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The art of caricature is no longer just a satirical drawing that exaggerates a particular character for a defined purpose. It has become a silent speaking art, funny at times and saddening at others.
The political caricature is one of its most known forms, especially among journalistic arts. The reason behind that is its boldness in presenting and the significance of the topics it deals with, often far away from mere satire or mockery but not honest criticism.
However, deviating the meaning from the purpose sometimes overwhelms the scene, which may push the audience to react in a way that diminishes the freedom granted to the artist.
Weeks ago, a caricature shared by Syrian artist Ali Ferzat on his personal Facebook account sparked outrage among Syrians. Ferzat showed a background shot of a naked woman’s body, with a hidden gesture of a leader in the Syrian National Coalition, saying: “The coalition has nothing to be proud of other than Ruba’s behind” as a kind of political satire.
Although Ferzat did not mention the woman’s name included in his post. Nevertheless, his comments with his followers showed that he meant Ruba Habboush, deputy head of the coalition. That divided the social media audience between those who considered it a moral decline and stereotyping women’s image in political work and those who considered that there were no taboos in art.
Ferzat’s caricature sparked outrage and controversy among Syrians who launched a campaign on social media entitled “Solidarity with Ruba Habboush.” They denounced the international cartoonist’s political criticism method using women’s bodies.
Political and human rights activists considered the caricature disdainful, a direct insult to women, and breached moral boundaries, contrary to the messages that art should convey.
Violence Against Women
The Syrian Feminist Lobby described Ferzat’s actions as gender-based violence. The organisation denounced the “insult to women working in public affairs, and women in general, whether verbally or through art, using their bodies to abuse and insult.”
The organisation said in its statement: “Abusing women has become a theme used by some people in the public sphere, like the latest Syrian caricaturist. These abuses have become a feature in many of his works, by using women’s bodies as a tool for humiliation through both his words and drawings.”
The Syrian researcher and academic Rim Turkmani considered what Ferzat did not just a personal assault but also a form of violence against women and a humiliation of their role, which also targeted every woman working in public affairs.
Turkmani called for public and explicit stances against what she described as “going too far, for which not only women pay the price, but also the society that is deprived of their public role in its progress.”
To limit and Intimidate
Syrian activist Hussein Gharir was not content with just describing the use of women’s bodies to criticise or ridicule an opposition institution such as the Coalition as an insult to all women. He further considered that “the objective is to scare other women from working anywhere.”
For women, their mere presence at work allows their bodies to be used as a means of criticism and fighting battles. Some may seek to remove women from the public sphere or at least limit their participation, according to what he wrote on his Facebook profile.
The Syrian researcher Dina Ramadan believes that “targeting women working in public affairs with their femininity, bodies, or relationships under criticism or humour is fundamentally rejected.” Also, it leads to “many women’s reluctance to contribute, even though they were hand in hand with their male partners from the beginning.”
In October 2021, Syria ranked second-to-last on the “Women, Peace and Security Index” issued by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the UN PRIO Centre on Gender Peace and Security.
The index analysed the status of women in three dimensions:
- Inclusion (education, financial inclusion, employment, mobile phone use, parliamentary representation).
- Justice (lack of legal discrimination, bias, discriminatory rules).
- Security (partner violence, community safety, organised violence).
According to the index, Syria is the worst globally in organised violence and the worst regionally in community safety.
A Deviated Message
Despite acknowledging a kind of bullying and even abuse by Ferzat towards a mentioned name that was used provocatively to criticise the political performance of the coalition, journalist Pir Rustem believes that the huge “behind” and the name obscured identifying who is the caricature’s target; the coalition that was utterly absent from the scene, although it is it who is primarily criticised.
Rustem says in his article, “Perhaps many wanted to make it personal, which is why they defended a person by the mentioned name, knowing that the main target is not her, but that rotten political entity – the National Coalition. However, it was intended to distort the vision and conceal the truth or switch the target in a manner that inflates that abuse just like that drawn ‘behind,’ just to falsify the facts.”
“It was to defend the coalition in an elusive way, besides putting all Ferzat’s cognitive and political effort into question with an artistic slip that may not be intended to undermine the mentioned name.”
Dragged into the Regime’s and the Coalition’s Quagmire
Although most opinions on social media considered what Ferzat did was a big mistake, some of them warned the artist against being placed where the Syrian regime wanted.
Political activist Samira Moubayed posted on her profile: “I respect the work and biography of Ali Ferzat, and his drawings are a significant source of our collective Syrian memory since childhood. I stopped following his page a while ago because I wanted to preserve a pure image of his work, which is now full of rightful rage but expressing it deviates from what I define as a healthy path. I hope that he removes that humanly offensive caricature against one of the coalition members so that we may preserve what we are proud of.”
“Moreover, he does not allow the regime nor the coalition to drag us into their bitter quagmires away from principles that pushed us to carry the banner of dignity … nothing worth losing it.”
Ferzat responded to Moubayed, saying: “What I wrote on my page is far purer than the opposition in all its forms, including you. Furthermore, for your information, the criticism I receive about attacking your paid opposition only raises its value. And the brightest evidence is the fact that your ‘unfollowing’ of my page was only known to you and a few others … And when I write to you, I am being an added value to both your knowledge and to those who read what I wrote about you.”
Artistic Immunity and Absolute Freedom
Many Syrians consider Ali Ferzat to be neither an ordinary opponent nor an amateur cartoonist but a world-renowned artist whose caricature has always been associated with opposing the Syrian regime for years. His name rose to the top when regime officers broke his fingers in 2011. That earned him great prestige among many who admired his art and adopted his political stance.
From this point of view, some of Ferzat’s defenders believe that his precedents for “frankness” and the severity of his attacks on those he opposes, give him the right to express this opposition in any way he wants, primarily since he expresses his opinion through his art.
Some of them did not see an offence to any person or woman in the caricature, given that he criticises a political entity operating in the public sphere. Even if this criticism is based on using a woman’s body, defining it as a gain and a source of pride for a political faction to which she belongs.
Activist Alma Salama sent a message to Ferzat saying: “an artist, especially a cartoonist, cannot live without provoking controversy and trouble, and his right is preserved within his freedom of artistic expression, no matter how sacred the sanctities he breaks. One of the most critical roles of caricature art is to open complex dialogue through exaggeration, and nudity and irony are forms of expressing that exaggeration. He goes beyond the idea to the so-called ‘next layer of an idea’ and creates a game of confusion between the idea and what is beyond it. Moreover, that confusion raises the question that no one dares to ask. Thus, it contributes to embodying priorities and shifting the public sphere to forming a collective opinion and accelerating the process of social and political change.”