Meet the fictional Islamic superheroines ass-kickingly defying orthodoxy
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Since Hollywood restarted its love affair with superheroes a few years ago, masked warriors big and small are being their own franchise. Well, all the white male ones anyway. It’s not always easy being a girl with superpowers, let alone a Muslim girl. But lately a bunch of female Islamic comic and cartoon characters, mostly written by female authors, are defying orthodoxy and raising head-scratching questions about gender, equality and tradition. Can you really be a feminist ass-kicking warrior while wearing a burqa?
According to the United Nations, a staggering 99.3 per cent of Egyptian women have experienced sexual harrassment. That means a hell of a lot of work for Qahera, Egypt’s first female veiled crusader and the soul of a successful webcomic. Qahera’s favourite method of revenge is leaving her enemies dangling from a pole, alive but humiliated. But male perverts are not her only enemy. Controversially, she also fights against western feminists like Femen, who consider wearing a hijab a form of oppression. Its author, 20-year-old student Deema Mohammed, says her idea was a tribute to Egyptian women, her “real-life superheroines”.
In some ways, the new Ms Marvel is your typical superhero: as a teenager living a normal suburban life, she finds out she has superpowers (she can grow or shrink her body) and has to decide how to use them for the common good. In other ways, she’s anything but ordinary in the comic world. A second-generation American Muslim and daughter of Pakistani parents, Kamala Khan – her “normal person” name – has some domestic battles to fight, like persuading her mum that she won’t get pregnant just by having male friends and her neighbours that there’s nothing weird about going to mosque.
Schoolteacher by day, ninja fighter by night. And all without even changing her clothes! The main character in this successful Pakistani cartoon show (said to be inspired by Malala Yousafzai) has drawn controversy for her attire. Some say there can be nothing remotely liberating or transgressive about wearing a burqa, but the creator of the show, pop-star Haroon, replies that there’s not much difference between the all-black all-concealing robes and Catwoman’s outfit.
DC Comics introduced their very own Palestinian superheroine back in 1993. Kahina Eskandari’s origins are unclear, but it is known that her family was murdered. As Iron Butterfly, she’s the leader and commander of the Shadow Cabinet. She owes her name to her superpower, ferrokinesis (the ability to shape metals) and her preferred battle costume: medieval-style plate armour with huge angel wings.
In the aftermath of 9-11, a difficult time for Muslims in America, Marvel Comics introduced mutant Dust (real name: Sooraya Qadir) to the X-Men squad, in a rare example of a positive female Muslim character in mainstream comics. For her too, the niqab – a curiously figure-hugging one – is a source of both strength and trouble. She first uses her superpower, flaying enemies alive with a dust-like sand, when a slave trader tries to remove her traditional costume.