Qahera: The Egyptian Webcomic that Challenges Patriarchy, Islamophobia, and Misogyny

Shaimaa Abulebda | Contributing Writer

On Women’s Choices from Deena Mohamed’s Qahera

Qahera is a 2013 webcomic by the Egyptian comic artist Deena Mohamed. The comic is named after the protagonist, Qahera, a hijabi Muslim Egyptian superheroine. Qahera’s outfit comes with a ready-made abaya-cape and a mask which makes her look like a niqabi.[1] The comics started as Tumblr posts and has its own website. According to Mohamed, what led her to start making the webcomic was her spending “an evening of reading the most awful misogynistic articles on dumb Islamic websites”.

Qahera could be seen as a name derived from the capital city of Egypt, Cairo (al-Qahera). However, I believe that the name is also significant for its own meaning, and it is a play on it—Qahera is a feminine word that means vanquisher, omnipotent, or triumphant. It consists of ten parts, each one has its own title, which refers to the main issue it is dealing with. The first part was published on June 30, 2013, while the latest part was published on April 10, 2019. When Qahera was released, it was aimed at a Western audience and was thus published primarily in English. Then, it was translated into colloquial Egyptian Arabic. It mainly tackles misogyny and islamophobia amongst many other things.

Deena Mohamed’s Qahera

Introducing Qahera

The first part deals with two main issues that the entire webcomic tackles throughout its many parts—misogyny and white feminism. We are introduced to an angry, visibly Muslim hijabi character. The reader gets to know that the heroine has superpowers from the second strip when she says that her “super-hearing can’t handle this nonsense!”

A visibly dressed sheikh was dictating men about a wife’s “Islamic” duties and that women should stay at home and be kept in check. Qahera shows him how a woman can do housework in her way, by hanging him on the laundry line.

On the other hand, white feminists believe they must rescue Muslim women and again, Qahera is shown detecting this through her super-hearing and getting ready to fight the white feminists who try to co-opt the struggle.

On Femen

The first panel of the second part that is titled On Femen[2] shows a laptop screen open on an article with the headline “Femen Protest at Mosque” and pictures of topless women chanting “Femen Akbar” which is a chant against the Muslims who chant “Allahu Akbar”. The western media has long associated this phrase which means “God is most great” with acts of terrorism, especially after the 9/11 incident. Therefore, the protesters of Femen, who are in fact Islamophobic, claim to want to liberate the Muslim women from the oppressions of Islam.

On Femen from Deena Mohamed’s Qahera

In the comic, when the protesters see Qahera, they chant that they should help her and that her eyes are begging for help. In reality, a close-up reveals that her eyes are filled with burning rage. They proceed to urge her to “Take off your oppression” while not respecting her choice and assuming every Muslimah[3] is oppressed and forced to wear a hijab. Qahera tells them that they have constantly undermined and ignored women and that Muslim women do not need their help.

On Sexual Harassment

The next issue that was tackled in the third part is sexual harassment. The illustrations show a young woman being sexually harassed on the streets as men comment on her body and curves. She goes to the police station to file a complaint against the man who harassed her, and the police officer says that even though she believes her, she had it coming because she was dressed provocatively, in an “immodest and inappropriate” way.

Then, Qahera, who is dressed modestly in her hijab and abaya gets sexually harassed. She stops them. Next, again after leaving the police station, the young woman is harassed. She tries to defend herself, but the men corner her. This time, Qahera shows up and saves her. The woman is then introduced as Laila Magdy. Laila is impressed with Qahera’s powers and inquiries about them. Qahera takes Laila to the police station to testify against the men (not shown in the drawings). After that, she hangs them up outside the police station while writing their crime on the wall behind them.

On Sexual Harassment from Deena Mohamed’s Qahera

I believe this part of the comic is particularly important as it comes in response to those who claim women’s outfits are the reasons behind sexual harassment. Therefore, instead of blaming women, the assaulters must be punished. After this part, Mohamed wrote that “the majority of the themes in this comic are based on real experiences with street harassment.”

Qahera explains that she is a superhero because she has powers and she uses them to protect women, especially from harassment. She tries her best and sometimes she cannot make it on time to rescue people. But sometimes, she is not needed as some people stand up for those women and women do fight. For her, these people are superheroes because they protect and fight when they do not have superpowers. Deena Mohamed commented on this, saying it is “a tribute to real-life superheroes”.

