Comic Release

A project at Karachi’s women’s prison offers inmates a chance to draw their daily lives

Nida Shams conducting grassroot comics workshop for government school teachers in Chotiari, Pakistan. COURTESY NIDA SHAMS
01 June, 2012

At The Height Of Karachi’s Monsoon, in August 2010, Nida Shams waded through traffic and heavy rains to reach the city’s women’s jail. Passing through the compound’s massive and grisly gates, she returned to the prison day after day for an entire month to meet with inmates. Shams would chat with the women, hear about their lives before they were locked up, and in a workshop, teach them to draw comics.

The women, from young to old, lived difficult lives, away from their families for months, sometimes for years. It took time for them to open up, but once they did, stories flowed out on sheets of paper, a different one from each woman. Uzma had been anxiously awaiting a visitor for nearly two years. To Sadaf, the prison was like a “graveyard of living people”. Muskaan, a young girl, rejoiced at her daily trip to school—it was her chance to see the outside world.

Shams, an artist and graphic designer by training, was helping these women record their experiences in comic form. If their stories ended without a resolution, she encouraged them to imagine scenarios that could lead to some sense of closure. As a culmination to the workshop, Shams organised an exhibition inside the jail of their work, and recently published a compilation of the four-panelled comics titled Salakhonkepeechekuchkahaniyanrehtihai (There live a few stories behind the bars). During a recent visit to India to meet extended family, she spoke about the beginnings of her project at the office of the World Comics Network’s (WCN) India chapter in Mayur Vihar, Delhi.

The concept behind the prison workshop, she said, was ‘grassroots comics’—a genre of comic-making popularised in the late 1990s by Indian cartoonist Sharad Sharma in which comics were used as a communication tool and medium of expression for common people. In 2006, she founded a chapter of WCN in Pakistan, and held her first workshop in Lahore. The comics that came out of these workshops were straightforward black-and-white strips, and often had simple, asymmetrical figures with plenty of conversation bubbles that ran between the characters. The idea wasn’t to perfect any type of art, but to use the medium as a means of expression.

Shams conducts workshops across rural and urban areas, with everyone from government school teachers to students, shelter home inhabitants, young urban women, and different religious and ethnic communities. Once drawn, the comics are pasted just about everywhere in the locality—on walls, busstops, shops, schools—to spread the word and start a conversation. It’s an approach that is both more accessible and participatory. Issues that have repeatedly emerged in many of the comics include girls’ education, unemployment, religious discrimination, and a shortage of essentials like water and electricity. One of Shams’ previous workshops had centred on the theme of ‘Being a girl in Karachi’, and encouraged girls to share experiences of everyday harassment on the streets of the city.

One strip from the workshop at the Karachi jail shows a woman prisoner waking up in her barrack one morning and thinking of how she’d pass her time that day without tea and cigarettes—the only ways to relieve her of the stress of life inside the prison. But, as we learn in the subsequent panels, to buy either, she has to clean the jail’s toilets.

With a red and black cover depicting prison bars, Salahonkepeechekuchkahaniyanrehtihai can only be opened by undoing a paper lock. To some readers, many of the strips might seem like overly simple solutions to day-to-day problems—solutions that seem achievable through dialogue alone, and avoid a connection to more systemic causes.

Shams, however, believes that these comics are a great tool for self-expression for people “who have no medium to put their voice and opinions on a public platform. A common person does not have access to express themselves on radio, television or newspapers.” With a sheet of paper and a pen, they can do so easily.