way. As cartooning has long been a male preserve, some readers automatically assume that a political drawing has been done by a man.

Cathy Wilcox, a cartoonist who works for the Sydney Morning Herald, tells of receiving letters that begin with “Dear Sir”. When she points out that it’s a woman who has done the cartoons, some readers ask if it’s a man who wrote the captions.

Tellingly, of the 108 members of Cartooning for Peace (representing more than 40 nationalities), only 25 are women. Could this mean that perhaps men are more adept at eliciting laughter?

Still, despite the statistics and the serious questions, the festival was entertaining on a number of fronts, especially when the cartoonists produced instant drawings satirizing one another and the topic at hand.

The exhibition Elles vident leur sac (They empty their bags) features 200 cartoons from 50 countries and runs until 26 July 2014, at the pierrevives community complex in Montpellier, Hérault department, France.