The Hijab-Wearing Superhero That's Using Her Superpowers to Fight Misogyny
With her comic strip "Qahera," illustrator Deena Mohamed wrestles with whether art actually is successful at breaking down stereotypes or not.
"If you had to make a choice between a wrapped piece of candy, and an unwrapped one, you would choose the wrapped! Covering protects women."
For the hijabi, ninja-like superhero Qahera, this is the sound of "misogynistic trash". Fortunately, Qahera's supersonic hearing is specifically tuned to hear these types of comments and when she does, she comes to the rescue to challenge those that hold the view that women are less than.
'Qahera', the feminine version of "qaher," means conqueror or triumphant. It is the Arabic name for the city of Cairo, and today it is also the name of Egypt's Muslim female superhero.
The comic's creator is Deena Mohamed, a 22-year-old Egyptian student and illustrator who VICE Impact caught up with to discuss gender-equality, challenging the status quo and how superheroes can help us do all that.
VICE Impact: You posted the first Qahera comic on Facebook. How did you come up with the idea?
Deena Mohamed: I remember distinctly I had just read a really terrible misogynistic article about Muslim women from some awful website. These kind of things can be quite terrifying if you take them seriously, and it was more or less the instinct to make a joke out of it in response that prompted it.
After the positive response to the first one I made a few more. It was only after I'd made the one about sexual harassment that the content changed quite suddenly. It went from being an online joke to a more Egypt-based strip with more Egypt-based social commentary, especially because that was when I started posting it in Arabic.
Qahera sports a hijab. How did you develop her style and appearance?
It was the idea of making her visibly Muslim and addressing issues that affected visibly Muslim women. I also think they are the most vulnerable and least represented of Muslim communities, and for that reason I wanted to represent her in a hijab and a abaya as well, which is quite traditional. It was also to reflect the idea that there are religious women who are also feminists and fighting for their rights, as they are frequently stereotyped not to be.
Qahera is inspiring for Egyptian and Muslim women (and women all over)! But you mentioned that you didn't create her to be a role model. Why?
I felt that a lot of people were giving this comic strip too much credit because they weren't aware that this is how most Muslim and Egyptian women really are. This rather two-dimensional comic strip was receiving so much international attention instead of the real women in Egypt who experienced and organized against sexual harassment.
I think Qahera is mainly inspirational when people see a reflection of themselves. But on her own I am wary of overstating the capabilities of a mostly satirical comic strip and understating the real-life capabilities of women who are just like her, if not better.
Can you talk more about her mission?
Superheroes are culturally Americanized and historically have mostly been about defending a certain way of life from supervillains, or fighting to be accepted in society. But in Egypt we have no such illusions about our way of life. Especially in the post-revolution generation, our goal has always been to change things, so how could a comic strip that addresses social issues be any different?
I think you are also starting to see this change in some American comics too. With recognition of problems and the inclusion of marginalized communities comes the desire to change and progress rather than maintain.
Did your personal experiences fuel your art?
Like any work of art I draw from both personal experiences and from people and situations around me. If I solely addressed issues that affected me I think it would be a very ineffective comic strip. Empathy and solidarity are important.
Why do you think art is so successful at breaking down stereotypes?
Right now I am constantly thinking about whether art actually is successful at breaking down stereotypes. I'm worried we focus too much on breaking barriers in art and not in real life. Visual media is effective at getting messages across, and now more than ever there is an opportunity for everyone's work to be seen by a lot of people, which creates an impact.
How, if at all, have attitudes in Egypt changed since your first Qahera comic in 2013?
I'd like to say that there's been more progress towards women's rights, and I think sexual harassment is definitely a more prevalent and public conversation. But women's rights are human rights and vice versa. And those are in a questionable state, because they are inseparable from the political and economic situation.
What do you think the overwhelming positive reaction to Qahera shows?
I think for me it shows that there was a huge gap in this kind of representation, both locally and internationally. Representation in comics, in art, of misogyny and Islamophobia. But it also shows a readiness to accept and address so many problems we have in all kinds of ways. It's very hopeful, humbling and uplifting to see so many people excited about it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.