Evolution of the Islamic Superheroine:

Post-9/11 Representation of Muslim Women in Comics

Introduction

The primary purpose of this piece will be to discuss the history regarding the increased representation of Muslima, or female adherents of Islam, within fictional mediums such as superhero comics. Specifically, following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Muslima visibility has greatly expanded in graphic literature. While many comics have served to reinforce negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims, others have sought to showcase successful examples of positive representations of Muslim women. To illustrate this progression of the Muslima superhero from one-dimensional stereotypes into well-rounded and inclusive characters, the following will analyze various studies discussing three prominent Muslima comic characters from the post-9/11 era: Dust, Ms. Marvel, and Qahera.

Dust (Sooraya Qadir)

One of the first overtly Islamic characters to appear in mainstream graphic narratives following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks was Sooraya Qadir, aka Dust, who served as a peripheral member of the Marvel Entertainment’s popular superhero team the X-Men. Co-created by Scottish writer Grant Morrison and American illustrator Ethan Van Sciver, Dust first appeared in the pages of New X-Men #133 (December 2002), wherein she is depicted as a niqabi Afghan Sunni Muslima possessing the mutant power to transform her body into a cloud of sentient sand. The reasons behind Dust’s conception have been heavily debated among scholars. For instance, academics Eric Garneau and Maura Foley speculate that Morrison designed Dust to be a satirical refutation against Islamophobia by deliberately infusing her stereotypical attributes commonly associated with Muslim women. This interpretation is supported by Morrison themself, who stated in their memoir Supergods that “over its forty-issue run, New X-Men turned into a diary of my own growing distrust of post-9/11 conformity culture.” Despite Dust’s intended function as post-9/11 satire, she has been heavily criticized for her embodiment of negative orientalist stereotypes that have served to further marginalize her to peripheral status.

Feminist media scholar Safiyya Hosein states that Dust’s characterization is reflective of Gayatri Spivak’s dichotomy between the “‘domesticated Other’ [representing] Islam through [an] orientalist, veiled character and the ‘imperialist self’ [representing] the Western audience that the character is created for.” One of the first ways in which this dichotomy manifests itself is in her first appearance, where Dust is presented as an unconscious Afghan refugee who requires rescuing from Taliban slave traders by the X-Men member Wolverine, despite her sand powers having previously subdued thirteen of her captors. Hosein describes this initial portrayal of Dust as negatively reinforcing the racist and sexist imperialist narrative that Muslim women are in need of saving from the West, especially since her savior Wolverine is presented as a “white hyper-masculine ex-soldier superhero” whereas the brown Muslim men who capture her are presented as “savage, oversexed and uncivilized.” Additionally, Dust’s status as an Orientalist Other is further increased by her sand-manipulation powers, which suggest a greater connection to Northern Africa, as does her speaking in Arabic despite the native languages of Afghanistan being Pashto or Dari.

This misrepresentation of Islamic culture is especially reflected in Dust’s portrayal of the veil. Scholars Julie Davis and Robert Westerfelhaus state that despite the artwork throughout multiple comics depicting Dust as wearing a garment resembling a niqab, she, along with other characters, refer to her veil as a burqa. Additionally, scholar Martin Lund describes this orientalist framing of the veil as directly correlating with Dust’s limited characterization since the majority of interactions with other characters consist of her defending her decision to wear the veil. For instance, in New X-Men: Academy X #2 (2005) by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir, Dust informs her roommate Surge that she wears the veil because “it’s not right for [her] to show off by exposing [herself] or [her] flesh to [the] boys and men on campus,” and in New X-Men: Hellions #2 by DeFilippis and Weir, Dust informs her mother that “[she] never wore [the veil] because of the Taliban [but because she likes] the modesty and protection it affords [her] from the eyes of men.” Critics have also suggested that despite Dust’s adherence to modesty, comic creators have hypocritically sexualized Dust’s character by making her abaya incredibly skin-tight and form-fitting as well as contriving situations in which she is nude in front of other characters.  However, Dust’s characterization is primarily focused on her religious obligations and her mannerisms limited to acting submissive and insecure, a description which further serves to reinforce negative imperialist stereotypes regarding Muslim women. Essentially, although scholars like Davis and Westerfelhaus propose that Dust’s character has the potential to present a less radicalized portrayal of post-9/11 Muslims by “[affording her] a liminal license that permits her [beliefs and practices] entry into mainstream culture,” Dust’s potential to be empowering is severely hindered by her limited characterization and embodiment of orientalist tropes.

Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan)

In sharp contrast to Dust, Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel represents a significant shift in the Muslima graphic narrative, as her character and text have been heavily lauded for providing a more nuanced and subversive portrayal of Muslim women that helps refute Islamophobic stereotypes. Debuting in Ms. Marvel #1 (February, 2014) by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, Kamala Khan is a brown second-generation Pakistani-American Muslima teenager hailing from a relatively conservative family in Jersey City, New Jersey. Struggling to find a balance between her Pakistani and American cultures, Kamala is exposed to the mysterious Terrigen Mist that grants her the abilities of a polymorph (shape-shifting powers), which she then uses to fight for her community as the superheroine Ms. Marvel. One of the first immediate ways in which Kamala stands out among her previous Muslima contemporaries in Western mainstream comics, which has been historically predominated by white men, is that her character was conceived and created by two Muslim women: G. Willow Wilson, a white convert who serves as the book’s writer, and Sana Amanat, a second-generation Pakistani American immigrant who serves as the book’s editor.

In addition to Ms. Marvel possessing the unique status of being the first mainstream American superhero comic to feature a Muslima as the leading character, Kamala’s series has been frequently cited as providing an authentic and relatable portrayal of South Asian Muslim-American experiences, primarily through Kamala’s introspective relationship with her Islamic faith and heritage. These core elements of Kamala’s text can be traced back to her creators.  Editor Sana Amanat stated in a Washington Post interview that the character was based heavily off Amanat’s own experiences of “what it was like to grow up in this country as a Muslim-American,” and that similar to Kamala she, too, “had all these questions about her identity.” Kamala’s grappling with her identity is presented primarily through what essayists Peter E. Carlson and Antero Garcia describe as a conflict between transformational and conformist resistance. This internalized conflict particularly manifests itself in the first two issues of Ms. Marvel, wherein Kamala fails to obtain social acceptance by defying her parents’ wishes and sneaking out to a party where she is instead belittled for her faith and ethnicity. She is then enveloped by the Terrigen Mist and engages in an act of conformist resistance by using her newly acquired polymorph powers to alter her physical appearance into resembling her idol Carol Danvers, who is a blonde white woman. This action proves self-defeating for Kamala. Acknowledging that “being someone else isn’t liberating. It’s exhausting,” she looks inward and draws upon the Qur’an ayah: “whoever saves one person, it is as if he has saved all of mankind.”  Kamala then lives this belief when she rescues a classmate who had previously bullied her at the party from drowning. This transformational act underscores the solace and strength to be found by staying true to one’s Islamic faith and family heritage. The renewed dedication becomes her primary motivation for using her powers to help others.  Through this framework, Ms. Marvel analyzes what series writer G. Willow Wilson describes as “the pressure young women feel to live up to unrealistic media images [that are] more intense still for those of minority backgrounds.” The character Kamala is used to advance a narrative for personal empowerment in opposition to societal racism and sexism.

