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A New Muslim Superhero

| Thursday, August 25, 2016

A New Muslim Superhero webJOSEPH HAN

Two major events in the history of the United States occurred this summer: Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first American woman to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab … and I got my first comic book.  While historians will be debating for generations which of these two events had the greater impact on American culture, there is no denying some similarities. Ibtihaj Muhammad is a 5’7″ Muslim fencer from Maplewood, New Jersey.  Kamala Khan (better known as the new Ms. Marvel) is a 5’4″ Muslim polymorph from Jersey City, New Jersey.

Together, the two embody different manifestations of an increasing acceptance of diversity in the country.  More importantly, Ms. Mohammad and Ms. Marvel have already established themselves as two of the most prominent representations of Muslims, particularly Muslim women, in the United States today. After the huge void left by the passing of Muhammad Ali, the arrival of these two heroes could not have come at a better time.

Kamala Khan became the first Muslim character to headline a Marvel comic book when she appeared in “Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal” in late 2014.  Immediately the writers and artists make obvious her status as a triple-threat of underrepresented groups (religion, gender and race).  The 16-year-old Khan is introduced in a convenience store, where she is smelling the bacon on the ready-made BLTs for sale there (“Delicious, delicious infidel meat”) while her hijab-wearing friend, Nakia, tries to hold her to her principles.

Shortly after, we are introduced to her vibrant Pakistani family.  Despite her obvious differences from the typical white, male superhero (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Batman, Superman, Spiderman, the Flash … you get the idea), “Ms. Marvel” is, at its heart, a very typical superhero narrative.  Sure, there are scenes in a mosque and she has a beatific vision of her idol, Carol Danvers (from whom she takes the Ms. Marvel name), reciting incantations in Urdu when she gets her powers, but when it comes down to it, Kamala Khan is just a teenager struggling to find herself.

When she emerges from the Terrigen mist that activates her abilities, she is in the form of Ms. Marvel (tall, blond, beautiful) and wearing her “classic, politically incorrect costume,” in Kamala’s own words.  It doesn’t take long for the fledgling heroine to realize that she is much more comfortable in her own skin (literally).  Writing it out now, it’s clearly a heavy-handed message, but the characters are so lovingly treated that it never feels forced.

As the series continues, the comic leans too heavily on typical high school relationship tropes to really be considered a great story. But Kamala is so likable that I was always excited to see what was next.  And who’s to say that normal isn’t what the creators were going for?  After all, part of the point of having a Desi, Muslim Ms. Marvel is to make her the new normal for a wider audience, as well as to be an inspiration for all the groups she represents.

Enter Ibtihaj Muhammad, a real-life Ms. Marvel.  Muhammad is African-American while Khan is Pakistani-American. Muhammad wears a hijab while Khan does not, but it was impossible for me to see coverage of Muhammad on TV and not see the similarities with the girl from the book in my hands.  As a child, Muhammad struggled to find a sport that would allow her to use her athletic prowess while upholding her religious beliefs. Eventually, she found her way to fencing.  This past summer, she competed in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games and managed to bring home a bronze medal in the team sabre competition.  She received an incredible amount of media coverage, and became a celebrity in her hometown.  More than that, she became a hero.

And, in this case, I think that art fell short of reality.  As much as I love “Ms. Marvel,” and as much as I can’t wait for the next collection to come out, the adventures on those pages will always lack the punch of real-life heroism.  Muslim girls in New Jersey can now find inspiration and solidarity in photographs rather than drawings.

Or, better yet, all Americans can see the heroes in both.

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