‘Qahera’ Webcomic Creator Deena Mohamed Talks Superheroes, Gaza, and Women
Column » Comics & Dialogue: Islam in Graphic Novels
by A. DAVID LEWIS for ISLAMiCommentary
Deena Mohamed, a nineteen-year-old Egyptian graphic design student, does more than draw or doodle: She is creating a legend. Based partially on her own and her friends’ experiences within Egyptian culture, Mohamed chose to combat sexism and harassment with her hijab-clad superheroine Qahera, whose online webcomic inches closer daily to nearly one-million viewers. Her work has been featured by The Daily Beast, BBC, Foreign Policy, and The London Times, to name only a few.
“Comics and Dialogue” had the opportunity to correspond with her about the latest installment of Qahera (this particular one, as her blog describes, is “a quick comic on accountability; sometimes it is important to disassociate yourself from patriotism and realize when you are contributing to the suffering of others”); the general response to Qahera; its blended “Islamic” and “Western” tone; and Mohamed’s own views on the power of webcomics.
CD: Let’s start before Qahera. What brought you, Deena, to the study of art?
DM: I’ve actually been drawing as long as I can remember. Most people don’t know this, but art is a required subject in the Egyptian national curriculum and affects your average, until around the equivalent of grade 9 or so.
CD: How do you respond to factions of Islam that prohibit the depiction or illustration of the human form (much less the Prophet himself)?
DM: Growing up I never really encountered much opposition to art or even being an artist, although of course depicting the Prophet is generally not permissible, which I’ve never had a problem with.
For the few times I have heard objections to the illustration of the human form, I generally refer people to the Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa’s own response that the drawing of animate objects, within the limits of decency, is not haram.
CD: So, why go with a superhero? That is, what exposure did you have to superheroes growing up? What makes a superhero a useful character type through which to convey your messages?
DM: I have had a fair amount of exposure to superheroes growing up, whether from cartoons, movies, or comics. I think it is difficult to grow up anywhere in the world without having at least a passing awareness of Batman and Superman, even though by and large the superhero “brand” is a little alien to Egyptian culture.
The choice of a superhero was initially the message in and of itself; the stereotype goes that Muslim women are expected to be oppressed and submissive, whereas a superhero by definition is someone who is strong and powerful. A lot of it was just about irony, to be honest.
But it’s also a useful plot device because superpowers, I think, surpass a lot of the physical barriers that are usually used as excuses to intimidate women. I think once you put physical strength aside, you really get to the bottom of sexism and patriarchal issues and it allows for giving quick superhero resolutions: hanging someone from a laundry line, tying people up, that sort of thing. A lot of it is probably wish-fulfillment too, but it basically means the message takes precedence over the mechanics of how someone would actually be safely extended from a laundry line, because in the less serious comics or superhero genres you can just suspend your disbelief.
And because superheroes come with a lot of pre-defined factors – strength and flight and arch-nemeses and costumes – it’s fun for me as a creator to pick and choose what I want to abide by and what I want to completely discard.
CD: In terms of those traditional superhero factors, comics scholar Peter Coogan suggests in his book Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre that there are three main elements that constitute any superhero: Mission, Power, and Identity (MPI). What would you say Qahera’s mission is?
DM: Qahera’s mission definitely revolves around changing and improving her environment. She’s unlike most superheroes in that she aims to change the status quo, not uphold it or defend it from supervillains.
CD: When it comes to the element of Identity, your character appears almost ninja-like in her hijab and wielding her sword. She looks not unlike Marvel Comics’ character Dust from the X-Men (minus the sword, of course). Do you run into any problems with her chosen form of dress also being her “costume?”
DM: I actually view her dress doubling as a costume as extremely effective. If I were a superhero, I would absolutely do that. It’s much more appropriate for battles than high heels and skintight leather or lycra bodysuits, and it allows her to blend in with the crowd when needed. (I don’t know why other superheroes haven’t caught on yet, honestly.)
In terms of character design, I like it because, while it does bear similarities to other veiled superheroes (e.g. Dust, the Burka Avenger, etc.), it is also easy to customize (i.e. I use the straps across her arms and torso) and stands out in a line-up, at least until there are a few more veiled superheroes.
CD: Of course, Qahera’s creation didn’t take place in a vacuum. Could you discuss what elements of the revolution in Egypt, of the shocking statistics of sexual harassment against women, and of the need for Muslim girls to have role models went into her genesis?
DM: One of the interesting things about Qahera was that her genesis was a very public, documented process. Because I posted the very first comic online — and that was more of a 4 am doodle than an actual planned-out concept — I was able to immediately receive responses.
