Many Westerners would assume that a female Pakistani cartoonist whose main character is an outspoken woman would have encountered plenty of not-so-welcoming male attitudes over the years. But ask Nigar Nazar if that's true and she responds, "Surprisingly, no." Then she pauses and adds, "Now I'm thinking, 'Why not?'
"Well, maybe because I talk sense. I'm not saying anything unreasonable or wrong. I'm just depicting what's happening."
Nazar's cartoons focus on women's and children's rights, hitting on topics such as sexual harassment, honor killings and equality in education. They're heavy on humor, which makes them approachable — as is her protagonist, Gogi, a perky, polka-dot-adorned 20-something.
"I like to think she's my instrument for social change, because she's popular, she's known," Nazar says. "Through her I can say so many things. And a lot of women relate to her, too. She's my alter ego."
With Gogi, Nazar tackles "the [issues] that get me most angry. And that could be anything. There's so many issues in Pakistan."
Art in her heart
Nazar's father was a member of the Foreign Service of Pakistan, so though she was born in Karachi, she spent a few years as a young child in the United States. It was here she discovered comics such as Archie, Little Lulu and Richie Rich. When Nazar returned to Pakistan, she realized the country had no cartoons of its own.
"I missed reading comics in Pakistan," she says, "so I decided I would draw for myself."
As a schoolgirl fascinated with science, Nazar was encouraged to pursue pre-med when it came to higher education, but she asked her parents if she could take a year off first, to draw. She never looked back, instead heading for a degree in fine arts and English literature. Gogi made its debut in 1970 in Karachi's Institute of Arts and Crafts annual magazine.
Nearly 40 years later, Nazar calls Islamabad home, but Gogi has infiltrated the country, extending far beyond the pages of the national Daily Jang: "My work ... it came from the newspaper and then it came into the community, on public buses. And from public buses, it went into hospitals. From hospitals, it went into books. And from books it went to comic books. From comic books, I teach programs now."
Programs like the one that brought Nazar to Colorado College as a Fulbright Visiting Specialist, primarily to teach a course on understanding the societies and cultures of Islam. Charlotte Blessing, director of international programs at the college, says CC has seen increasing student interest in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies, and appreciated the opportunity, through Fulbright, to bring a scholar or field expert for six weeks.
"[Nazar] is not a scholar, she is not a Ph.D. scholar, but she is an artist — the first female cartoonist in Pakistan ... using her skills to be a social activist," Blessing says. "That's quite an interesting [curriculum vitae] to have."
CC has been able to integrate Nazar into several different departments. She's co-teaching "Freedom and Authority in Everyday Life: Women, Men and Children in the Middle East" for the history department, but she's also working with art students through her exhibit at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
When she completes her Fulbright fellowship here, she plans to return to Pakistan and work with girls in the valley of Swat — inspired by 25 students she met in August during a retreat in Islamabad who "just blew me [away] with their intelligence, determination, and their feelings and their thoughts.
"Swat is where the Talibans were conflicting with the communities and causing a bit of havoc — as in blowing up the girls' schools, as in threatening the teachers and students," says Nazar. "I thought since I am doing outreach for the street children, why not do it for these girls who need to be empowered and who need to be educated and who want to get education and who want to go to school?"
Nazar's very proud of the female segment of her society.
"Girls are doing very well in Pakistan, I must say. I mean, there are women in just about every field you can imagine. They are diplomats, they are vice chancellors, they are in the police, they are in the air force, they're pilots."
She adds, however, that the success you have as a female in Pakistan depends on which part of the country you call home. In the city, women have opportunities for education, empowerment, jobs, and a lot of role models; in rural areas, it's different. Nazar addressed one byproduct of the dichotomy in her first public bus mural.
"We have this staring problem," she explains. "Especially from the rural areas, when [the men] come from the rural areas into the city, they just find it odd that women should be freely moving around and all that. So they get in the habit of staring, and it's very annoying."
So she designed a "ridiculous" cartoon on the topic. Then she heard that some sponsors were getting cold feet. Understanding that some of the people who might react negatively to the message were the clergy, the very conservative or the mullahs, she went to the Quran for answers.
Nazar found a verse that specifically addressed the issue she had drawn. A friend helped her write the exact words from the Quran in Arabic, which they then translated into Pakistan's official language of Urdu, and put on the top of the mural. It said: "Oh, ye believers, tell these men to lower their gaze, for we know what is in their hearts."
"And you know," she says proudly, "the clergy loved it. The mullahs loved it. ... It was the talk of the town."