Culture

Ms. Marvel returns as Muslim teen

Activists say new superhero could help dispel stereotypes about the female Muslim-American experience

Marvel character Kamala Khan, second from left, with brother Aamir, father Yusuf, mother Disha and friend Bruno.
Marvel Comics/AP

Ms. Marvel, the 1960s-era comic book heroine who inspired a generation of teenage girls as a crime-fighting former U.S. Air Force officer in an impossibly tight costume, is making a comeback. But in the iconic character’s next incarnation, she will look very different. The role of the previously blonde, blue-eyed Ms. Marvel will be filled by a Muslim teen, Kamala Khan.

Khan, a 16-year-old high school student who lives in Jersey City with her Pakistani immigrant parents, can grow and shrink parts of her body and shape shift into other forms, The Associated Press reported.

But her real power might reside in helping teach the American public about what it means to grow up as a Muslim girl in the United States, activists said. Khan is the first Muslim lead character in a Marvel comic series.

"She is going to be a window into the American Muslim experience," said Fatemeh Fakhraie, the founder of Muslimah Media Watch, a forum on Muslim women’s representation in popular culture.  

Fakhraie said the new superhero "normalizes this idea of the American experience as Muslim," adding that "A lot of us are bumping up against that the idea that a lot of America is white, while that isn't what America is, we're not all white and Christian."

Previously, Marvel's Muslim characters played minor roles, and included Dust, who can transform into sand and needed saving by Wolverine from a slave trafficking scam in Afghanistan. 

Debunking stereotypes

Kamala Khan
Kamala Khan as the new Ms. Marvel.
Marvel Comcs/AP

Ms. Marvel's editor Sana Amanat told The Associated Press the series reflects the struggles of an ordinary teenager from a "desire to explore the Muslim American diaspora from an authentic perspective."

"I wanted Ms. Marvel to be true-to-life, something real people could relate to, particularly young women. High school was a very vivid time in my life, so I drew heavily on those experiences — impending adulthood, dealing with school, emotionally charged friendships that are such a huge part of being a teenager," she told The Associated Press.

"It's for all the geek girls out there, and everybody else who's ever looked at life from the fringe."

Fakhraie says she was encouraged by the portrayal of Khan as a teenage girl with ordinary problems, who isn’t exoticized or represented as somehow different. "It's stuff that a lot of Americans deal with," she said. "Everyone has their problems, and they're just going to portray them as problems, not as Muslim problems."

Marvel Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso told The AP, "Kamala is not unlike Peter Parker," she said. "She's a 16-year-old girl from the suburbs who is trying to figure out who she is and trying to forge an identity when she suddenly bestows great power and learns the great responsibility that comes with it."

Growing trend

She follows in the footsteps of a number of superheroes who have been created in part to provide alternative role models for young Muslims.

The Burqa Avenger, a Pakistani cartoon character, is a schoolteacher by day but fights corrupt politicians who are trying to prevent girls from getting an education by night. By wearing traditional clothing she is more in tuned with the local culture, while, like other superheroes, her cloak protects her identity, the show's creator said.

The 99, a comic book series of 99 Islamic superheroes who each possess a different power, is the creation of Naif Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti with an undergraduate degree from Tufts University. Fed up with stereotypical representations of Muslims in the West, he decided to offer new role models rooted in Islamic culture and the 99 attributes of God (Allah in Arabic), including "generosity, strength, wisdom, foresight, mercy and dozens of others that are not used to describe Islam in the media today," Al-Mutawa said in an interview with his alma mater.

"The only superheroes were in North America and Japan," he said, adding, "Why not an Islamic comic book?"

With The Associated Press

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