Art, News

Represented In Cartoon: Mariam and Asma and Alyazia Khalifa al-Suwaidi

Twitter! I love it. I tweet a lot. I tweet a lot because so does the whole world, and a tweet can become a connection. A twitpic can turn your day around. As much as I love twitter, I love pictures that tell me things. You know that. That’s why you’re here. For Women, who Write About Comics.

Cross the streams: yesterday I saw this image in my feed:

Amnesty International poster for Khalifa al-Suwaidi sisters

And I thought, huh. Why am I surprised to see this picture? Why was it chosen, three sweet, unassuming faces, and applied to such a ghastly message?

The message is thus: the sisters are Dr. Alyazia Khalifa al-Suwaid, a blogger (here she is on insta), and her sisters Mariam Khalifa al-Suwaidi and Asma Khalifa al-Suwaidi. Since 2013 their brother Eissa has been imprisoned for his membership of the group Al-Islah, which means reform, and whose purpose was to lobby for political reform. The status quo does not like reform. Today the status quo remains, and likewise Dr Eissa Khalifa al-Suwaidi remains in jail. I miss my brother, wrote Asma (on twitter!), and a little later these three women, educational powerhouse Mariam, established social media professional Asma, and artistic doctorate-holder Alyazia, were called to the police station. They went. They have yet to return.

Alyazia’s blog has been removed from the internet since she went to the police station, but snapshots are available via the wayback machine. The wallpaper is hip and stylish, and you can read about how Alyazia Khalifa al-Suwaidi loves parrots thanks to her Grandma and loves birdwatching in general, hear her feelings when she rescued a cuckoo, or peruse a short review of how well an early Kindle displays comics, and the Koran in Arabic (poorly, for both), finished with light, fun remarks about her own hoarder tendencies.

How do you represent a good-humoured, engaged, engaging woman to a world who only knows (or—cares?) that she and her sisters are being held, without legal rep, without contact with family or the outside world, or any reason given for their arrest? How do you make an English-speaking stranger care about an imprisoned foreign woman at risk of gendered violence and enforced privation?

Through art. You make it a picture-story.

Mansoureh Mills, who works at Amnesty International’s Middle East & North Africa programme, explained her choice of imagery like this:

Unfortunately we have been unable to obtain the sisters’ pictures but because the UAE authorities have taken away their voices, I feel that it’s important to give them a face, even if only an illustrated one, because I know that from a campaigning perspective pictures are very powerful. Pictures draw people in like no other medium can.

I looked around quite a lot for illustrated pictures of women wearing headscarves. It was important that they wear hijab because the pictures were to represent the women who are Muslim. Even with illustrated pictures, I feel that it’s important to be respectful and culturally sensitive. I initially looked at pictures with lots of colourful head scarves and clothes and then went off slightly on a girly tangent! Then I came back to the job at hand and decided I wanted a simple black hijab. Emirati women wear these beautiful black abayas (long black robe) and headscarves that are always very elegant, so I found one to match what I wanted for the three sisters. I would have liked to find three different faces and at the moment I’m looking for an artist who can draw us an illustrated picture along the same lines as the one we’ve used but with three different faces.

I don’t want the sisters to just be forgotten — just another enforced disappearance case in the UAE (there are many but not usually women). These sisters are three intelligent, well-educated women whose circumstances turned them into peaceful activists but whose voices have now been silenced by the UAE authorities. I want their personalities to be known and I want to give their voices back to them. One of the best ways I can think of to do that is by using pictures in a creative way to campaign for them.

It made me pay attention. It made me care. Enough to spread the word here.

Did it work on you?

Art direction is fascinating.

UPDATE: The sisters have been released!