Meet Cairo’s Dark Knight
Qahera, a comic book superhero in a black hijab, protects the city she’s named after from petty thieves, misogyny and even FEMEN activists.
Author: Ali M Latifi
She first appeared on the Egyptian streets in 2013.
She swoops from panel-to-panel, a lithe dark shadow, much like Bruce Wayne. A hometown superhero, Qahera keeps watch over a city of more than seven million people.
A city she was named after.
Like the Dark Knight, Qahera’s fight is centred in one of the world’s largest metropolitan centres — in her case, Cairo. But as a Muslim woman, she must face ideological foes of the type that the billionaire Batman and the Man of Steel rarely have to contend with.
There are the obvious societal ills, such as the 99.3 percent of Egyptian women say they face daily harassment, according to a 2013 United Nations survey.
Then there are the more insidious issues, like the Islamophobia that plagues millions of Muslims around the world.
Qahera, the Arabic name for Cairo, was also created as a challenge to the belief among some feminists that any Muslim woman in a hijab must be “saved” from “oppression” through the machinations of Western democracy.
Like many superheroes, Qahera has the ability to fly. She also has superhuman hearing that she uses to find people in distress, and super strength to punish any number of villains.
But as a deliberately Muslim female hero, she is also a personification of political and societal struggles people face in post-revolution Egypt. She has put everyone from men who spew “misogynistic trash” to petty thieves and even FEMEN activists in their place.
“I conceptualised Qahera as a Muslim character … I knew I would be addressing misogyny within my community and outside it, and I knew there was a problem with the representation of hijabi Muslim women,” said Deena Mohamed, the 22-year-old Cairo-based art student who created Qahera.
Instead of being clad in multicoloured spandex and a cape or form-fitting bodysuits, Qahera serves the people in a flowing black hijab, similar to the ones worn by millions of Muslim women across the globe.
Mohamed spends weeks at a time drawing each element on her tablet, but as a self-described “university student with deadlines and midterms and subpar time management skills” and “zero” previous experience in the comic medium, updates to the series have been slow to come.
Mohamed followed comics “sporadically” — she is particularly fond of Matt Fraction’s take on Hawkeye, which focuses more on the Avenger as an average human — but wanted to use some of the tropes of superheroism as a means to discuss life in Egypt.
She said she has based Qahera’s adventures both on her own personal experiences and those of other women in Egypt.
The first comic, published on June 30, 2013, sets the tone for the complexities of the battles Qahera will endure throughout her life.
Perched atop a hill, her super hearing is roused by the sound of “misogynistic trash” when a group of men is instructed to “keep your women at home and in check!”
Armed with her sword, Qahera rushes into battle against the men, including the leader, whom she leaves hanging from a clothes line.
But it’s not long before her super-hearing is once again piqued by a group of presumably Western women being told by a bare-shouldered female leader that they “need to rescue Muslim women.”
Another comic, published in the summer of 2015 during the height of the so-called “refugee crisis”, sees Qahera confront the realities of her ability to fly.
An Egyptian woman challenges Qahera on why she chooses to remain in Egypt at a time when millions of people in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia are forced to endure dangerous and often humiliating ordeals to seek asylum from political realities that the West itself had a hand in creating.
“If you can fly, why are you here? … I hate people like you,” the woman says incensed.
The comic, said Mohamed, is a rumination on “what borders might mean to someone who can fly.”
Mohamed has even posited what might happen if Qahera were to come face-to-face with Donald Trump, whom many see as further cementing Islamophobic attitudes in the United States.
“In this hypothetical scenario, Donald Trump is in Egypt, because he’d never let Qahera into the US.”
In an ironic twist, Mohamed said Qahera would use her super strength to force Trump to stay in Egypt for the rest of his life.
But in a nod to what has befallen the nation since the 2011 revolution that led to the downfall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed said Trump would likely find only temporary success in the nation.
“He ostensibly joins parliament, thrives and becomes a popular media figure. He converts to Islam to become president of Egypt, changes his name to Dawoud Trump, there’s a military coup, he goes to prison.”
Though the character’s origin story has yet to be written, Mohamed said she made several pointed decisions in the creation of Qahera as a Muslim superhero in a post-revolution Egypt.
Like Wonder Woman or Superman, Qahera’s name too, is meant to invoke a specific sentiment among readers.
It simultaneously conveys a sense of hope among the people she serves and invokes the burdens placed on superheroes meant to help a population suffering under injustice.
The word ‘Qahera’ itself, Mohamed said, has several meanings — powerful, omnipotent and conqueror — but there is also a darker definition that fits both the city and the character.
“It can also be interpreted as ‘oppressor,’ which is a good description of the city of Cairo for many, but also ironic for Qahera, who fights oppression.”
The realities created by the difficulties facing the Egyptian people, whom Qahera simultaneously identifies with and feels her superpowers separate her from, are addressed in a November 2013 comic.
Qahera, looking out at a crowd of millions of protesters — male and female — the superhero says: “I am a superhero because I have superpowers. They are superheroes because they do not.”