In ‘Mrs. Marvel’, Muslim fans see a reflection of their lives
LOS ANGELES– Jumana Zakir knows who she will be for Halloween this year. Hint: Her new favorite superhero looks a lot like her: female, teenage, Muslim, American, and “totally awesome.”
“Kamala Khan is me,” said the exuberant 13-year-old from Anaheim, California. “She is like me.”
Khan is the first Muslim superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to headline his own television show. “Ms. Marvel,” which premiered on Disney+ on June 8, struck a chord with South Asian Muslims in the West because of its relatability and the way it portrays Muslim families. Inclusion and Representation hope the show will open the door to more nuanced on-screen portrayals of Muslims and their rich diversity.
The show tells the story of Khan, played by Pakistani-Canadian actor Iman Vellani, gaining his powers from a magical bracelet that allows him to walk through the air and conjure glowing shields of light. But she’s also a regular South Asian Muslim teenager who goes to the mosque, does wudu or ritual ablutions before praying, sometimes wears traditional attire called a shalwar kameez, dances to Bollywood numbers at her brother’s wedding, and breaks curfew to hang out with her pal Bruno Carrelli at AvengerCon.
The final episode of the series is slated for release on Wednesday.
Munir Zamir, who is of British Pakistani descent and grew up in east London, said he saw a “brown Pakistani Muslim girl from New Jersey” in the comics and now watches “Ms. Marvel” with her teenagers – has been powerful Zamir, 50, has been a Marvel fan since he was 7 years old and has followed Kamala Khan’s development since Ms. Marvel’s debut in the comics in 2014.
“For Muslims in particular, representation matters a lot because for many years misrepresentation mattered too much,” he said.
Zamir points out that there are other Muslim superheroes in the Marvel Universe like Sooraya Qadir also known as Dust. She wears a flowing black outfit, covers her hair and face, and can turn her body into a cloud of dust.
“Even in that description, there are classic tropes,” Zamir said. “But Kamala Khan is not an exotic woman from a Muslim country. That instantly sets her apart in the Marvel Universe.
The diverse experiences of Muslim women in “Ms. Marvel” are among aspects that contrast with the findings of a report released last year examining Muslim portrayal in 200 top-grossing films from the US, UK, from Australia and New Zealand released between 2017 and 2019.
The study found that women were particularly underrepresented, with only 23.6% of Muslim characters in these films being women. Conducted by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California, with support from others, it also found that 90.5% of those films featured non-Muslim characters, and 39% featured Muslim characters.” primary and secondary” were perpetrators of violence.
Making Ms. Marvel more accessible was intentional, said Sana Amanat, one of Kamala Khan’s creators and the series’ executive producer. She wanted to portray a Muslim character who “feels like someone you know”.
“She’s not put on a pedestal,” she said. “She is clumsy. She is funny. He is a gentle person who ultimately wants to do better.
Amanat and his co-creators felt it was important to show Khan’s daily life as a Muslim American teenager.
This idea of normality resonated with Hiba Bhatty, a Pakistani-American fan of the series. She particularly liked how Khan’s father, Yusuf, was described as “a loving father”, as opposed to a creepy stereotype.
Bhatty, an architect based in Los Angeles, has previously displayed Ms. Marvel comics on her desk at work as conversation starters. Now, she’s getting ready to give her co-workers a “Ms. Marvel Presentation.” For her, it illustrates how many people in her community have gone beyond simply wanting to be described as “normal Americans”, to tell their own nuanced stories.
“Ms. Marvel” is also “reclaiming language that has been weaponized against Muslims,” said Arij Mikati, managing director of cultural change for the Pillars Fund, which supports Muslim civic leaders and artists.
In one scene, Khan and his family happily sing “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” to celebrate his brother’s wedding.
“When you hear the call to prayer, it’s usually a sign that you’re in a dangerous place on TV,” Mikati said. “And all of those things are reclaimed on this show… It’s really beautiful because those little everyday moments of our faith have really been taken away from us in the media.”
Pillars Fund initiatives include a database of Muslim artists, created in collaboration with and with the support of The Walt Disney Company, to bring more Muslims into the filmmaking process.
“A superhero story is not a genre where you expect a Muslim to be, and I love that this story changes that,” Mikati said.
The show tackles issues ranging from the surveillance of mosques to what wearing a headscarf means to some. Khan’s friend, Nakia Bahadir, who wears the hijab, is played by Yasmeen Fletcher. One of the most important conversations between Khan and Bahadir takes place in the girls’ bathroom, where Bahadir talks about how she feels herself, with purpose, when she puts on her hijab.
Jumana, the Anaheim teenager who plans to wear a hijab in a year or two, said she enjoyed the show’s depiction of what the hijab means to some young girls like her.
“My non-Muslim friends already know my decision and respect it,” she said. “But if more people can realize that by watching this show, that’s great.”
Fletcher said she was touched by such powerful responses.
“The interest of Nakia’s character is to break stereotypes around hijabi women,” she said.
For the show’s seven screenwriters – four of whom are Pakistani – portraying Muslims and South Asians realistically was crucial, said the show’s chief scriptwriter, Bisha K. Ali, who is of Pakistani descent. British.
“We felt a hunger to be seen in a way that was celebrated and beautiful, and that comes from a place of love and compassion,” she said.
While it’s impossible to capture the experience of nearly 2 billion Muslims, Ali said the writers have bent to tell the story of this family authentically.
The show takes a similar approach to talking about the partition in 1947, when British India was partitioned along religious lines between India and Pakistan, triggering one of the largest mass migrations in history. The violence of tensions between Hindus and Muslims has led to a refugee crisis, which the show integrates as part of Khan’s family history.
Ali said the show’s goal was not to point fingers in any direction, but to tell a family’s story of the intergenerational trauma triggered by this chapter in history and convey “a feeling empathy for the amount of pain on all sides”.
Ali described the mood in the writer’s bedroom as “incredibly emotional”, as they discussed what their mosques were like growing up and contacted relatives on WhatsApp to gather more details.
Sitting in the belly of Marvel Studios in a windowless conference room, Ali said she lost count of how many times the writers looked at each other as if to wonder, “Are we really there?” Are we really doing this?
Fam reported from Winter Park, Florida.
Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.