I think there are some positive things to say about Marvel’s new Muslim superhero, Kamala Khan (AKA, Ms Marvel). She is a 16-year-old girl and she wears neither a hijab nor a burqa. For this reason, her character can potentially do some good in breaking down the stereotype of the “orthodox” Muslim female that is propagated by not only the clerics and mullahs of the Muslim world, but also by the Left and Right in secular countries. I also think this character may potentially help in combatting some of the anti-Muslim bigotry that presently exists predominantly on the Right.
Despite the potential positives associated with this unveiled female Muslim superhero, I do wonder whether creating a superhero whose identity has already been inextricably bound to her religion might not pave the way for even more privilege being bestowed upon a patriarchal religion that is inherently anti-woman. Given the influence Marvel has over its immense following, won’t this character assist in propagating apologia for Islam? Might it not become easier to convince even more people that Islam is a hip, feminist, female-empowering religion, when the truth is, it is anything but? Further, in what way might this religious superhero influence the existing discourse on women in Islam, which, at present, is heavily polarized between apologists and antagonists? It is, however, possible that this unveiled, female Muslim superhero will add a frequently dismissed layer to the discourse. She is powerful, independent, unveiled, and in this way, she doesn’t yield to the pressures that exit both within and beyond her religion to conform to a particularly “pious” stereotype.
Not to put a damper on the positives that may eventuate from this potentially positive female Muslim role model, but why don’t we have a Mormon superhero, or a Scientologist superhero, or, god forbid, an atheist superhero? Why is this particular religion given special treatment above other religions, or even non-religions? If your answer to this question is; Well, Muslims are persecuted in the West, so this is why we need a Muslim superhero – Then, I would reply, why not create a Jewish superhero, given that Jews are far more frequently and severely oppressed in the West? Also, why is this superhero’s religion relevant to her role as a superhero? Is her religion more important than her individual personality? Here is where identity politics seems to once again be trumping the individual.
In her article on Ms Marvel, Coco Khan writes: ‘That person – the liberal Muslim – is a real person and portrayals of them are welcome, but ideally not at the expense of the traditional Muslim positioned as undesirable or backward…’
We might assume that Khan meant ‘conservative Muslim’ when she wrote ‘traditional Muslim’, as Khan juxtaposes the traditional Muslim with the liberal Muslim. If such is the case, then I disagree strongly with Khan. The conservative Muslim is undesirable and backward. Their reputation precedes them, and for good reason. The “traditional Muslim”, which Khan tells us by way of implication that Ms Marvel is not, would not abide an independent, unveiled superwoman with autonomous agency beyond her permitted patriarchal perimeter.
Ms Marvel may prove to be a breath of fresh air in what is an extremely polarized and generally lazy discourse on women in Islam, and for this reason I am looking forward to seeing how this character unfolds and subsequently influences opinions on both sides of the discourse concerning women in Islam.