On Music (Sort Of)

Qahera, the webcomic, also sheds light on how popular culture is misogynistic and depicts men as superior to women. In On Music (Sort Of), Qahera and Laila are bonding. Laila asks too many questions regarding her superpowers and fight techniques and Qahera is not keen to discuss them. Laila plays music to lighten the mood, but the lyrics are misogynistic, with the singer calling himself “Si al Sayed”: a term that denotes lots of manliness.

On Music (Sort of) from Deena Mohamed’s Qahera

Laila tells Qahera that songs, music, and the media massively affect the mentality of the youth, societal standards, and attitudes towards women. This is true as many recent songs have brought up this controversy with their lyrics, demonstrating the man as the alpha who shuts women up and even sings about attacking them.

On Accountability

Qahera does not only focus on Egyptian struggles and women alone, but also goes further to illustrate the suffering of others. In On Accountability, the Egyptian superheroine explores how we should help others whenever we can, not just Muslims. We should think of the oppressed everywhere and fight for them by any means we have, even if by just acknowledging their struggles otherwise “their blood will be on our hands”.

On Accountability from Deena Mohamed’s Qahera

This part is about Gaza and Gazan martyrs of the 2014 war on the Gaza Strip. Three of the panels show some of the martyrs’ names, and the list goes on as this part was drawn while the Gaza Strip was still being bombed. Deena Mohamed reflects that “it is important to disassociate yourself from patriotism and realise when you are contributing to the suffering of others”. Therefore, instead of saying this is not our trouble and avoid getting involved, we are urged to say something or do something if we can.

On Women’s Choices

Many men have long drawn many comparisons between women’s clothes and various objects. Taking a case in point, they generally use a wrapped versus unwrapped candy simile to describe a hijabi as a wrapped candy and a non-hijabi as unwrapped, exposed candy. While some men claim that they seek freedom, progress, and liberation for women (i.e., a woman does not have to be “modest”), other men argue that “a covered woman is a sign of value”.

On Women’s Choices from Deena Mohamed’s Qahera

What those two types of men do not understand is that women do not exist as periphery objects in the universe of men and that “our choices are not your political punchlines”.  In On Women’s Choices, Qahera fights for women’s rights without using her superpowers.

On Things We Have to Worry About

When Qahera lists the things superheroes do not have to worry about in On Things We Have to Worry About, she brings attention to the things that normal people have issues and difficulties with. These include traffic, harassment, men raising their voices, “controversial” political opinions, prisons, husbands, the economy, strength, and bravery.

At last, she wonders about “being enough”. At this point, her answer is different as it is something we all struggle with. Thus, no matter how independent and physically strong she is, Qahera still battles with the daily struggles that we face.

On Things We Have To Worry About from Deena Mohamed’s Qahera

On Basic Equality and Such

The tenth and last part shows a man who misspeaks about Qahera no matter what she does and whom she saves. He keeps asking why she saves animals, rich women, only women, street boys, etc. Furthermore, he says she cannot sort out her priorities until she carries him while she is flying. He thinks that she should be there only for a certain group of people as he says: “Well you see, they were all animals anyway. Please only rescue the ones that look like me!” In other words, she must only protect those who are of his gender, race, or background.

In my opinion, Qahera and the other female characters are a true representation of the women many refuse to see as they are and what they are capable of. It seems that throughout all Qahera’s parts, one question is hovering over the comic: What does it mean to have superpowers and how can we be heroic? I believe that heroic acts do not necessarily need superpowers and Qahera demonstrates this well enough.

Artists of comics and all forms of art do have some kind of power and with their art, they can do a lot and bring some change. The artists can use their work to raise awareness about women’s struggles and bring a faithful representation of women. In this way, they can help women.

[1] A woman who wears a niqab (face veil) which conceals her face and leaves eyes exposed.

[2] Femen, stylised as FEMEN, is a Ukrainian feminist activist group intended to protect women’s rights. The organisation became internationally known for organising controversial topless protests against sex tourism, religious institutions, sexism, homophobia, and other social, national, and international topics.

[3] A Muslim woman.

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