It was not Egypt’s police force that saved Layla from sexual assault, it was Qahera: a sword-wielding, female superhero in a black hijab.
Groped by the comic strip’s villains, Layla’s hopes of police help are dashed when an officer castigates her for wearing inappropriate clothing: trousers and a sweater. Back on the street, she is confronted by another gang of tormentors and is saved when Qahera appears, beating them with a stick and then stringing them by the scruff of their necks from the police station railings.
Qahera is emblematic of a new breed of Arab comic superheroine emerging as liberals and conservatives dispute the legacy of the 2011 uprisings. Young artists are focusing on as yet unresolved issues in the Middle East and North Africa, which have left male-dominated cultures largely intact.
“Female superheroes and leading characters show women filling the gender gap and highlight governments’ neglect of women’s rights,” Lena Merhej, a Lebanese artist researching visual narratives at Jacobs University Bremen in Germany, said in an interview.
The new breed of comic characters “fulfill their dreams and aspirations for a better life,” she added.
Qahera, the Arabic word for “Cairo” that also means “victorious,” was created by 19-year-old Egyptian graphic design student Deena Mohamed and first appeared on the Internet in June, about five months after popular protests following the gang-rape of a woman at knife-point in Tahrir Square. Mohamed said the comic is a way of defying conventions requiring female silence on harassment.
“I wanted to create a superhero to face some of the things that frustrated me,” she said.
Audiences are receptive. Since September, Mohamed’s Web site has had nearly 500,000 individual visitors, with an average of about 10,000 hits per day and she has been asked by local publishers to sign a deal for a printed version. Mohamed said she gets daily messages from Arab women and girls who say they are inspired by Qahera.
At Dubai’s Middle East Film & Comic Convention last year, Sudanese author Mai El Shoush was surrounded by fans when she unveiled a teaser for her graphic novel Drawn, charting the transformation of heroine Rayann Lawsonia from a shy girl into the savior of the world.
“I wanted to create a strong female Arab character people can relate to,” said El Shoush, whose comic is being released this month by US-based Jabal Entertainment. “I hate those stereotyped Barbie-like plastic characters in tight leather.”
However, the illustrators of other graphic novels say that showing a leading female character as sexually powerful can help change minds in countries where social tensions have heightened over the past two years.
Elyssa Haddad, the leading lady in Tunisian artist Jihen Ben Mahmoud’s Passion Rouge series, appears nude and in erotic scenes, earning the artist hate mail, including accusations that she is an infidel.
“The Arab world has an issue with appearance,” she said. “That’s why I intentionally highlight my character’s sexuality: She owns her own body, she can hide it, uncover it, do whatever she wants with it — it’s not a source of shame.”
The current leading ladies of the genre are not its first female heroes. In the 1980s, wife-and-husband team Samira Shafik and Ihab Shaker introduced Egyptians to the adventures of Shamsa and Dana and in 2006 the Lebanese artist Joumana Medlej created Malaak, Angel of Peace, a girl with magical powers who saves her country from evil spirits masquerading as militias.
Also in 2006, Kuwaiti-born psychologist Naif al-Mutawa unveiled THE 99, a team of Muslim superheroes including several women, who became so popular they featured in Marvel Comics alongside Superman and Batman.
Another inspiration for the new artists was the animated 2007 film Persepolis about an outspoken Iranian girl that was nominated for an Academy Award, Merhej said. She said the Internet and social media are also providing women with new tools in the wake of the Arab Spring, and helping them wider audiences.
Yet for now, the Arab comic industry is a virgin market and illustrators “are doing it purely for the love of it and the expression,” said Ben Caddy, director of the Middle East Film & Comic Convention.
“Solid female characters — not just superheroes — are essential for the Arab world at this time of unprecedented violence against women,” Medlej said. “We can create in our literature the equal and balanced society we aspire to.”
Violence may form part of the new superheroine armory, but so does respect for the rule of law. As Qahera rescues Layla, she turns to the girl and says: “Don’t worry, I’ll be waiting to testify against these men with you.”