Why We Need a Muslim-American Superhero

Originally posted at Elle.com

I admit: I’m a lightweight comic book geek. I was always down for X-Men, Batman, and Wonder Woman. I just watched The Wolverine and Man of Steel* on an ultra-long international flight. My biggest gripe (don’t worry it wasn’t Henry Cavill)? Every story revolves around white men saving the world. So, when I heard that Marvel Comics’ new series, Ms. Marvel, features a 16-year-old Pakistani-American Muslim superhero, I was elated.

In the series, set to debut February 2014, Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old from Jersey discovers her latent superpowers — she shape-shifts — setting in motion her meteoric transformation into Ms. Marvel.

At the heart of it though, she’s just a regular teenager, right?

“She does not cover her hair — most American Muslim women don’t — and she’s going through a rebellious phase. She wants to go to parties and stay out past 9pm and feel ‘normal.’” says G. Willow Wilson, series author and convert to Islam, in a Q&A on Marvel.com. “Yet at the same time, she feels the need to defend her family and their beliefs.”

As someone who was raised Muslim, I wasn’t allowed to wear shorts or miniskirts in high school. During homeroom I’d pull a outfit switcheroo — my version of a superhero costume change. The few Ms. Marvel drawings revealed by Adrian Alphona, the series’ artist, show Kamala Khan rocking many a East Coast girl’s fall/winter staple: a pair of tights and short shorts.

Color me sold.

Ms. Wilson has said that Kamala’s idol is Carol Danvers, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed superhero who started off as Ms. Marvel, and ultimately became Captain Marvel. I wonder why we’re always telling this story — I grew up different and wishing I was a white person.

Kamala’s hometown of Jersey City is one of the most racially diverse places in the States. Pakistanis, Guyanese, Nigerians, Vietnamese, Filipino, Italian, and Polish immigrants make up the population. Everyone is different, right? So what’s the big deal? Back in the late 1980s though, South Asian immigrants were targeted in “dot-buster” attacks — for being different. There’s a legacy of violence and racism, from which protests and political organizing emerged.

So I asked G. Willow Wilson — why is Carol Danvers Ms. Marvel’s idol?

“For Kamala, Carol Danvers represents escapism. Kamala is a shape-shifter, unlike an ordinary teen. The great central question of Kamala’s origin story is: if you had the power to shape shift, would it turn out the way you thought? If you become someone else and turn your back on who you are — would that solve your problems?” says Wilson.

Blue hair, gigantic eyes and mutant abilities are common in the comic universe. The Khan family is given specific attributes and features to cue to the reader that these are Pakistani Muslims. Big bro has a beard. Dad has a sweeping mustache. Mom wears a hijab. Comics use broad signifiers to make characters stand in for larger ideas. You might call these stereotypes, sure, but Wilson says to look a little closer, because everyone’s on a different page.

“It’s a very diverse cast of characters. Within the family, her father is a little bit more progressive, and at odds with the older brother who is more conservative. It was important to me to show that there isn’t an overarching, monolithic way that American Muslims are,” says Wilson.

So will Kamala be an “antidote” to terrorism? Will her brother Aamir stand in her way? We live in a moment where the vilification of Muslim men is constant. FBI entrapments, suicide bombings, violence against women and girls — these are the acts of violent zealots, not the majority of Muslim men. So, who will the villains be? I hope these aren’t AK-47-toting, mustachioed, bearded misogynist caricatures. A lot of people online have started saying Kamala’s brother is most likely the main villain.

Says Wilson, “This is not a soapbox kind of series. We don’t really get into the super-villain-y stuff in the first arc. Super-villains have to be visually interesting. You have to go outside the realm of realism… something fantasy oriented. [This isn’t] a PSA, with some evil white man or evil brown man standing in for a political issue. I think Aamir is a character that will defy people’s expectations. At the end of the day, he’s Kamala’s brother. There’s a lot of loyalty there.”

Ms. Marvel will complicate notions of being a young Muslim woman. We have examples of young Muslim women like Malala Yousufzai, who have bravely faced death and survived to tell about it. On the flip side, the American public is deaf to young survivors of U.S. drone attacks, like Nabila Rehman, who came from Pakistan to speak at a Congressional hearing, which was attended by only 5 out of 430 representatives.

In real life, we pick and choose the stories we want to celebrate.In the Marvel Universe, we can celebrate a story centered on a young woman living between worlds — straddling being part badass, part obedient daughter, part superhero, part regular American teenager. She’ll shape shift into spaces we can only imagine, fighting out-of-this-world monsters along the way.

You know, a superhero.