On a fine Egyptian day, a woman who walks alone in the street is harassed by a man who has been following her. “Nice curves, gorgeous,” he says, before his hand reaches for her bottom. The woman turns around, and in shock, she screams “Stop him.” Police question her story based on the fact that she’s wearing Western clothes. Cut to a woman in hijab being sexually harassed. She is Qahera, Egypt’s newest superhero and the story does not end well for the harassers.
Qahera is not your typical superhero. For starters, she is a veiled Muslim woman who helps other women in distress, most importantly, in situations involving sexual violence. She carries a sword and has amazing fighting abilities. She is also fed up with misogyny, sexual harassment and “white savior”ideologies.
Qahera is Arabic for Cairo. It also means“conqueror” or “vanquisher.”
“I named her Qahera for several reasons,” says Deena Mohamed, creator of the web comic, which shares a name with its heroine. “Chauvinism, for starters! I sort of wanted to make a reference to Egypt, but Qahera also struck me as a great name because it has so many powerful meanings: vanquisher, destroyer, omnipotent. It's a great name for a superhero, honestly, especially one who faces as many challenges as she does.”
Mohamed is a 19-year-old Egyptian student and illustrator who wanted to draw a strong female character, one whose buttons are pushed when a woman is mistreated.
In Egypt, 99 percent of women have been sexually harassed, according to U.N. Women. Combating sexual harassment and misogyny through art is one way activists are hoping to change minds and perceptions.
Qahera uses her powers to bring absent justice for women, but Mohamed also felt that she needed to establish that Qahera “was not interested in any white savior ideologies that would inevitably result from it.”
“My personal inspiration has always been my frustration with a lot of things, mainly misogyny. But the trouble is you can't critique our society without someone else trying to co-opt it and claiming they want to save you, or that you live in a backwards society,” Mohamed says.
To Mohamed, this is how Qahera was born, out of everyday challenges. She is “someone who was willing to take a stand against both the problems we have and people who try to impose their own views onto us.”
“Qahera is basically everything I long to be, and she is modelled after the countless strong women I see every day living their lives despite the challenges they face. Initially I was just hoping to reach Muslim girls who were just as frustrated about issues as I was, but it's expanded so much that I realized there is a huge gap in representation for someone like Qahera, so I can even hope to reach the people affecting those issues as well as the ones affected by it,” Mohamed says.
Mohamed uses her personal experiences as fuel for her art.
“I think my experiences definitely helped shape my views, because like nearly everyone else in Egypt I have experiences with the kind of discomfort you feel walking down the street, the hyperawareness of your clothes and your appearance, and the sort of feedback you get from people that makes you wary to complain about it,” she says. “I also drew heavily from other people's experiences (including my friends and other women who have written about their experiences) to help shape the comic. It definitely makes a difference when you know firsthand how it feels, and I think that's why so many women were able to relate to it so easily.”
“I'd like to think that Qahera is representative of a very headstrong, very fierce Egyptian woman gifted with superpowers. I haven't actually revealed the extent of her superpowers yet because I've only had the three strips that dealt mainly with issues and were too short to discuss Qahera herself or her development, but clearly she can fly! I'm actually hoping to kind of discuss Qahera's identity and her backstory in a strip soon.”
The majority of Muslim Egyptian women have adopted the Islamic attire, and despite sporadic secular criticism of the dress, it is common for the Muslim Egyptian women to identify with the veil. In fact, the hijab has been advised as a tool to avoid sexual harassment in the street. But as in Mohamed’s comic series, it doesn’t always work that way. Women who wear the hijab in Egypt are sexually harassed just as frequently and as violently as their peers without a veil. Still, Mohamed wanted her heroine to be veiled from the start.
“I knew from the start that Qahera would wear a hijab because she was initially intended to combat both Islamophobia and misogyny. Hijabi Muslim women bear the brunt of Islamophobia, especially abroad, simply because they are representative of their religion wherever they go. All the responsibilities and stereotypes of Muslims are unfairly heaped upon their heads, and if Qahera was going to make any real difference in perceptions of Muslims, I knew she had to wear a hijab. There's also the fact that there is so little representation of veiled women that empowers them instead of dehumanizing them, and I wanted to help contribute to that.”
In another bold strip, Qahera fights misogyny portrayed as an Islamic Preacher.
“A good wife is an obedient wife. It is your Islamic duty to keep your women at home and in check,” are the last words of preacher speaking to a group of wide-eyed men, moments before Qahera jumps him. He hangs injured from a clothes drying rack as she smiles and says, “house work is a woman’s work, definitely. And I really enjoy doing the laundry.”
It seems that Qahera’s bravery has hit a nerve with the comic strip’s readers.
“The reactions she received were … I'm honestly blown away by the reception. I didn't expect it to be welcomed so warmly, especially inside Egypt, and not just by young women. I think the most remarkable part of women's responses is that they haven't been limited to Muslim or Arab women, but instead I've had similar reactions from all around the world, and I think that's amazing,” says Mohamed.
Mohamed says she was especially surprised the comic was “welcomed so well by Egyptians on the Internet” who were introduced to Qahera through the issue of sexual harassment, and the idea of a female Muslim superhero.
But Mohamed admits to some mixed reactions.
“There's still definitely criticism and confusion around it, which is fully understandable because it's difficult to cater for both a global audience and a local audience, and especially with a Western concept like a 'superhero,' but I'm working on it.
“There was also a little hesitation amongst Egyptian women who interpreted the comic to advocate modesty as a solution to sexual harassment, although I was trying to convey the opposite. Overall though, I think the reception has been beyond anything I could have expected, and indicative of a desire for change and a desire for someone like Qahera to exist.”