As I’ve mentioned previously, it was initially more of a joke. A response to stereotypes of Muslim women and an easy laugh at misogynistic types in one. But once people got ahold of it, the concept began to expand, and I found myself with an Egyptian, Muslim superhero character on my hands —not a bad position to be in. Naturally, once she was defined as someone who was opposed to both misogyny and Islamophobia, the next step was to really consider what an Egyptian woman with superpowers would do, and that generally means dealing with real-life issues.
But it’s also important to mention that Qahera is based on inspiring Egyptian and Muslim women, and not the other way around. I don’t think of her as a role model for girls, instead I’m basing her on the role models I see around me constantly. If anything, I try to utilize Qahera to raise awareness to the people actually doing things.
CD: Is that an inherent power (or superpower) of the webcomic as a medium?
DM: Yes, as a webcomic, Qahera’s main strength is in raising awareness. She’s a fictional character with fictional powers, and she does not deliver real-life solutions. But she does bring attention to things. If I feel I can do some good by addressing something, I will. If I feel like it benefits me more than the topic itself, I try not to. I also try to address things pertaining to Egypt as a priority, because those are the issues I experience directly. As I said, though, I am not a spokesperson for anything. I just contribute what I have to offer within the constraints of the comic medium.
Mostly, it’s just a superhero comic that addresses stuff I care about for people I care about. I’m glad people like it and I’m glad it hits a certain niche but I also want to stress that I am not a spokesperson for all of the issues Qahera touches on. Nobody has to be a spokesperson. It’s just the contribution I have to offer.
For instance, the latest comic (called “Accountability”) touches on the bloodshed in Gaza. Personally, I try to keep Qahera out of outright politics. I’m more interested in social and humanitarian repercussions caused by them, but I also like to keep the comics in time with real-life events. It’s one of the advantages of the webcomic format.
My reservations are as follows: I don’t want to exploit anyone’s suffering in a comic, and I don’t want to address things I have no stake in or adequate knowledge about. I don’t want to address or make light of something tragic I cannot do justice in a superhero comic.
CD: In addition to Qahera, readers also meet Laila Magdy, whom another profile on your work by describes as “a modern young lady who wears westernised clothing in a modest way but is the victim of a sexual assault. She is blamed for how she dressed.” How fair a description of Laila is that?
DM: It is a fair description, although I don’t really understand why Laila is usually attributed to ‘modernness’ and ‘Westernization.’ I don’t view Laila as the modern foil to Qahera’s traditional. Rather, I view them both as equal but different representations of modern Egypt. One of my favorite things about Egypt is its diversity – you can see women in hijabs, niqabs, and t-shirts walking side by side and I find it wonderful and would like to portray it as often as I can. Heterogeneity is very important to me, and I am generally opposed to its suppression.
Also, it’s not surprising, but mental outsets usually seem determined by clothing, especially for women. I don’t see why it’s a determining factor. Lots of American women wear abayas, and lots of women in jeans have traditional Egyptian values, but assumptions apply everywhere I suppose, even here.
CD: A great deal of time takes place between your posting new episodes of Qahera. (Part 5 came out in January, with Part 6 debuting this week in July.) What goes into the process of each one?
DM: That’s actually more about my own time management than the process, because I’m still a student and my spare time is sadly limited. But generally, I write out the comic, then do a rough draft, then inking (or lineart), then shading. The last update has taken some time because I also wanted to redesign the website before posting it, so I was working on that as well.
But generally the timing tends to be sporadic – for example, I’ve been working on one comic for about six months, but I finished another one last night in a few hours. It’s an advantage and a drawback of working alone.
CD: Is Qahera a sideline project (about which you’re obviously passionate, just the same), or might this somehow become your full-time vocation?
DM: For now, it’s a sideline project. While it’s something I do in my spare time, it has opened up a lot of opportunities and started a lot of conversations, and that’s what I am most grateful for.
I’d like the opportunity to expand it someday, and being a full-time comics artist sounds pretty much like a dream job!
A. David Lewis, Ph.D. is the co-editor of Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels, co-author of Some New Kind of Slaughter from Archaia Entertainment, and a founding member of Sacred & Sequential, a collective of religious studies and comics studies scholars. He currently teaches at colleges throughout the Greater Boston area, including Northeastern University, Bentley University, and MCPHS University, and has previously lectured at Boston University, Tufts University, Merrimack College, and Georgetown University. He is a steering committee member for the American Academy of Religion’s “Death, Dying, and Beyond” Group as well as co-editor of the forthcoming Digital Death: Mortality and Beyond in the Online Age. You can follow him on Twitter @ADLewis. Continue to watch this space for his ISLAMiCommentary column “Comics & Dialogue: Islam in Graphic Novels.”
This article was made possible (in part) by the Transcultural Islam Project, an initiative launched in 2011 by the Duke Islamic Studies Center — in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies — aimed at deepening understanding of Islam and Muslim communities. See www.islamicommentary.org/about and www.tirnscholars.org/about for more information. The Transcultural Islam Project is funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).
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