Takoua Ben Mohamed: Breaking Down Stereotypes One Graphic Novel At A Time
“If there’s one thing I dislike, it is being flattened to a one-dimensional figure,” Takoua Ben Mohamed tells me when we ‘meet’ on Zoom. “A Muslim woman. A second-generation immigrant. Or even worse, a sort of extraordinary exception: the girl with the veil who – lo and behold – managed to become a cartoonist. Or the Tunisian outsider who ‘broke the ranks’. It’s just so limiting. I am a Muslim, yes. I am Tunisian. But I am also Italian, a graphic journalist. I contain multitudes. I try to reflect that in anything I do.”
And she is succeeding. Ben Mohamed was born 31 years ago in southern Tunisia, but has lived in Rome since 1999, where she moved with the rest of her family – she’s the sixth of seven siblings – to join her father, a political exile. Today, she’s a cartoonist, illustrator, film producer, graphic journalist and author of four comic books, whose work tackles social issues spanning racism, Islamophobia and sexism.
In Italy, a country that’s still grappling with all the above, she’s one of the boldest, most compelling voices fighting for local social justice.
“Activism has always been part of my life,” she says. “When I was little, my parents used to take me to human rights demonstrations because they saw it as the most normal thing to do. It shaped me. I decided early on that I wanted to try and make a difference.”
Indeed, Ben Mohamed started young – first volunteering with youth and humanitarian organisations when she was 10, just after the 9/11 attacks, which, she says, made life “really quite hard” for Muslims around the world, and then with an online comics project called Intercultural, which she launched, aged 14. Taking the form of a blog, it narrated Ben Mohamed’s everyday life through drawings and vignettes, including the episodes of bullying and discrimination she was subjected to. “Comics turned out to be the perfect channel to share my experience,” she says. “They allowed me to explore themes I care about in a way that was easy to grasp and could even be ‘light’, ironic.”
Soon enough, publishing houses and magazines came calling with book proposals and collaborations. Then came the awards for her graphic journalism, and her testimonial in the EU-backed Look Beyond Prejudice campaign, aimed at combating discrimination and raising awareness among Muslim girls.
Latterly, together with two of her brothers, she founded BM Entertainment, a production company that makes documentaries on youth culture, social change, and integration (Ben Mohamed has a degree in film animation). Their docu-film Hijab Style, on the myriad ways of wearing the veil, aired on Al Jazeera in 2020.
“I want to tell stories about people like me that are different from those you usually read in mainstream media,” she says. “Muslim women are so often portrayed as sad looking, subjugated, voiceless. But the reality I know couldn’t be further from that. For instance, I decided to wear the veil. My family didn’t force me.”
One of her biggest dreams is to bring her comics to the Arab world, reaching a whole new audience. And her ultimate goal? Smiling, she says: “A Nobel Prize for a graphic novel. You’ve got to aim high, right?”
Marianna Cerini is a Milan-based journalist who lived in Asia for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Vogue Italia, Condé Nast Traveler and CNN Style