BEIRUT: A tall, angular woman strides down a Cairo street. “Hey there, sweetheart!” a bald man catcalls after her. Suddenly, the man has his head pushed up against a wall, a black-clad hand around his neck.
“Never bother another woman again,” bellows a female voice. A scuffle ensues, and after a sharp rap to the kneecaps, the leering man and his pals are strung up by the scruffs of their necks outside a police station.
“These men are perverts,” reads the graffiti daubed on the wall alongside them. Behind her veil, the woman looks on with a wry smile.
Meet Qahera – the sword-swiping, hijab-wearing Egyptian superhero, who has taken the world of Middle East comics by storm. She and her creator, 19-year-old Deena Mohamed, have set out to battle sexual harassment and misogyny – and to mock a few lazy Western stereotypes while they’re at it.
Bound by a good-versus-evil universe and driven by damsel-in-distress syndrome, the world of superheroes is steeped in Western, male narratives. Mohamed set out to invert this formula, taking inspiration from her childhood hero, Spiderman – a debt that’s evident from Qahera’s acrobatic skills.
“Muslim women are very often put into an ‘oppressed, indoctrinated, in need of saving’ trope, and superheroes are the precise opposite of that,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed creating her as a [female] superhero, because to many people it’s a very contradictory concept ... I like that you can easily adopt an art form usually commandeered by Western males and in doing so, make a statement on what is and isn’t expected of Muslim (and also Egyptian) women.”
Drawing her superhero as a muhajaba, Mohamed adds, was based on the assumption that few Muslim women have voices that are not imposed upon them. “There is so little representation of hijabi women that isn’t dehumanizing,” she says, “so I wanted to contribute to that in some way.”
In one strip, Qahera shows up the authorities’ hypocrisy on appropriate dress for women. Layla, dressed in Western-style clothes, undergoes cat calls and has her backside pinched by a passerby. Upon complaining to the police, she is told in no uncertain terms that her outfit is to blame. “But really my dear, look at the way you’re dressed,” the colonel tells her, “your clothes, they are immodest.”
Qahera is soon subject to the same leering treatment. In true comic-heroic style, however, the wrongdoers – flattened by the force of a blow – soon learn who not to mess with.
Tackling the question of what people wear is particularly pertinent in a country where a U.N. report in April said 99 percent of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment.
Qahera has not yet been syndicated into print, but Mohamed says the response has been overwhelmingly positive, even among Egyptian men. “I think Egyptian men may have actually been the most supportive demographic for the comics,” Mohamed says. “Egyptian men [online, at least] have actually been extremely encouraging of the concept, and also the anti-harassment cause.”
In this sense, Mohamed reflects, comics can be an “excellent way” to debate issues that are bubbling under the surface, but hard to discuss.
The strip has both Arabic and English versions. The reactions of the overseas readership have been mixed.
“Most women related immediately to the comic,” she says, “but a lot of Western men seemed more reluctant about the idea of a superhero in a [hijab] at all, or they were actually more likely to blame Layla for ‘not staying quiet’ in the comic.”
Qahera also takes on Western notions of how Arabs should behave.
In one strip, Qahera finds herself facing a group of activists from FEMEN – the Ukraine’s controversial, topless protest movement. Standing outside a mosque, the half-naked demonstrators spot Qahera walking by.
“Sister! Take off your oppression! Join us!” one activist cries, tugging on Qahera’s abaya. The Egyptian’s eyes narrow and, with a flick, her sword is out once more, perilously close to the activist’s nipple.
Challenging FEMEN, Mohamed explains, “was a way for me to assert that, since [Qahera] was going to be dealing with topics like misogyny and harassment in the Middle East, she would not be willing to welcome the kind of white savior rhetoric that would inevitably result from that.”
“You have constantly undermined and ignored women,” Qahera tells the feminists. “You seem unable to see that we don’t need your help.” She then unravels a part of her hijab, swinging it into a lasso that contains the activists.
She flies into the air, dragging the FEMEN activists along below. Eventually she finds an appropriately desolate spot, and dangles the women from the corner of a spindly tree branch. The only thing that keeps them from plummeting to the ground is the hijab holding them together.
“Hey so feel free to rescue me at any time,” Qahera grins. “The question is [who’s] going to rescue you?”
The Qahera comic strip can be found at: http://qahera.tumblr.com.