Five Muslim women on why they love Ms. Marvel and their hopes for the Disney+ show
The superhero will star in a six-episode series, and will then be seen on the big screen as part of the second Captain Marvel film, The Marvels.
For Muslim women not used to seeing nuanced portrayals of themselves on screen, the show will be added to the very short list of programmes that offer varied and accurate Muslim representation.
Here, five women talk about what the Ms. Marvel comics and upcoming show mean to them, and what they hope seeing it on-screen will do for representation.
"To see a female Muslim Pakistani superhero who is both a diaspora kid and doesn't turn her back on religion is something I never thought I would see on a screen, to be honest"
Aksa Saghir, 26, and Sofia Saghir, 23
Sisters Aksa and Sofia Saghir, both from Birmingham but now based in London, have been fans of Ms. Marvel since the comic books were released, although the pair had different reactions to the news of the first Muslim superhero to have her own comic.
Sofia, a 23-year-old book publicist, delved right in: “I had always known about Ms. Marvel since she first appeared in the comics and I picked up the first volume immediately. I instantly fell in love with her as a character and the world.”
But 26-year-old Aksa, a production administrator, was a little more cautious: “The Marvel announcement of a female Muslim superhero created excitement but also worry from me. It took me a while to pick up the comic as I wanted it to be right.”
But once she knew Sofia loved it, Aksa – who has since cosplayed as Ms Marvel, including at ComicCon in London in May – was on board.
The siblings love seeing a Muslim superhero in the Marvel world, especially one for whom her faith infuses who she is without being all she is, and agree that Kamala Khan speaks to their experiences.
“I absolutely love Kamala as I feel like she is one of the most accurate representations of my Muslim experience,” says Sofia, who longed for a character like Ms. Marvel when she was a teenager herself.
“She doesn’t wear a hijab, but still practices. She questions her faith, which is something I did as a teenager, but she still has such a strong belief. She is also a certified nerd which I’ve always related to. I love the fact that they allowed her to have a personality outside of her religion as I think oftentimes Muslim characters are only identifiable by their religious characteristics.”
Aksa describes Kamala as “unapologetically Muslim”, adding that the representation offered by Ms. Marvel was a step up from that usually seen in pop culture.
“To see a female Muslim Pakistani superhero who is both a diaspora kid and doesn't turn her back on religion is something I never thought I would see on a screen, to be honest,” says Aksa.
“The few Muslim representations we have are very similar stories of women feeling oppressed and taking their hijabs off for a white boy while turning their back on a religion but we deserve to see the positive side as well. It's started slowly (shout out to We Are Lady Parts!) and we are getting Muslim representation written by Muslims for Muslims that just happen to be a superhero.”
Both sisters are excited about the Disney+ show, with Sofia saying she’s looking forward to seeing “Kamala be the unapologetic brown nerd she is”.
“I’m also so excited to see all of these incredible Muslim actors have their time to shine,” she adds. “I hope that they get showered with the love that they deserve. I’m particularly excited to see the brief appearance from Fawad Khan, arguably the biggest actor in Pakistan who I have loved for years.”
Aksa adds: “I'm just really looking forward to watching a show that features people who look like me. It's something I wish I had as a child so I'm grateful that children growing up now will get to see themselves as superheroes in a Marvel show and know that anything is possible!”
Meher Shiblee, 26
PhD student and publishing editor Meher Shiblee came across Ms. Marvel when her best friend mentioned that she might enjoy reading the comic. It’s fair to say that the superhero has made it into a fair few aspect of the 26-year-old’s life; she’s currently working on a PhD which looks at Muslim superheroines and how they might subvert the status quo when it comes to representation of Muslim women.
Meher, based in London, says that as a first-generation immigrant, who moved to the UK from Kashmir when she was a teenager, she relates a lot to Kamala Khan, who is a second-generation immigrant.
“Trying to figure out how to fit into the world, one which is quite different to the one me and my parents came from, was interesting,” says Meher. “Kamala never seemed overly embarrassed or restricted by her religion or culture, which I found to be quite different from other representations of Muslim women in pop culture at that time, where it seems like Muslim women needed a white saviour to come and rescue them from their strict families and restrictive religion.”
