A conversation with Deena Mohamed, author of the Qahera superhero comic strip
by Gordon Campbell
When Deena Mohamed first began writing her Qahera comic strip a year ago, she was a 19 year old student in Cairo, Egypt. Almost overnight, Qahera struck a nerve around the world among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The simple theme of the comic – a veiled female superhero fights back on behalf of women subjected to social and cultural oppression – is a universal one. No single comic of course, can deal with all the causes and repercussions of gender oppression under Islam, or via the Religion of the Free Market. Yet in subsequent interviews, Deena Mohamed has been consistently good at using Qahera to open up a conversation about the experiences of young Islamic women, and some of the hassles they face. Plus, the strip is funny.
BTW, the word “Qahera” has a concrete, local meaning. Reportedly, it is the Arabic word for “ Cairo” while also meaning “conqueror” or “vanquisher.” Here’s an example of what the Qahera strip is about.
A month ago, Werewolf emailed questions to Deena M. She’s still a student with exams to sit, but she generously took time out to reply. Here’s the content of the emailed q&a:
Werewolf : You’ve mentioned that you’ve been working on an origin story for Qahera. (a) What useful lessons have you learned personally, while formulating the origin story for Qahera and (b) is it important to you that there should also be an exit story, whereby Qahera empowers women to act independently of her? (This question was inspired by the Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series. It ended with Buffy – already shown to have become exhausted by her leadership role – disseminating power to all women, everywhere. ) Does that sort of narrative arc seem like an attractive/interesting option to you, for Qahera?
Deena Mohamed: (a) I think, on a personal level, I’ve learned a lot about what might motivate someone to assume that role. I had previously thought of it as ‘the superpowers,’ as in “Oh if I had superpowers I would definitely do what Qahera does!” but really the deeper I got into it, the more I realised it takes a certain personality with certain motivation. And I think Qahera would still be Qahera even without the superpowers, although perhaps to a lesser extent, as so many Egyptian women are.
(b) I think because from the very beginning Qahera was formulated on the principle that Egyptian women are already superheroes in their own right, it’s not really as important to me. Qahera’s narrative arc will never be about disseminating power, because I don’t think her burden is power. She wouldn’t be exhausted by a leadership role, but by the sheer amount of challenges she faces. And because these challenges are mostly based on real-life problems, they are already shared by all Egyptian women to varying degrees. Qahera always has an exit. She can choose to live a normal life at any time. Her entire persona is based on the fact that she chooses to fight, she chooses not to take that exit. I think that’s what activism in general is about, isn’t it? So the exit doesn’t really matter to me, no.
Of course for Buffy it might be different because Slayers are chosen by fate to fight and she never really had a choice, and all that. Thanks for the Buffy question, by the way! I loved that show.
2. While Muslim women and girls have responded enthusiastically to Qahera, do you think she is also liberating for non-Muslim women in the West, who face pressure of a different sort, whereby they are being told it would be uncool and/or or prudish to openly express resentment of misogyny and take action against it?
Sure! I haven’t really put a limit on my target audience – anyone who finds the content interesting or relevant is absolutely free to do so, and I am personally pleased by it. There are thousands of double standards with regards to misogyny both locally and in the West and I think the sooner people realise that it is a worldwide problem the better, because it prevents small-minded critical thinking that blames issues on individual beliefs or cultures when in reality patriarchy is global, just with varying forms. I have seen so many comments that are more or less, “Oh yes well a superhero like that is needed in the Middle East, but here in progressive countries we don’t have these issues! We have gender equality!” even while tens of thousands of Western women have shared the harassment comic with their own stories. I always have to remind people the English version went viral before the Arabic one.
That said, the feedback of Muslim women will always be the most relevant to me, as they are the ones being represented and with such few representations it is important for me to listen to criticism and get it right.
3. Lastly, can I ask a question to do with the aftermath of the Army action against the Muslim Brotherhood. In your experience, has the available public space for Muslim girls and women expanded or contracted since the fall of the Morsi government, and how do you think these changes may serve to define the issues that Qahera confronts in future?
This is a slightly complex political issue, but I will try to address it as briefly as I can. The available space for Muslim girls and women did not vary whether the Muslim Brotherhood was there or not. Muslim women from all walks of life have always been a loud majority in Egypt and certainly during [this] year this did not change.
Things did not improve for women during the Muslim Brotherhood’s reign, nor did they improve for women after the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from authority. To me, the difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and their opposition with regards to women’s rights is PR. On a practical level, I see no real change to the perceptions of gender in Egypt yet. The majority of our problems are deeply ingrained cultural issues, not the issues of a singular political party.
I try to keep Qahera out of politics more or less, beyond the basic premise of her being pro-human rights and anti-fascism (which is perhaps a political opinion itself these days), so the change in authority doesn’t influence the comics so much as the change in atmosphere. For example, if there are more protests it makes sense to have a scene during a protest, but I will not address who the protest is for or why is exists. The backdrop changes to reflect Egypt’s situation (which doubtless will continue to change, and I think that generally makes it more fun) but I don’t really want to get into why the backdrop has changed or whether or not Qahera supports it. It would be too messy, and as I said I don’t see misogyny attributed to only a single political entity, but possibly all of them.
Hope this is okay!
Footnote : the street harassment that women routinely face – and which Qahera deals to in her own way – was raised by Melody Thomas in a Werewolf article a few years ago.
The same issue surfaced again last week on Slate.
Further footnote : Qahera emerged in Egypt in 2013 at about the same time as – quite independently – a children’s cartoon series called Burka Avenger began screening in Pakistan. An episode of Burka Avenger (with English subtitles) can be seen here: