You probably heard back in November that a new character was taking on the moniker of “Ms. Marvel.” That character is one Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim superheroine from New Jersey, the creation of two artists/writers who are themselves Muslim (Sana Amanat and G. Willow Wilson). Kamala made her first appearance in Captain Marvel #14 back in August of last year and is a huge fan of Carol Danvers. In fact, according to Kelly Sue DeConnick, “she is very deliberately placed in a position where she sees Carol protecting civilians from Yon-Rogg.” When Kamala discovers her own powers, she chooses to adopt the Ms. Marvel title in honor of her idol.
Kamala’s first 2014 appearance and her formal debut as Ms. Marvel was in All-New Marvel NOW! Point-One #1, a comic that served as an intro for a number of characters. She now headlines the third volume of Ms. Marvel, which will debut in February. So why am I talking about this? It’s not like she’s the first Muslim superhero on a major imprint, because we’ve had Simon Baz. She’s not even the first Muslim female superhero, if you count Dust, M St. Croix, Faiza Hussain, and others. Again, why am I talking about this?
Because she is so popular. Let me modulate that by saying that she’s popular among the set of people who read Captain Marvel comics, but Captain Marvel #17, in which she is featured, did completely sell out its initial run, inspiring hope for the success of Ms. Marvel Vol. 3. However, there’s a concern to be raised: Does Kamala Khan sell out issues because she’s a sellout? Put another way, is she really the counter to Islamophobia that Muaaz Khan of the Guardian claims her to be?
Dr. Leon Moosavi, a sociologist specializing in race and religion who writes for Al-Jazeera, casts serious doubts on Kamala in his article, pointedly called Why Can’t Spider Man Convert to Islam? Moosavi raises crucial, if sobering, points in his piece, taking issue primarily with three things:
- The notion that her characterization is empowering to Muslim women, or Islam in general.
- Her super power: shapeshifting.
- The notion that the problem of Islamophobia, of hate, underrepresentation, and prejudice, can be solved with comic books.
Moosavi’s first point is well-argued. He mentions that the attempted normalization of her character is problematic. His concern, which I share, is that Kamala is presented as young woman struggling to resolve her dual identity as a Muslim, who wishes for heroism and more as her restrictive traditional family holds her back with their own preoccupations:
It is consistent with typical outdated stereotypes of Muslims. The idea that Muslim women are trapped by family, tradition and Muslim men is an old orientalist trope that is still projected onto Muslim communities today…Is she really an empowered Muslim woman or is she an appropriated tool whose narrative coalesces with the portrayal of Muslim men’s ruthless domination needing to be curbed?
While that is a strong statement, I tend to agree that readers should be wary of the comic presenting the message that young Muslim women can find their way to self-determination only by running from Islam and/or their families. It is a pessimistic warning, I know, and one that I hope is not realized. Moosavi goes on about Kamala’s identity crisis, claiming that far too much is made of the idea that Muslim-Americans have more difficulty than others navigating the conflict between cultures which we all experience. While many tend to look askance at the patriotism of immigrants, they are often well-integrated and proud members of their new nation, so, as Moosavi says, “we needn’t insist that American Muslims must always be overwhelmed with internal tension.”
Moving on to her superpower, the complaint here is that much like Dust’s rather stereotypical power of turning into sand or a sandstorm, Kamala’s power isn’t necessarily flattering or complimentary to the new Ms. Marvel’s identity. Moosavi, for his part, sees it as problematic. He associates her shapeshifting power with negative connotations put upon the largely Shi’a concept of taqiyya, “whereby a believing individual can deny his faith or commit otherwise illegal or blasphemous acts while they are at risk of significant persecution… shapeshifting is cunning and manipulative, just as orientalists imagined Arabs to be and just as far-right Islamophobes like to imagine all Muslims are today.”
I don’t think that he is here accusing the authors of creating a superhero that is implicitly treacherous, but of creating one that will conform to the stereotypes of those who are prejudiced against Islam, which would make Kamala a poor attempt to combat Islamophobia.
On the other hand, I saw Kamala Khan’s shapeshifting ability as symbolically related to her attempts to navigate crises of identity. Anyone who lives in or engages with multiple cultures in their daily lives, which is really almost everyone, can understand changing one’s mannerisms or expression to fit given expectations or norms. Her shapeshifting powers are a reference to her social shapeshiting—but that’s not a vice. I see it as an attempt at genuine complexity in telling Kamala’s story.
His third point is easily summarized in the following quotation: “Islamophobia is not about to disappear, and suggesting it will because of the appearance of a Muslim character in a comic book, does a disservice to those who confront it in all its seriousness in their everyday lives.” It is fair to say that this comic and all the rather sensational headlines about it are not going to stop prejudice against Muslims. It is unfair, however, to dismiss its role in that potential change. Moosavi opines that “comics will never be able to end Islamophobia because too few people read them.” Of course not. The whole milieu of racism in this country is not likely to be changed by a single print comic, but the preceding comment seems to ignore the possibility that it will change the minds of some people who read some comics. “Some people” is a good enough reason to undertake an endeavor such as this.
Of course, Moosavi’s is not the only opinion on the subject. Over at io9, there’s a good summary of a UPI article featuring reaction interviews with several actual Pakistanis, whose opinions must be considered in a thorough analysis of their representation. Mobarak Haider, a Pakistani-American author, had this to say:
Pakistanis will feel proud to see their girl helping people and playing a positive role,… Kamala Khan is not only representing her compatriots in this role, but Muslims as a whole. The concept will make parents understand that by giving girls confidence, they can build a fabulous future.
That sounds like quite an endorsement. In fact, that last sentence is congruent with the mission statement of many nonprofits and other organizations that hope to change the world for the better by advancing the status of women (like Skateistan, which is awesome). On the other hand, one Sanim Iqbal responded with:
The dress Kamala Khan will be wearing doesn’t represent our Muslim culture either. I can’t expect that Kamala Khan is going to build our country’s image. I am sure there will be a conspiracy behind this idea, either to disrespect our family values or to damage our religion.”
I bring all of these points up not to tell you that you shouldn’t read Ms. Marvel because it’s offensive, or that you should read it because it’s great. You should read it because it’s the next step in a conversation on the representation of Muslim-Americans. This is a conversation that seems to be had only in the most hamfisted of terms, despite interactions with the Islamic world being the defining feature of American (and British) foreign policy since the Cold War. Thusly, I will absolutely be reading it, and likely enjoying it, though I will be sure to keep my critical eye open. I’d like to recommend that you do the same. Ms Marvel Vol. 3 #1 debuts on February 5th.
Normally, this is where I’d end this post, but I want to take a moment to say that I’ve endeavored to make every one of the links in this post something that is worth your time to read. So I implore you to do so. There’s a lot to learn from the aforementioned links, and maybe you’ll even have a good time somewhere.
Thanks for writing this. Everytime I’ve read advertisements for this series, or even when looking at some of the shape shifting in preview art, I’ve felt deeply suspicious and put-off. But because it wasn’t about my culture or experience, I had difficulty articulating why. I don’t think I would have necessarily taken the opportunity to explore written reactions to the hype from the actual group of intended representation without this article. Cheers!
An interesting (to me anyway) note is that apparently the idea of Kamala Khan was modeled on the life experiences of one of the editors, herself a Pakistani-American woman.
I admittedly wonder just how many of the interviewees (not just those quoted) were aware that the character is supposed to be Pakistani-American specifically?
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