The First Muslim Ms. Marvel

Posted by Nerissa Jawanda & filed under Comics, Diversity, Identity.

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Although I rarely read comics (if at all), Marvel Comics recently piqued my curiosity with a new hero that had taken over the Ms. Marvel series—Kamala Khan. She is a unique, spunky, shapeshifting addition to the likes of Spiderman, The X-men, Captain America and the rest of the impressive Marvel Universe. Kamala has headlined the Ms. Marvel series for about a year now, and is diversifying what it means to be a superhero.

Kamala is far from your everyday comic book hero. She is a sixteen-year old Pakistani-American girl from New Jersey, who belongs to a Muslim family. When I heard about her character, I was curious. How would Marvel portray her? Will she be depicted as the average American? Or will she be exotified, orientalised and othered because she is “different”?

Kamala's family

Kamala’s family

So, how has Marvel chosen to represent Kamala Khan? She is painted as a nerdy, comic book loving, fan fiction writing teen with a traditional family. She often times struggles with her traditional parents. One of the writers, G. Willow Wilson, has said of Kamala’s family, “her brother is extremely conservative, her mom is paranoid that she’s going to touch a boy and get pregnant, and her father wants her to concentrate on her studies and become a doctor.” Kamala recognizes her heritage, but as a first generation American, she is also constantly piecing together her identity. At one point she says, “I’m from Jersey City, not Karachi! I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be.”

Although Kamala struggles with her identity at first, this all changes when she shape shifts into the conventionally beautiful, blonde haired, high boots wearing, former Ms. Marvel. She finds herself largely unimpressed with the image that she thought she wanted, and declares, “Being someone else isn’t liberating. It’s exhausting.”

What I found particularly interesting while reading Ms. Marvel was that despite the fact that Kamala comes from a traditional, religious family, she is still portrayed as a stereotypical American teenager who struggles with issues that anyone can encounter.  This is one of the reasons I find Kamala’s character and story so appealing: it is relatable—and not just to Muslim-American girls, I am neither Muslim, nor American, but the themes of finding your place, growing up, and being comfortable with who you are relate to the lives of many.

The editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, Axel Alonso, has said of Kamala Khan, ‘‘The fact that she’s female and first-generation American, continuously struggling with the values and authority of her parents, gives the story extra nuance, but it’s a universal human story”, and I don’t think he could have said it any better—Kamala is different, but she is still relatable and can appeal to the average comic book reader.

Her presence in the Marvel Universe is undeniably atypical and marks the first time a Muslim hero has had their own series. She is a delightful breath of fresh air in the comic book world.

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