Kamala Khan: The Hero We Need
It's been a rough year for minorities in the US, and for Muslims especially. From President Trump's frequently hateful comments about people of other religions to an increase in the number of hate crimes committed against Muslims, it seems lately as if America's acceptance of religious freedom has been going backward, not forwards.
That's why it's more important than ever for our fiction and our pop culture to represent the real lives of the millions of Muslims who live in the US, and who deserve to be seen as more than a stereotype.
Introducing Ms. Marvel
Meet Kamala, a nerdy and awkward Pakistani-American teenage girl who takes up the mantle of Ms. Marvel in the Marvel comics universe. She lives in Jersey City with her occasionally bickering but essentially close-knit family, and one day when she sneaks out of the house to party with friends she gets caught in a mysterious cloud of vapor which gives her superpowers. She gains the power of shape-shifting, becoming massively strong and able to bend and stretch her body into incredible shapes, and she immediately sets out to do good in the world, just like her heroes.
Kamala's Muslim faith is a theme throughout the series, from her decision not to eat pork or to drink alcohol to her rolling her eyes at her liberal father and conservative brother debating religion at the dinner table. Her motivation for helping people is framed in terms of her belief - when she first decides to save someone, she thinks of a passage from the Quran: “Whoever kills one person, it is as if he has killed all of mankind, and whoever saves one person, it is as if he has saved all of mankind.” Although Marvel has had Muslim heroes before, like Dust from the X-Men, Kamala is the first Muslim hero to star in her own series.
The topics of assimilation and finding one's own identity is taken up in both Kamala's complicated feelings about her faith and in her superhero career. The first thing she does when she gets the power to change her body is to make herself look like her hero - the original Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers (who is white, blonde, and blue eyed). While she's looking like Carol she asks herself, “Why don't I feel strong and confident and beautiful?” and wonders why she feels that she has to look like someone else. Eventually, she concludes, “Being someone else isn't liberating. It's exhausting.”
These are themes that any teenager can empathize with – but they're also given an extra layer of meaning given Kamala's faith and background. The writer of the series, G. Willow Wilson, said it was “about the universal experience of all American teenagers, feeling kind of isolated and finding what they are” but presented “through the lens of being a Muslim-American”.
An Ordinary Teenager Doing Extraordinary Things
One of the most charming characteristics about Kamala is her highly relatable fangirl-ness. As a teenager growing up in the Marvel universe, she adores superheroes and follows all of their goings on. She makes her own costumes, she writes fanfic, and she freaks out when she meets her favs. This kind of unabashed fun and positive depiction of young fannish people is actually quite rare in comics, which in recent years have tended towards a more dark and gritty never-meet-your-heroes style.
Comics have often struggled to portray teenagers, oscillating between writing them as helpless children or working too hard to make them seem as grown up and mature as the adults around them. But Kamala manages to be both a realistic view of a younger person and an inspiring hero. She has the usual troubles of a teenager, griping about how much homework she has to do and arguing with her parents about how late she should be allowed to stay out. She's also capable and determined and doesn't let anyone stand in her way when she's made up her mind.
In the setting of the Marvel universe, Kamala is a breath of fresh air and she's been hugely popular with the fans, particularly younger fans who can see their own enthusiasm reflected in her.
Kamala as Real-World Resistance Hero
In the last year, with the election putting politics firmly into the national spotlight, protests and activism against injustices have been more and more visible, and Kamala has been a part of this resistance. You could spot pictures of Kamala on signs at marches and protests against Trump, and in San Francisco, her image has been used to cover up Islamophobic ads on buses. The ads, which equated Islam with Nazism, were pasted over with images of Kamala and messages of acceptance and anti-racism. Even within her comic, Kamala has discussed the importance of political participation and encouraged her friends (and the readers) to vote.
This just goes to show the importance of fictional characters who represent the breadth and variety of human experience. Muslims in the US and elsewhere are stereotyped in the media as extremists and even as violent or dangerous, and there are few positive examples of Muslim characters in mainstream entertainment. Kamala is the exception, giving thousands of Muslim comic readers a chance to see someone like them as a superhero, and showing a different side of Islam than what is normally portrayed to everyone else.
As the writer, G. Willow Wilson, said herself: “Diversity as a form of performative guilt doesn’t work. Let’s scrap the word diversity entirely and replace it with authenticity and realism. This is not a new world. This is *the world.*” And Kamala is the hero that world needs.