Covered and Empowered: The Hijab-Donning Superwoman in Deena Mohamed’s Qahera

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Qahera is a web-comic created in 2013 by the Egyptian artist Deena Mohamed in response to media representation of Muslim women and their living conditions in modern day Egypt. In Qahera, Mohamed borrows the foreign medium of superhero comics to narrate the concerns of Arab and Muslim women. Superhero comic, in its historically conventional form, is dominated by superheroes who are often while, male and Western, while female characters tend to be hypersexualized as a spectacle for the male gaze. But Mohammad’s Quahera marks a point of departure.

This web-comic series revolves round the exploits of Qahera, a hijab-clad superheroine living in Cairo, who uses her superpowers to defend women under physical or ideological attacks. Her name, carrying a double meaning of “conqueror” and the Arabic term for Cairo, seems to coalesce the concept of agency with her Egyptian Muslim identity. Deena Mohamed, in an interview, claims that she intentionally made Qahera veiled “because she combats Islamophobia that veiled women face to a large extent due to being very recognizably Muslims, and because there is already such little representation of women in hijabs that isn’t dehumanizing.”

Whether vilifying or glorifying the hijab, essentialist Western and Arab misogynistic discourses treat it as a performance of muteness. The former views the hijab-draped woman as an abnormality and she is often abstracted in Western media to epitomize foreign cultural oppression. As the most visible member of Muslim societies, women in hijabs are frequently turned into soft targets for xenophobia and other dehumanizing rhetoric. On the other hand, the sociocultural location of women in hijabs in Arab societies and within patriarchal and religious discourses is quite complicated.  Currently the hijab-clad womanhas become the symbol of “umma”/nation for Muslims— she has become an embodiment highlights the morality of a God-fearing patriarchy where men protect and women need to be protected. But web-comic artist Deena Mohamed rejects this signification that dehumanizes the woman underneath the hijab by reducing her to a symbol. Thus her superheroine in Qahera is depicted in a manner that turns these essentialist discourses on their heads. As a superwoman who fights prejudice and crimes against women in Egypt, Qahera refuses her subjectivity to be subsumed either by the Western discourses that aim to ‘liberate’ her or by the Arab misogynist discourse that deem her as an object to be preserved and ‘protected’. This facet of Qahera’s identity is made apparent by the visual semiotics of the web-comic, wherein all figures are delineated in black and white, with an exception of Qahera who is sketched in grey. Thus she emerges as a hybrising force that troubles the discourses which aim to control and contain her identity. Not only does she surface as an unintelligible entity once she defies the roles assigned to her by the discourses of Western feminism and Arab misogyny, but also destabilizes the discourses that undermine Muslim women’s ability to self-represent and determine the meaning of their social visibility.This is evident from Qahera’s exploits as depicted in the web-comic series, especially in chapters entitled “Brainstorm”, “On Femen”, “On Women’s Choices” and “On Protest”, where she defends Muslim women from ideological assault and sexual harassment.

In “Brainstorm”, aided by her super-hearing, Qahera hears some “misogynistic trash” being spouted by a Muslim cleric to an audience of agreeable men. He defines a good woman as an “obedient wife” who needs to be kept “in check” by her ‘dutiful’ husband.Qahera flies to the scene and interrupts the discourse by brandishing her sword in face of the cleric, before she penalizes him by transforming him into a spectacle hung on a laundry-drying line. Then, having justly discharged her duties, a content-looking Qahera sardonically points out to the subdued cleric: “You’re right, you know, housework is women’s work. I especially enjoy doing the laundry.” Such a punishment for the cleric not only helps Qahera to overly subvert stereotypical gender roles and relocate the chore of laundry outside of its intended domesticity, but it also evinces itself as an empowering act that allows Qahera to ideologically ‘cleanse’ the society by penalizing those rotten souls who disseminate such misogynistic ideas. After exacting her vengeance on the Muslim cleric, Qahera’s super-hearing detects some “rubbish”, this time, being spewed out by white Feminists on the “need to rescue Muslim women.” The comic closes with Qaherapromising another discursive intervention, this time against Western feminist discourse that relegates the hijab-draped Muslim woman as the oriental Other of the Western ‘liberated’ woman.