Another major reason that Kamala’s Ms. Marvel is frequently cited as a landmark in Muslima graphic representation is the series’s nuanced depictions of Islamic and South Asian culture. In an effort to combat Islamophobic stereotypes, Wilson states that she and Amanat tried “to show the reader that Islam is not monolithic, that there are divisions of belief and practices within the community and within individual families.” This effort is immediately apparent in Kamala’s aesthetics, since she does not wear a headscarf like the majority of Muslim women in Western media. Essayist Kristin M. Peterson states that the creators’ decision not to have Kamala veil serves to effectively refute problematic stereotypes that portray the veil as inherently oppressive towards Muslim women, as well as convey that Kamala’s personality is not defined solely by her faith. This intersectional analysis of Kamala’s clothing especially pertains to her superhero costume as Ms. Marvel; it consists of a modified burkini, or a modest Muslima swimsuit, accompanied by a dupatta scarf and Pakistani bangles to reflect her Islamic heritage as well as a red, blue, and yellow color scheme and painted-on lightning bolt reflective of Kamala’s idol Carol Danvers’ costume in order to emulate her status as a nerdy fangirl of superheroes.

In addition to providing Kamala’s aesthetics conveying her multifaceted personality, Ms. Marvel’s creators further disrupt the monolithic narrative through the series’ depiction of the various attire and customs of individual Muslim women: Kamala’s Turkish-American friend Nakia, whose wearing of a hijab (despite her father’s reservations) conveys her pride in her Muslima identity; Kamala’s mother Muneeba, whose veil and Shalwar Kameez are also indicative of her first-generation immigrant status; Kamala’s sister-in-law Tyesha, whose chador shows her as being overtly devout as well as providing exposure to her underrepresented status as a black Muslima convert. While Ms. Marvel has been routinely praised for its Islamic feminist themes and active refutation of stereotypes, some critics like Sika A. Dagbovie Mullins and Eric Berlatsky have expressed concern that in the creator’s attempt to make Kamala “a universal of teen experience” for multicultural audiences, Kamala’s character is consequently “deracialized” and negates issues of systemic discrimination that post-9/11 Muslim Americans experience. Despite these criticisms of engaging in neoliberal assimilationist narratives, other academics like Winona Landis assert that Kamala’s relatability is beneficial in helping readers to confront internal misconception towards non-dominant cultures, citing a white male student of hers who said that Ms. Marvel forced him to “focus on ‘the state of understanding,’ [or] the act of placing yourself in another person’s shoes.” Ultimately, Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel series serves as a revolutionary shift in the representation of Muslim women in superhero narratives through its refutation of negative stereotypes and nuanced portrayals of Islamic and South Asian culture.

Qahera the Superhero

While Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel effectively expands the positive representation of Muslim women in American mainstream comic books, Qahera the Superhero fulfills a similar but uniquely distinct function as an independent webcomic aimed at primarily at a non-Western Muslima audience. Written and illustrated by Egyptian artist Deena Mohamed, Qahera centers around a veiled Muslima vigilante of the same name who actively opposes various forms of oppression which threaten Muslim women in Cairo, Egypt. The first Qahera webcomic was posted online in Arabic and English in June 2013 as a humorous response to the Egyptian uprisings against the Hosni Mubarak dictatorial regime that same year, with Mohamed stating that Qahera’s name “is Arabic for ‘Cairo’ but also for ‘conqueror’ or ‘vanquisher.’” Additionally, Associate Professor and author Sophia Rose Arjana further connects Qahera’s name to specific events during the Egyptian uprising wherein female protestors were subjected to state-acquitted sexual assault in the form of penetrative “virginity tests.”

