Edited by Priya Kuriyan, Larissa Bertonasco, and Ludmilla Bartscht
Ad Astra Comix
Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back debuted in 2015 as the first full length graphic novel by Toronto-based indie comics publisher Ad Astra, working in conjunction with the feminist Indian publisher Zubaan Books and the Goethe Institute. It’s a thoughtful collection of fourteen short comics all written and drawn by women in India about their experiences of moving through public spaces as a woman. The anthology tackles a variety of topics, like sisterhood, colorism, sexism in the workplace, and even wishfully imagining that women can manspread on public transit. Drawing the Line allows us one small look into the colorful, varied, and oftentimes quietly defiantly lives of Indian women.
According to Ad Astra’s website, Drawing the Line was created, in part, to ensure that the narrative surrounding Indian women and their lives was not being told entirely by Western outsiders:
At a time when white feminism is struggling to embrace intersectionality in a meaningful way, titles like Drawing the Line offer western feminists an opportunity to engage with the lived experiences of Indian women in other parts of the world. For South Asian women living in the diaspora, Drawing the Line represents an opportunity to compare similarities and differences between diasporic life and the experience of women still in India.
Sadly, there are certain preconceived notions that many Westerners hold about India and other South Asian countries. These stereotypes paint South Asian women as victims of an oppressive society, and that argument is often weaponized against feminist movements in the West: “Why are you Western women asking for more rights when women in the East have it so much worse?” These are often insincere statements, in which the speaker cares less about the plight of South Asian women and more about just silencing the women in their own country.
Drawing the Line’s introduction by Nisha Susan, then, serves as the perfect opening reminder for the reader. Susan doesn’t deny that sexism and sexual violence happens in India, but she emphasizes that Indian women are so much more than the “victim” label that Westerners love to slap on them. She reminds us that misogyny, sexism, and rape are not in fact only “Third World Problems,” but global ones. And she reminds us that it is not anybody’s place to tell women in India how, or when, or why they are or are not oppressed. Drawing the Line, then, provides a space for Indian women to discuss their country’s issues on their own terms and reclaim their own narratives.
Each cartoonist brings her own unique tone and art style to this anthology and there’s a gorgeous amount of variety to be seen. Drawing the Line was borne out of a week-long comics workshop about gender-related issues, and you can easily see the individuality and varying perspectives that each woman brought to the class shine through in each of these comics.
Bhavana Singh’s “Melanin” is a quirky tale of a little melanin pigment being bombarded with infomercials about having whiter skin. Priyanka Kumar’s “Ever After” is a pensive look at marriage, with the message conveyed mainly through darkly shaded, surreal, and horror-like images. Soumya Menon’s “Ideal Girl” sticks to a rigid grid system and parodies vintage Indian Ideal Girl posters until the last panel, when the “Ideal Girl” finally breaks free.
Vidyun Sabhaney’s “Broken Lines” is a multimedia piece that incorporates real emails, newspaper clippings, and photographs within panels to explore the relationship between real and fictional violence. And Samidha Gunjal’s “Somebody” uses a crisp cross-hatching technique and minimal panels to tell the story of a woman who becomes so enraged by catcalling that she turns into the goddess Kali.
If Drawing the Line aims to push back against the idea of white feminism, and against the idea that Indian women are somehow living vastly different lives than Western women, then these comics serve as a beautiful repudiation. These cartoonists share their disinterest in marrying, their dislike of crowded public transit, their happiness at being around other women at a beauty salon, their hatred of bras, and their irritation that men are given more opportunities than women in the workplace. Using allegorical images of goddesses and animal traps, we see the cartoonists fantasize about wreaking havoc on the men who prey on them in the streets. Drawing the Line serves as a perfect reminder about the spaces we share as women.
I found reading the short biographies of the cartoonists before each story as fascinating and delightful as reading the comics themselves. The cartoonists are all very thoughtful, and it’s inspiring to see how many of them work as graphic designers, illustrators, animators, and filmmakers, just to name a few. These biographies also serve as further rejection of the one-dimensional Western narrative that often doesn’t allow for picturing South Asian women in these varied and artistic roles. Many of the cartoonists list links to their online portfolios in their bios, and it’s through all this that I realized that India has a gorgeous and thriving indie zine scene, and many of its creators and supporters are women!
Overall, I would have liked to see more color in this anthology. I understand if the comics were all drawn in black and white, but I feel as if the author pages or chapter headers at least could’ve incorporated some of the liveliness found on the cover.
Drawing the Line is an eye-opening, beautiful, whimsical, and sometimes heart-breakingly sad anthology. But in times like these, where diversity is being treated as a poison and with men around the world trying to assert their right to decide what women can and cannot do, it’s also so very necessary.