Comic book Action comics coverIt’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Super Makh! Reappearing this year in the popular Egyptian comic publication Tok-Tok is a superhero comic with a social mission — to help women and girls stop their harassers.

Super Makh, the Egyption version of Superman, tackles the pressing issue of sexual harassment by using popular culture to affect change.

Super Makh breaks a prevalent social taboo in Egypt by talking about sexual harassment openly and aims to address the problem in a light way, while highlighting the pretexts and other factors that allow for it to continue in the country. The cartoon also provides good role models for men and women to deal with sexual harassment and examples of positive gender relations. By breaking the silence and talking about sexual harassment in the sphere of pop-culture, Super Makh may finally help end this pressing issue.

Egyptian society – whether in Muslim or Christian communities – is relatively conservative for the most part and sex remains a taboo not to be discussed. Therefore, women are often embarrassed to complain about being a victim of sexual harassment. Claims of harassment that are brought to the attention of police usually receive a poor or inadequate response, leaving many women feeling that it’s pointless to ask for help. But if silence over the issue continues, nobody will tackle the problem.

Super Makh, dressed in floral print clothing, and using cinnamon chewing-gum to fight against his foes, first appeared in Al-Dostour (an opposition newspaper at the time) in 2008. Ahmed Makhlouf, the cartoon’s creator, drew the first adventures of Super Makh in response to some notable sexual harassment accounts in 2006 and 2008. A study by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights showed that more than 80% of Egyptian women were subjected to sexual harassment at that time.

In addition to the fact that sexual harassment can be difficult to report, there are many factors that contribute to its prevalence and need to be addressed. Gender stereotypes and learned behavior that teaches women to keep quiet about harassment they’ve experienced and brushes off verbal harassment are but a few. Super Makh brings these factors to the attention of Egyptian readers with situations characters face in the comic.

In the cartoon, the harasser “compliments” female characters just as a real harasser might on a street in Cairo. But the cartoon shows that these “sweet words” are actually perceived as aggressive by women. In contrast, Super Makh is respectful towards women. In this way the cartoon attempts to shift what is perceived as masculine from harassment to respect for women and their rights.

Ramallah cook gets microloanSuper Makh teaches men not to turn a blind eye to sexual harassment. Makhlouf explains, “Every one of us is Super Makh. We all try to be a hero. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t.” After all, Super Makh is just a normal guy. The bottom line is that it doesn’t take a superhero to man up when it comes to sexual harassment.

The girl who is a victim of harassment in the comic first calls upon Super Makh for help. But when approached by a second man, she fends for herself. In this manner the cartoon is teaching girls not to be embarrassed, but instead to speak out and stand up for their rights.

Makhlouf’s superhero has already made a difference in the real world by helping break the taboo and highlighting the reality many Egyptian women face daily. More importantly, efforts such as this show the younger generation that there is nothing fun or cool about harassing women. Super Makh will be again featured in Tok-Tok’s April edition.

Sophie Anmuth is a freelance journalist based in Egypt. This article was originally written for the Common Ground News Service. Reprinted with permission.

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