Depending on your socio-political views, you may choose to agree or disagree with me when I say: Islamophobia is in the air. Be it the United States, United Kingdom or even Myanmar, there are a good number of people who view Muslims as a community that is troublesome and refuses to integrate.
In the midst of all this, it was a pleasant experience to read that Marvel Comics has announced that the leading character in their new comic book series will be a Muslim girl. Just like all other super-heroes, this one too has a story — Kamala Khan (a.k.a. Ms. Marvel) is an American teenager of Pakistani lineage who hails from New Jersey. Her superpower? Shape-shifting. As per the comic series, Kamala comes from a conservative and orthodox family (possibly hinting at a crisis between her Muslim and American identities). She has a father who wants his daughter to become a doctor, a paranoid mother and a conservative brother.
While this ‘identity crisis’ talk does not seem refreshing, it surely is not stereotypical either. The name ‘Kamala’ rhymes with ‘Malala’ — again, it can either be a hint that all Muslim females need to be saved, or just a coincidence. It is a question that needs to be asked: will Kamala be portrayed as an independent Muslim female, or is she going to be viewed as just another Muslim girl who is dominated by the patriarchy?
Another thing worth noting is Kamala’s identity crisis. Muslims in the West are often told that their western identity cannot be reconciled with their religious identity. Will Kamala’s identity crisis offer meaningful insight?
Can Ms. Marvel Counter Islamophobia?
Kamala is not the first superhero with a clearly defined religious identity. However, therein lies the difference: unlike the other superheroes, Kamala Khan is not a superhero who just happens to be Muslim. In fact, the most interesting part about this new comic book character is not her heroism but her identity — Kamala Khan is more interesting than Ms. Marvel.
The fact that Marvel’s new character has a Muslim background is indeed a welcome note. Yet, it is not something to celebrate or be ecstatic about. At best, Marvel is just trying to identify a new niche market in the form of a growing Muslim community. Even if equality or social justice might be the hidden message behind the creation of Ms. Marvel, a comic book cannot tackle a concept such as Islamophobia that has existed for centuries. Islamophobia will not vanish just because we have a Muslim superhero — not even if Superman were to convert to Islam.
A superhero from the minority community can be a good thing if he/she does not enforce racial or ethnic stereotypes. In the case of Kamala, this remains to be seen. Yet, at the end of the day, a superhero’s identity is not a metric for heroics and virtues. Marvel deserves applause simply for re-affirming the belief that heroes can come from any community.