This theme is continued in the next chapter, “On Femen”, where the hijab-donning superwoman, Qahera, is pitted against “Femen” protesters. This comic was posted online by Mohamed in response to a “topless jihad” held by the “Femen” protestors in April 2013 in front of the Great Mosque in Paris. In their breast-baring demonstration, they demanded freedom for Muslim woman from their ‘oppressive’’ garment. Their toplessness is meant to create a spectacle of contrast with Muslim women, emphasizing the polarity of choice women are forced to make between nudity and veiling—thus, like the misogynistic Arab discourse, Femen’s feminism fixates the body of the Muslim woman as one side of the Self/Other binary.Mohamed visualizes this binary opposition when Qahera confronts the Femen women. The ideological and discursive confrontation is narrated through several picture-specific panels—in one of these, the fully robed superheroine is pitted against the bare-bodied Femen protestors demonstrating in front of the mosque. The panel not only visualizes the binary of covered/uncovered bodies— rather being posited next to Femen and the mosque, which represents institutionalized Islam, Qahera seems to emerge as a third possibilityof what Muslim women could be beyond the cleric’s misogynist discourse or Femen’s homogenizing discourse. Qahera confronts the hegemonic binary opposition of Femen/mosque and challenges both by retaining her subjectivity as a covered and empowered woman. However Qahera’s character brings home the point that she is a superheroine neither because of her hijab nor inspite of it— rather the hijab is choice that she voluntarily embraces and strategically uses her hijab-clad body as a site of performance of power.

This issue of women’s sartorial choices surfaces in the chapter entitled “On Women’s Choice” when Qahera decides to engage in a verbal debate with two men over women’s act of donning the hijab. While entering a café with her unveiled friend, Qahera overhears two men enthusiastically debating over the hijab—the former posits the hijab as a symbol of backwardnessand urges Arab community to ‘progress’ by imitating Western culture, while the latter defends the hijab as a cover that protects women from sexual gaze and compares the uncovered woman as a dirty candy that attracts flies. Being outraged by both the discourses that objectify woman and treat her body as a carrier of social meaning, Qahera erupts and reprimands the men. She tells them that, “Women do not exist as periphery objects in your universe nor are they candy…They’re human beings! Women’s lives are not for you to prove a point! Our choices are not your political punchline.”Qahera not only rejects both arguments of local misogyny and Western superiority, but dismantles them by destabilizing the premise that a hijab is a spectacle of signification. She rather individualizes it as a choice rather than a metonymy of an institutionalized religion or a signifier of backwardness.

Just as Qahera defends women against ideological assault by generating her ‘super-discourse’ (which is not merely about Muslim women, but also by a Muslim woman), she employs her superpowers and weapons to shield women from actual sexual harassment. In the chapter “On Protest”, which deals with sexual assault against Egyptian women who participate in protests, Qahera saves a woman kidnapped by a mob and punishes the attackers. In the final panel, two female protestors appear in grey hijab and veil, which suggests that Qahera’s act is meant to empower women and not to ‘rescue’ them. These women, in their courage to protest against injustice and misogyny, resemble Qahera— this is highlighted by the grey hue of their figures and Qahera’s closing comment: “I am a superhero Ibecause have superpowers. They are superheroes because they do not.”

Deena Mohamed’s web-comic series Qahera not only acts as a medium to raise awareness for ideological issues and practical problems that plague modern Egypt, but it also delineates Qahera as a figure who defies easy categorization by the Arab misogynistic and Western feminist discourses. While Qahera never explicitly states the reason for donning the hijab, her covered body is never reduced to an object of obedience or submission. Qahera generates a discourse that leaves room for Egyptian women to thwart essentialist notions and reclaim their right over their sartorial choices and define empowerment in their own terms. Therein lies the success of Qahera.

If only there was a Qahera in Kathua or Unnao!

-Semanti Nandi