“I can hear it! The sound of ... misogynistic trash!” says Qahera. Carrying a sword as sharp as her wit and wearing a veil that is sometimes used to conceal her identity, the Muslim superheroine is out to fight against injustice.
Her “super hearing” helps her detect misogynists, but also racists and Islamophobes. In some comic strips she defends women from harassers, in others she goes after groups that denigrate and try to silence Muslim women. Qahera can be translated as vanquisher or conqueror — and if you add “al” before Qahera, it’s the Arabic name of Egypt’s capital, Cairo. The character was created by Egyptian illustrator and designer Deena Mohamed.
Mohamed, 25, was only 18 when she published her first webcomic after spending an evening reading misogynistic articles online. Incensed, she drew a sexist cleric saying that women should stay at home doing the housework, and a tough superheroine who responds by hanging him from his shirt on a clothesline and replying that yes, women especially enjoy “doing the laundry.”
“At that time I was just posting it as a joke to share with my friends,” says Mohamed, who is now the author of an award-winning graphic novel. What started as a joke shared on the social media site Tumblr turned into a viral comic with hundreds of thousands of hits. Qahera has been cheered internationally as “the first ever Egyptian superhero,” and while she fights bigots and evildoers, Mohamed never took the character’s supernatural powers very seriously.
“It’s very satirical,” Mohamed says with a laugh. “It was a way to talk about the issues I wanted to talk about, to let off steam.”
The first few Qahera comics were published in English, Mohamed explains, because there weren’t many Arabic-speaking users on Tumblr and the misogynistic articles that triggered her anger had also been published in English. She started translating the comics into Arabic when she realized the popularity of Qahera, known for flying over the streets of Cairo and dealing with social issues instead of fictional villains.
One comic strip in particular became very beloved. In a country where the majority of women have been subjected to harassment, Mohamed’s drawing of a woman fighting against her harassers and a superheroine defending her drew widespread praise.
“My comic was very popular, but there were so many real women fighting against sexual harassment,” says Mohamed, who felt uncomfortable with the popularity of “just a drawing.” She thought the way the comic was widely shared and praised internationally somehow ignored decades of feminist activism to counter harassment in Egypt.
To highlight the efforts of “people who actually do things,” she decided to publish another comic honoring the real women who keep on fighting every day.
“I am a superhero because I have superpowers,” Qahera says in a strip where women from different backgrounds gather in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demonstrate. “They are superheroes because they do not.”
But Mohamed’s tribute to real-life heroes comes across in most of her work.
“I base Qahera on the average Egyptian woman,” she says. “I’m thinking about the women who are always sticking up for other people, who are basically constantly fighting.”
The superheroine shows solidarity with different groups of people who are oppressed or in need of help. In a recent comic, she saves women, children, and even a dog — meanwhile, she is constantly rebuked by a conservative man who thinks only those who look like him are worthy of being helped.
Despite her powers, Qahera also struggles with uncertainty and self-doubt. Sometimes she doesn’t make it in time to save others, or worries she is not strong enough to stop injustice. In one strip, there is little she can do about the Israeli bombardments that killed over 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza in 2014.
“I was very politically aware while growing up and I’m a very opinionated person,” Mohamed says. Coming of age among the uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring, she felt deeply invested in the movements demanding dignity, freedom and justice that spread across the Middle East. Qahera emerged in June 2013, when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to demonstrate against president Mohamed Morsi. The mass protests ended later that summer when Egypt’s military officers removed Morsi and installed an interim government, outlawing unauthorized demonstrations. The chief of the armed forces, General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, has been in power since.
Perhaps Mohamed inherited no small dose of cynicism. Despite the reach of her work, she is skeptical of what the character she created might achieve. “I think my mission is to just start conversations,” she says. But she acknowledges that Qahera has had an impact on her readers.
“The highest engagement was from young Muslim girls who just didn’t feel represented in any way,” she says.
Superheroes are commonly associated with men, and most of the female superheroes that become well known — like Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Batgirl — were created by male authors as extensions of male superheroes and depicted in a sexualized way that targeted mostly male audiences.
But conventions are slowly changing with the introduction of more superheroines who are not just secondary characters or brand extensions. A year after Qahera first appeared with her sword to defend women from misogynists and racists, Marvel launched a new comic book with superheroine Kamala Khan. A teenager in New Jersey with Pakistani origins, she became the first Muslim character to headline Marvel comics.
Before Khan, a superheroine known as Dust had featured in the brand’s comics. But created by two white men, the character — who has the ability to transform her body into dust and is rescued from slavery in Afghanistan by X-Men — does little to challenge stereotypes about Muslim women. In a study on Muslim superheroes, comics scholar Safiyya Hosein argues that Dust’s character is based on stereotypical views of the Middle East as an “uncivilized desert region,” reinforcing sexualized imagery and ultimately perpetuating prejudice. Qahera, on the contrary, subverts stereotypes about Muslim women with sarcasm and nuance.
In Mohamed’s view, the excitement her character has generated is less about Qahera’s religion and more about her tendency to address meaningful issues like women’s rights and how feminism intersects with concerns about inequality, racism and classism.
“Some [readers] were excited to see a Muslim character who was drawn as a superhero, but most of them were just excited to see a Muslim character with opinions that seemed close to their own,” she says, talking about “topics they cared about.”
Mohamed has moved away from creating new Qahera comics as she works on the third part of her graphic novel trilogy, “Shubeik Lubeik,” set in a fantastical Cairo where wishes are for sale — the more expensive a wish, the more effective its ability to fulfill dreams in a highly stratified society. Published in Arabic, the novel won two awards at the Cairo Comix Festival and is now being translated into English.
Although Qahera hasn’t been seen flying over the streets of Cairo for quite some time, Mohamed says she hasn’t forgotten her superheroine. She will appear again to continue her never-ending battle for justice.