Skip to main content

Female cartoonist's provocative work challenges Saudi society

By Olivia Sterns, CNN

  • Hana Hajjar uses caricatures to expose gender inequality and injustice
  • Hajjar pioneered career as lone female cartoonist in conservative Saudi Arabia
  • Despite cultural resistance to women working, Hajjar's family supports her
  • Hajjar's work may avoid criticism because it's in English-language Arab News

London, England (CNN) -- For Saudi Arabia's lone female cartoonist drawing is more than just satire, it's "a duty."

"I think men have put women in an unfavorable position in this part of the world. They've put women in an oppressive situation," said Hana Hajjar, who works for the English-language newspaper Arab News.

"I feel it is my duty towards women to speak out on their behalf, because I have the tools and venue to do so," she told CNN.

Hajjar's drawings both challenge gender roles and critique political policy, often depicting inequality between the sexes and support for the Palestinian people, but she is careful not to push too far.

"I like to draw thought-provoking and argument-provoking caricatures. I like to see how much I can push people to think, but am mindful never to cross societal red lines," she said.

For a woman in the conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia to be dealing with such issues represents a significant break in cultural convention.

"The general attitude in Saudi about caricaturists is that women don't have the stamina and inspiration to last long in this field, unlike their male counterparts," Hajjar explained, adding that luckily her parents had always been supportive of her career.

I think men have put women in an unfavorable position in this part of the world. They've put women in an oppressive situation.
--Hana Hajjar, Saudi cartoonist

"Caricature is regarded as a man's profession, which has discouraged women in the past from entering the field but I hope my presence is a dent in that armor and will open up the path for others."

Over the past five years, Saudi society has made some modest progress toward greater gender equality. There are now a handful of prominent women sitting in the Chamber of Commerce, working in the media and there is even a woman in government, the Deputy Minister of Education. Hajjar has one female colleague at the newspaper where she works.

Nonetheless social change is slow and resistance is strong. The opening of an elite new university in September caused uproar for offering mixed-gender classes and allowing women to drive on the campus.

Hajjar herself said she has never felt repercussions from the government or society in the five years she has been working professionally, but noted that since she works in an English-language newspaper she feels she is less subjected to censorship.

"People who read the newspaper I work for are either foreigners or come from the upper middle class in Saudi, and so I haven't gotten much negative reaction."

When a cartoon is rejected Hajjar typically publishes it on her personal Web site anyway:

The youngest of nine children, Hajjar grew up constantly caricaturing everything around her. She drew her first political cartoon at the age of 12 and since then has received the support of her parents and siblings.

"My father was very interested in reading. He wrote satirical articles [though never published] and he constantly encouraged me to read the newspapers and always be up-to-date."

Hajjar first realized she could turn her talent into an actual career when she submitted her drawings to a competition organized by the Medina municipality. Although she didn't win because her submission was late, her school honored her for her outstanding work.

After winning a caricature competition years later, "Arab News" offered her the job she currently has.

Today Hajjar hopes that more Arab women will take up caricaturing. She has taught classes to others, but so far none have persevered.

"When I get feedback from women readers that tell me my caricatures express exactly what they are thinking I feel immense satisfaction. It means I am doing my job properly, expressing things others can't."

"I adore what I do and don't think of it as just a job. It is what I breathe, it is intrinsic to my being."