The way the comics approach religion and culture also appeal to Meher, who says: "Ms. Marvel has created a space where a lot of stereotypes associated with not only young Muslim women, but [also] Muslim families, are challenged. Religion is not seen as a restriction, but often as a helpful, guiding force, which informs Kamala’s actions and morals.”
As a superhero, Ms. Marvel has super strength and the ability to make herself larger or smaller (among other things), and her powers take joint top spot for Meher’s favourite things about the character.
“I think it’s a tie between her superpowers, which are not violent in nature, and allow for a lot of fun and interesting scenes to play out, where Kamala has to adapt to and figure out how to best use her powers to get out of tricky situations, and her relationship with her family,” says Meher.
“To see her having regular arguments with her parents, teasing his brother about wanting to get married etc. These are all discussions I’ve grown up with and participated in with my own family, so it’s refreshing to see those play out in the comic, and be so well-loved and received.”
Mobeena Khan, 41
The fact that Kamala Khan is South Asian is a “massive, massive thing,” says librarian Mobeen Khan.
The 41-year-old, based in Hertfordshire, grew up reading a lot, yet was faced with a considerable lack of characters like her in the books she consumed. “I could probably count on one hand the number of books I read that had a South Asian main character, fewer if they weren't about arranged marriages,” she says.
So seeing Kamala Khan made Mobeena “teary”. “She was Pakistani, like me,” says Mobeena. “Dual national like me, living in a world where she didn't really fit in. Having her around as a teenager would have meant the world.”
Mobeena loves the way that Kamala stays true to who she is in the comics. “She doesn't suddenly start wearing a skimpy costume and try to reject her culture or who she is as something ‘other’,” says Mobeena. “Also, the whole embiggen thing is marvellous when, culturally speaking, we are required to take up as little space as possible and be as unnoticed as we can be.”
It is the way in which Kamala Khan speaks to so many women that appeals to Mobeena, and that she’s most looking forward to seeing the show bring alive: “Seeing a brown girl be a hero on screen when so many of us are heroes in real life is pretty damn exciting.”
Hira Ali, 39
Speaker, executive coach and leadership development specialist Hira Ali is hoping to be able to share the excitement of watching the upcoming Ms Marvel series with her family.
The 39-year-old Londoner watches Marvel movies with her 11-year-old son and says she particularly loved seeing all the female characters in the movies come together in Avengers Endgame to save the day. But as much as she loves that scene, there was still something missing.
“Truth be told, as much as I love watching those ladies band together, there aren't many who look like me,” says Hira. “But here [with Ms. Marvel] is a superhero with the same faith and ethnicity as me; what more could I ask for? She has my skin colour, wears modest clothing like me, goes to the mosque, prays like me, and has a family similar to mine. I can see myself in her.”
Muslim women have been heroes for a long time, says Hira, but they have often been ignored; she hopes Ms. Marvel will change that narrative.
“There is such a stereotypical image associated with being Muslim or even Asian,” says Hira. “This character is smashing stereotypes, showing that Muslim women can be heroes too. In fact, they have been for a long time.
“We have the example of Khawla bint al-Azwar, an Arab Muslim warrior, and other fearless Muslim women, but they usually don't get much spotlight. Kamala Khan changes that and encourages people to think beyond fixated perceptions of how Asians, Pakistanis and Muslims should be and our expectations from them.”
Hira is looking forward to cosplaying as Ms. Marvel: “As a family, we have always loved dressing up as various characters…usually, most female superheroes have costumes which are not exactly my style, so I wasn't comfortable adorning them. But I am excited to get myself a Ms Marvel costume and wear it without feeling awkward or trying to fit in.”
Hira hopes that seeing Kamala Khan on-screen will inspire future generations and let them know they can be the lead in a story.
“It's not just about being seen and validated,” says Hira, “it's about the endless possibilities and opportunities you open up for young girls when they see a superhero character representing their faith, colour and ethnicity.
“We have grown up playing with action figures and fairy tale figurines which are nothing like us. But now, our upcoming generation will have relatable and identifiable heroes to look up to.”
Sarah Shaffi is a freelance literary journalist and editor. She writes about books for Stylist Magazine online and is the books editor at Phoenix Magazine.
Follow her here: @sarahshaffi