Political cartoons are a powerful medium because, although they are not news, they facilitate the delivery of specific messages. Political cartoons work in two ways: they reflect particular ideas and/or aspects of pop culture, and they influence the audience’s own views. Due to their simple approach (drawings and funny dialogue), they are often more accessible than regular newspaper coverage or even TV.
Yet, because political cartoons tend to be a safe mode of expression, they can easily become influenced by gendered stereotypes. This is not because cartoonists are evil misogynists (although some might fit this description), but because they need to connect with particular cultural-accepted views on gender and gender relations. Women are treated differently than men, in that they tend to be taken less seriously, they rarely have agency, they are often hyper-sexualized and many times examined under a “virgin-whore” framework.
When it comes to Muslim women as represented in political cartoons catered to non-Muslim Western audiences, a few prevalent themes can be easily identified. I tend to collect political cartoons of Muslim women, posted on Facebook and elsewhere online. The themes I mention in this post are pretty representative of many other cartoons out there, and the images included here are just a sample. Muslim women seem to look the same, and usually wear hijabs, niqabs and/or abaayas (the blacker, the better!) When it comes to the niqab in political cartoons, it tends to serve the purpose of deleting the women’s presence, voice and agency. This resonates with the idea that niqabi women are already oppressed, so why depict them with an agency that they do not have?
Another theme present in political cartoons is the prevalent attention to Muslim women’s bodies. While Western women (such as female politicians) tend to be hyper-sexualized through sexy clothing, over-done makeup, and high heels, Muslim women are hyper-sexualized through the cartoonists’ obsession with their “exotic” way of covering. This reflects the “covered vs. uncovered” dichotomy that is often discussed in the Western media where uncovering is equated with freedom and covering with oppression (see Sex and the City 2). It is also commonly expressed that Muslim women’s bodies are not their own, but someone else’s (like the state, their male relatives, secular and religious institutions, or the media).