A cartoon published in the August 17th edition of Acadie Nouvelle caused tremendous harm to many communities, especially women and people from Muslim backgrounds here in New Brunswick. Although the cartoon was taken down from Acadie Nouvelle’s website, it was published in the print version. The image signals a rhetoric that harms minority communities, especially those of Muslim background or descent.
The cartoon depicts two men, one seemingly from prehistoric times and another wearing a galabeya outfit, and two women being dragged by the men. At first glance, the image will leave you perplexed and confused. I am not Muslim. I share this analysis as a witness to the external forces that shape the experiences of individuals. As such, I am not offering knowledge or an analysis of Islam but rather of the narratives that perpetuate negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims.
The cartoon is replete with a colonial narrative that supports a gender hierarchy and it treats racialized peoples as objects of amusement, entertainment and trolling. Let me explain.
While the cartoon seems simplistic, it’s loaded with portrayals of power over many groups. First and foremost is the portrayal of power over women. I use “power over” because the cartoon establishes men as standing tall and in control of their motion while dragging women in the direction of their will. This portrayal fits the narrative of presenting gender hierarchies especially by its depictions of absolute servitude by women and men’s assertion of total control over women.
Secondly, the portrayal of men as dominant directly positions women as the victims or targets of that domination. The baton and gun are instruments of asserting that domination in a gendered context which initiates a portrayal of total control and/or total submissiveness on the victims. In domestic or intimate partner violence situations, the instruments of power fuel a feeling of helplessness which can be seen from the two partners on the ground. In the same light, it presents these instruments of power as necessary for the subjugation of women. In contrast, it denies women the sense of agency to determine their own path.
Thirdly, and perhaps the most harmful of all, the caricature portrays Muslims as violent, barbaric and untameable. This is a familiar stereotype among Western media organizations that seek to champion “egalitarian values” while positioning these values as exclusively Western-owned and therefore unavailable across the world. However, the cartoon also reveals a disturbing yet true relationship between militia groups like the Taliban and their treatment of women. While this portrayal rings true, it is harmful as it positions Islam as a violent group of people without acknowledging the millions of peaceful Muslims around the world that embrace egalitarian values and treat women with respect.
The anonymity of the woman perpetuates the narrative that Muslim women are victims only defined by their clothing. This denies Muslim women, and all women for that sake, the basic agency to self determine for themselves and not in relation to men. While I don’t practice Islam, I know friends and family members who embrace their decision to wear religious and cultural articles as an expression of individual agency, ownership of their faith and connection to their cultures.
In conclusion, the cartoon falls within the familiar tropes that Western media organizations spew with the objective to simplify, generalize and condense the ways of life of many communities across the world. It presents communities, particularly those from Muslim and non-Western ways of living, as chaotic and violent amidst civilized Western nations. The faceless victim on the floor portrays the mystery of Muslim women who wear burkas and the urgency to save them. The cartoon is naive, simplistic and misplaced for any organization seeking to build communities in New Brunswick or anywhere. This narrative harms us all and we should dare to challenge the organizations that perpetuate such ideology.
Ivan Okello is an educator and immigrant living in New Brunswick and passionate about building bridges toward inclusive communities.