Columns / Discourse / November 13, 2013

Comic books combat Muslim stereotypes

Joining the long list of female superheroes this summer was Jiya, an atypical female in Pakistani society, who fights for equality, social justice and an end to crime. Jiya is not Wonder Woman; nor is she a vigilante like Cat Woman. In fact, Jiya is the complete opposite of these 1960s comic, female icons. This month Marvel is also reintroducing an old 1960s comic book heroine, Ms. Marvel, as an American Muslim teenager named Kamala Khan, straying away from the typical suggestive portrayal of the heroine.

Interestingly enough, neither Jiya nor Kamala, are the first Muslim superwomen. In 2002, Soorya Qadir was created by non-Muslim Marvel Comic artists and was introduced into the X-Men series where her mutant powers allowed her to transform into a cloud of dust at any given time. After a slave trader in Afghanistan tried to remove Soorya’s niqab, she intuitively attempted to protect herself by using her powers to throw sand-like dust at the slave trader to escape. After hearing about the incident, the X-Men traveled to Afghanistan, where Soorya lives, and eventually brought her back to the United States where she became the first niqabi woman to attend the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning.  Soorya, Jiya and the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan represent a new class of superwomen that does not use provocative and commercial outlets to battle their enemies, as Cat Woman, Wonder Woman and even the old Ms. Marvel have done in the past.


The Burka Avenger, an animated series set in the fictional town of Halwapur, is the first of its kind in Pakistan. Reflecting on the work that 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai began, the animated series has become a great advocate for women’s educational rights. This is especially relevant now in Pakistan where girls’ schools are being shut down due to Taliban influence. In a country where the literacy rate is only 40.3 percent for women, The Burka Avenger is a revolutionary concept.


What makes Jiya, the school-teacher at an all-girls school, a prime candidate for the Burka Avenger? Jiya is no Disney princess with a fairy tale love story. Instead, she is a relatable character for the young girls of present-day Pakistan. Jiya serves as a real-life and necessary superwoman and hero in a place where educational resources are being shut down for girls across the country.

Kamala Khan on the other hand, is a 16-year-old teenage girl. Her life is filled with going to an American high school in Jersey City, battling everyday teenage challenges like schoolwork and boys and balancing her American-by-day life with her Pakistani family-by-night lifestyle. Kamala represents so many girls and young individuals out there in the United States (including myself!) that demonstrates what it now means to be American. Although the new Ms. Marvel has super powers which allow her to shrink and shape her body into different forms, her real power may be screening the diversity in the country. Kamala represents an ordinary girl with quite ordinary problems who isn’t represented differently because of her ethnicity.

Fatemeh Fakhraie, a Muslim women’s advocate, said the new superhero “normalizes this idea of the American experience as Muslim.” She said, “A lot of us are bumping up against the idea that a lot of America is white, while that isn’t what America is, we’re not all white and Christian.”

Characters such as Jiya, Soorya and Kamala represent a completely groundbreaking type of superwoman. The Burka Avenger is a revolutionary concept in Pakistan, aiming to better use technology and resources to educate the international world about social justice issues plaguing a country in turmoil; moreover, the image of Jiya as a superhero has broader effects on the sexualization of superheroines in mainstream western culture. Kamala also battles this, taking the typical blonde hair and blue eyes look of a sexy Ms. Marvel and making her more relatable to young girls in the United States. Using a nonconformist approach to being a superhero, Jiya has become a figure that literally teaches the importance of the pen and how it is mightier than the sword — and sex.


The original version of this article can be read at:

Hiba Ahmed

Tags:  Cat Woman Fatemeh Fakhraie Jiya Kamala Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel niqabi Soorya Qadir

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