Just Your Average Teenage Muslim (Shapeshifter) Girl From Jersey

It’s official: Muslims are cool. The latest Muslim superhero in town, Kamala Khan, promises to get people talking about Islam—and not in a bad way.

Khan, aka ‘Ms. Marvel,’ isn’t faster than a speeding bullet, but she’s got some pretty nifty powers, including shape shifting, which is something I wish I could do on almost a daily basis. Like all superheroes (and all Muslims these days), Kamala has her share of problems. But instead of a villain or two, her biggest nemesis promises to be her own family: an ultra-conservative brother who would rather she wear a burka and cook chapattis; a mother obsessed with protecting her from sex and pregnancy; a father who wants her to become a doctor – until she gets married that is. How very Muslim/Pakistani!

Kamala will be the reason I pick up my very first Marvel comic, and it may excite a new demographic of comic readers in the form of Muslim women who prefer to read more serious stuff on their way to their conferences or sit-ins. Tweets have been largely encouraging (mostly from Muslim women but there have been a sprinkling from men not afraid to empower the women in their societies):

Marvel Comics’ new hero is a teenage Muslim girl of Pakistani descent called Kamala Khan. I’m sure her anti-hero is a Mullah.

— Zuhayr Merchant (@ZuhayrMerchant) November 6, 2013


What makes Kamala so fascinating is her dual identity, something many American Muslims struggle with, as did the Jewish immigrants who created the classic superheroes of the 20th century. Then there’s the fact that she’s a girl (and we all know that the world sorely needs more female role models who don’t twerk).

In the real world, perhaps the most significant role model for Muslim (and even many non-Muslim) girls today is Malala Yousafzai, so it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether Marvel is aiming to evoke Malala’s character and personality by naming their newest superhero Kamala, which is a very uncommon Pakistani name. More Pakistani women may have identified with her if had she been named Aisha or Salma, but then we might not visualize Malala’s brave face talking about her real-life crime fighting against the Taliban on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. So great choice Marvel, whether intentional or not.
As a Pakistani from New Jersey (though that may make her even more Paki than the rest of us) she has a unique perspective on the current love-hate relationship between the two nations. With the U.S. desperately trying to sway public opinion in its favor—what with all those pesky drones killing innocent kids and grandmothers—a Pakistani superhero may be just the thing to show that all good guys are actually American—even if they’ve arrived by way of a notoriously villain-filled region of the world. But Pakistan does have the second largest Muslim population in the world, so the probability of a new Muslim superhero being Pakistani are much higher than, say, Palestinian or Jordanian.

Like everything else remotely related to Muslims, female Muslims, or Pakistan, Kamala will no doubt have her naysayers. The negativity is already on the rise, with Pakistani Muslims in particular remaining skeptical about this latest attempt to make a hero out of one of their own—even if she is fictional. The suffocating patriarchal system in that country ensures that women who do something extraordinary are perceived as unfeminine, even un-Muslim (see, for example, recent attempts to label Malala a closet Christian, as if to say that she couldn’t be a real Muslim because Muslim women don’t behave like superheroes).

Then there are the Muslims who are already protesting about her lack of hijab, her Hindu-sounding name, and even the fact that comics are forbidden (haram) because of their reliance on images. There are those comparing her to the Burka Avenger and finding her lacking because of her dress (although poor Burka Avenger also had her share of critics solely because of the burqa!)

But I’m not listening to those fools, because as a female American Muslim (the fact that I’m not a teenager anymore doesn’t mean I can’t relate) I refuse to bring our superheroes down; not just the fictional ones, but the real Muslim girls trying to be something, achieve some recognition for their abilities and talents, trying to fight not only crime but stereotypes, just like Kamala will probably do with great finesse. So I hope that come February the American public will all buy the new Marvel comics featuring Kamala/Malala/insert-your-own-name-here, and enjoy the journey. I certainly will.