Soufeina Hamed is a Tunisian-born comic artist and illustrator raised in Berlin and currently living in Dublin. She uses her work as a way to empower herself and other Muslims and people of colour, by highlighting the absurdities of racism and Islamophobia, often presented through every day experiences in a light-hearted and comical way that helps encourage dialogue. She holds a Masters in Intercultural Psychology which contributes to her reflections.
We reached out to Soufeina to ask her about her work and the state of the world.
Why do you focus on Islamophobia in a lot of your work?
Islamophobia has followed me my whole life. I grew up fighting for my community, my principles and my faith that was so dear to me, that I felt was widely manipulated and misunderstood. In my late teen years I realised that art is a beautiful tool to continue fighting, to express an opinion. But not only that, it was a means to connect to people, make them see what I see and feel what I feel. Unfortunately, Islamophobia and racism have grown more and more in Europe and elsewhere. False and biased media coverage is a big part of this problem. That’s why we have to create our own media as minorities, whether it is through making movies, creating music or drawing comics.
Why do you believe sharing banalities helps combat prejudice and discrimination?
It is a common psychological phenomenon: having a positive interpersonal contact with a member of “an out-group” makes us perceive all members of that group more positively (sorry for this scientific talk, I’m a psychologist after all). So the more “normal” things are in my comics the more others will be able to relate to what is happening. In the end non-Muslims might even realise that Muslims are not “different”, “exotic” or even “scary”, because we are all basically the same. All those small things that seem “different”, like appearance and traditions is something beautiful we should celebrate. That’s the power of storytelling in general. And that’s what I want to share with my audience.
What do you believe are the main differences between living as a hijabi and non-Hijabi Muslim woman?
Since I do wear a hijab I might not be aware of all struggles non-hijabi Muslims have. What I believe is that hijabis are naturally easier to be perceived as Muslims and thus as members of a group that faces racism and all its consequences. Non-hijabis might be able to avoid that though not fully if they are non-white anyway. I know women who chose to not wear it (anymore) for different reasons, whether because they were not able to find a job or because they were not able to bear the hatred anymore or simply because they felt it was not a relevant part for their life anymore. I know that some of them felt pressured to explain themselves to their Muslim community while in the same time they hated being perceived as the modern free girl by non-Muslims. So, I guess the biggest difference is the mater of being perceived as part of a community or not. That might have positive and negative consequences.
You choose to depict things in a humorous way, is this a coping mechanism? How do you think it compares to approaching it from a more serious/negative perspective?
Yes, I try to use humour a lot. I believe humour connects us; laughing is deeply human. It is so much easier to find common ground when you have a good laugh. I do approach things from a serious perspective sometimes as well. Sometimes, that is the only appropriate thing to do. However, we use seriousness way too much probably. All those debates we have are usually very heavy, full of arguments, numbers, dubious scientific “proof”. Unfortunately, most of the time they don’t help us move forward, or towards each other. Storytelling, empathy and humour are the shortest ways to reach another person’s heart. And yes, reaching another person’s heart is the easiest way for me to cope with all that is around us.
How has your work been received by other Muslims? And non-Muslims?
Most Muslims strongly support my work. I am grateful for that community. I guess they enjoy seeing their stories and struggles told to the world. In very very rare cases, someone warned me that I’d go to hell for drawing human beings but that it is really not even worth mentioning. Non-Muslims as well are mostly supporting my work. I am also grateful for that community! They appreciate my work for giving them an insight into a Muslim woman’s life, the beautiful, the normal, the ugly and sad parts. Many times I have heard from non-Muslims telling me my work made them think and realise things that they have never thought about. Those ‘Aha’ moments are my favourites. But of course there are also negative responses, especially online. People try to start hateful discussions with me, one of them even wrote a whole article about me, title ‘Soufeina, you idiot” which made laugh wholeheartedly. She particularly hated me drawing remakes of famous artworks like Mona Lisa – how did dare I abuse Western art? Anyway, most other people really love this series.