Hamza Salahuddin Women in Security

Marvel and Reinventing American Muslim Women

Muslim women are often portrayed as burqa-clad oppressed individuals who stay at home and do not play an active role in society. This stigma is cultivated and maintained partially because of the way which media in the West (particularly Hollywood) has chosen to portray women in the East. Unfortunately, more often than not, the media has a tendency of attributing the actions and lifestyles of a few to the entire community.  None has been more affected by this inaccurate view than some Muslim women living in the United States who are pressured to think that their religious beliefs cannot be accommodated in the country that they live in. With the number of Muslims living in the United States gradually rising, a new approach towards Muslim women needs to be adopted by the media.

What might come as a surprise, Marvel has taken the initiative to reinvent the portrayal of Muslim women.  Known for superhero characters like Spider-Man, Iron-Man and The Hulk, Marvel has redeveloped one of its characters, Ms. Marvel.  This time, however, Ms. Marvel will be portrayed by a sixteen year old Muslim girl named Kamala Khan created by G. Willow Wilson. Besides fighting super-villains, Kamala Khan will also have to deal with issues of having a dual-identity. She must live between the divide between growing up as an American teen and being a member of an immigrant Muslim family. Unlike the typical portrayal of Muslim women, the new Ms. Marvel will not be shown as a poster girl for her faith but instead as someone who struggles with being a Muslim.

The announcement by Marvel of this new character comes at a time when the comic book giant has been criticized for not developing a diverse set of prominent characters with contemporary cultural relevance. Despite the positive portrayal of the character, Marvel editor Sana Amanat is braced for negative reactions from both people who are anti-Muslim and Muslims who believe the character must be portrayed in a particular light.

Kamala Khan is not merely a character developed to appeal to contemporary youth. She is also a part of larger narrative examining the formation of identity. Many children of immigrants experience living in two different worlds that seem to be polarized. That is, the lifestyle, values and beliefs at home are strikingly different from the outside world. As a result, youth struggle with accommodating and reconciling the two worlds that they live in.

Cover art for New X-Men: Hellions #2 featuring Dust (Sooraya Qadir)

It is unlikely that this project will encourage other forms of media to re-examine the way they portray Muslim women. This is not the first time that Marvel has introduced Muslim female characters into its world of superheroes. In 1994, Marvel introduced an X-Men character named M (Monet St. Croix) who is a Muslim from North Africa. In 2002, Marvel added another character, Dust, also known as Sooraya Qadir to the X-Men family.  In 2008, Marvel introduced a British Muslim Character by the name of Dr. Fauzia Hussain, alias Excalibur, who is able to disassemble anything (and anyone) and rearrange them.  All these women are depicted in a typical superhero fashion: they are independent, beautiful, and powerful. Despite all these attempts, none of these characters have broken through the barriers to become mainstream characters that people have become accustomed to seeing on the big screen.

Considering all these attempts of introducing Muslim women into the Marvel world and the fact that these characters have had no impact on the way women are viewed by the media, it is unlikely that the new Ms. Marvel will leave a mark. Viewers unfortunately enjoy a false sense of threat and the best way of cultivating this feeling is by maintaining the “Us versus Them” rhetoric that we have been bombarded with for many decades. Characterizing Muslims as mysterious individuals who dress bizarrely and are committed to destabilizing the free world, sadly, is what has been selling for the past three decades.

The issue is perpetuated by the way Muslim women have been portrayed by political figures and news outlets. In the West, the veil has often been viewed as a symbol of oppression and Muslim women have been seen as individuals who need saving. Since 9/11 and the subsequent U.S invasion of Iraq and the intervention in Afghanistan, Western media have become obsessed with looking at Muslim lifestyle, women, and Islamic rituals, as if these would somehow help them understand the tragic event that occurred in New York.

The following question was posed by anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod in one of her articles: Do Muslim women need saving? Although the article focused on Afghani women, the context is quite relevant in this discussion of Marvel’s new character. In her closing remarks, as a critique of Laura Bush’s November 17th, 2001 speech (saving Afghani women as a pretext to fighting the Taliban) and the concept of the politics of the veil, Abu-Lughod mentions that in order to save someone from something, you are also implying that you are saving someone to something. In other words the Afghani women would be saved from the oppressive veil to the liberal values “championed” by the United States.

Returning to Kamala Khan, this unhealthy obsession over Muslim women might reflect the type of ideal that women are being saved to. That is, a world where freedom of choice dictates an individual’s actions. The character is a reflection of the reinvented Muslim woman living in a world thriving off Western liberal values. Even though Kamala Khan was influenced by one of the creator’s personal experiences and represents the identity crisis that many young Muslim Americans face, readers may falsely perceive the character’s complex upbringing as a struggle with her upbringing as a personal choice.

It would be interesting to see how the new Ms. Marvel would transform through her experiences and journeys. We are yet to find out how her religion will play a role in the series and it is too soon to determine the impact that such a dynamic character would have on the way in which future characters are created. At the end, it might be that in the world of comic book superheroes, it is best to keep aside cultural values and construct characters on universal human values rather than exploiting cultural differences to cater to a niche audience.

Hamza Salahuddin
Hamza Salahuddin is the Program Editor of the Maritime Security program at the Atlantic Council of Canada. he is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto, successfully completing a double major in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations and Political Science. During his studies, he developed an interest in North Africa and the Middle East. In particular, he focuses on cultivating an understanding and analyzing root causes of various issues people in the region struggle to cope with. His recent research includes intellectuals in the Arab World, ideological struggles in the Middle East, Lebanese society, and Arab society during the late Ottoman era.