Building from this analysis, Qahera serves as a pivotal and empowering graphic text for Muslim women in non-Western nations by functioning as a satirical refutation against both fundamentalist misogyny and imperialist white feminism. For instance, resistance against Islamic patriarchy is the central focus of Qahera’s first comic, wherein the veiled vigilante draws her sword against a misogynistic cleric preaching, “A good wife is an obedient wife! It is your Islamic duty to keep them at home and in check.” She then suspends him from a clothesline before giving the humorous rebuttal: “You’re right, you know. Housework is women’s work, absolutely, I especially love doing laundry!” While essayist Winona Landis states that Qahera’s vilification of Muslim men here has the potential to perpetuate negative orientalist stereotypes, Qaherea avoids this pitfall from a non-Western feminist perspective as Mohamed utilizes her comic to critique elements of Egyptian culture that have direct negative impact on Muslim women like herself. This position is further supported by Mohamed’s statements that Qahera’s content was significantly influenced by her own real-life experiences dealing with oppressive elements from both within and outside of her own culture. To refute external discrimination, Mohamed directs her satire towards imperialist Western feminists who reinforce the Islamophobic narrative about veiled Muslim women lacking autonomy. For example, in another comic Qahera watches from her computer monitor as members of the reactionary European feminist group FEMEN protest bare-chested outside a Swedish mosque to condemn the veil. Visibly irritated, Qahera confronts the FEMEN protesters and refutes their jeering comments about Muslim women supposedly needing saving by tying up the protesters and dangling them over a cliff. Qahera mockingly asks, “Hey so, feel free to save me anytime… the question is, who’s going to save you?” Qahera’s humorous refutation of imperialist Western feminism further serves to empower Egyptian Muslim women through promoting intersectional third-world feminism, which is reflected in Mohamed statement that “You can’t be a feminist if you are oppressing other women. You can’t be a feminist if you are a classist or racist.”

Effectively, Mohamed’s webcomic directly challenges the misconception that Muslim women are inherently “oppressed, indoctrinated [and] in need of saving [since] superheroes are the precise opposite of that.” This Muslima agency that Mohamed conveys in her webcomic is immediately evident in Qahera’s uniquely subversive presentation of the veil. Unlike other veiled superheroes like Dust, whose framing of the veil served to Other and sexualize her character, scholars like Safiyya Hosein insinuate that Qahera’s attire is much less stereotypical since not only is her abaya loose-fitting instead of skin-tight, but she also regularly wears a hijab that veils her face when operating as a superhero. While incorporating the veil as part of her superhero disguise serves to conceal Qahera’s face from her enemies, this portrayal creatively challenges mainstream misconceptions of the veil by using it to visually convey the character’s pride in her Muslima identity instead of being constrained by it. In large measure, Qahera the Superhero functions as a satirical and subversive Islamic feminist text that provides an empowering voice to third-world Muslim women through ridiculing issues that negatively affect them like conservative Islamic misogyny and Islamophobic Western feminism.

Conclusion

Although the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks permanently altered the modern political and social landscape, they also contributed to an increased visibility of Muslim women in superhero comics and graphic literature. Characters like Dust from New X-Men have been criticized for reinforcing harmful orientalist Islamophobic stereotypes instead of effectively disrupting them. Conversely, Kamala Khan from Ms. Marvel has received significant praise for its nuanced and authentic portrayal of Muslima-American experiences and incorporation of Islamic and South Asian culture. Moreover, Qahera the Superhero promotes third-world Islamic feminism through its subversive themes, serving as satirical refutation of issues that negatively affect Egyptian Muslim women. The continuing expansion of positive Muslima representation in fictional media serves not only to avoid Islamophobic trappings but also to inform perception of Muslim women and Islam in the real-world. Whether it be through providing uplifting themes of inclusivity to the marginalized group these characters are meant to represent or altering the negative views or misconceptions previously held by non-marginalized readers, the Muslima superhero stands as a symbol of hope.

Bibliography

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Arjana, Sophia Rose. Veiled Superheroes: Islam, Feminism, and Popular Culture. Lanham , MD: Lexington Books, 2018.

Carlson, Peter E., and Antero Garcia. “THE TRANSFORMATIONAL RESISTANCE OF MS. MARVEL IN AMERICA.” Essay. In Ms. Marvel’s America: No Normal, edited by Jessica Baldanzi and Hussein Rashid, 1st ed., 133–51. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2020. https://www-jstor-org.libproxy.utdallas.edu/stable/j.ctvx5w9qc.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam Smith is an avid reader of comic books and manga, and maintains a passionate interest in the genres of superheroes and science-fiction/fantasy. He additionally has written analytical essays and reviews for both educational and recreational purposes. In 2016 he wrote an essay discussing the origins of the King Arthur legend which was later published as “The Birth of a Legend: King Arthur and His Reign Through British History” in Clio’s Eye, a film and audio magazine for historians.

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