When I first walked into a comic book store two and a half years ago, I went straight for the Marvel section to grab Ms. Marvel Issue 1 (2014).
I knew nothing about Carol Danvers. I barely knew anything about Kree or Inhumans.
But I knew about Kamala Khan, the second-generation, Pakistani-American, Muslim teenager who carried the title of the super-heroine Ms. Marvel.
Kamala’s run as Ms. Marvel, previously portrayed as the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Carol Danvers, began in February 2014. While she isn’t the first Muslim superhero in the Marvel universe, she is the first to have get her own solo title and story.
When I found this out, I wanted to read her story, which sounded interesting and exciting on its own.
But I also had a bigger reason.
It’s no mystery that post-9/11 America has not been the kindest or safest place for Muslims. Pastors burn Qurans, men rip hijabs off of women, and people demand that incoming refugees and immigrants take religious tests in order to prove whether or not they are Muslims and, therefore, terrorists. Anti-Muslim sentiments and hate crimes have only increased in the month after the election.
Thankfully, I’ve also heard many in my own Christian circle strive to be more open to, inclusive of, and engaged with those they call “our Muslim brothers and sisters.” I appreciate and affirm these efforts and encourage all of my Christian friends to continue them.
But the term “our Muslim brothers and sisters” is not just a phrase to me or a call to go out of my way to interact with this group as if I can avoid them.
Muslims are my actual brother, sister, father, stepmom, and half of my extended family. They are my flesh and blood.
And that is why Ms. Marvel is so important to me.
This is a female American Muslim who is a person, not a token or a poster child. She is a teenager who goes to school, fights with her parents and brother, attends the mosque, quotes the Quran in the name of justice, and is obsessed with the Avengers. She also messes up often: she falls for a boy who hurts her, takes her best friend for granted, and is betrayed by her idol. She is a character whose ethnicity and religion is incorporated into “the larger, more holistic representation of what it is to be a person.”
Kamala isn’t just a girl who happens to be Muslim AND a superhero. Her identity and ideas about justice flow from her religious faith and family heritage. She rebukes the stereotype of Muslim women being oppressed and passive. Instead, she is physically, mentally, and emotionally strong with similar limits as other superheroes. Her religion does not hold her back. It pushes her forward.
Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel is an important icon in an age when people are calling out inherent racism in our media, from movements like #OscarsSoWhite and backlash against whitewashing characters who should be portrayed by people of color. She is a breath of fresh air in a storm of common negative media narratives surrounding Muslim Americans, including, but not limited to, threats of ISIS within and outside US; the Boston Marathon, San Bernardino, and Pulse Nightclub attacks; and Ahmed Mohamed’s arrest for building a clock his teacher suspected of being a bomb. She is someone that can represent my siblings, parents, and family well, someone to remind them that they are good, beautiful, whole people just as they are, with their dark, curly hair, large brown eyes, and olive skin. They are not tokens or terrorists. They are people with stories similar to and different from Kamala’s, and their stories are worth telling and upholding. This is what Ms. Marvel’s story says to my family and other Muslim Americans.
When people of color and from minority groups demand better representation, it isn’t a whiny demand from brats who just “want everything their way.” It’s a call to acknowledge a broad range of people as complete, complex human beings in the same way so many white, hetero, cis, Christian, and able-bodied people already are. It is a plea to notice and honor the divine humanity of brown, black, and Muslim (among other people groups) in realistic, well-rounded, and accurate ways.
In short, it is a cry for justice.
So broaden your horizons. Not all of the media you consume should be headlined by people who look like and have similar backgrounds and lifestyles as you. If you’re Christian, find some stories from Muslim, Hindu, or even atheist perspectives. If you’re white, read the stories of black and brown characters (even better, get stories like those written BY people of color). If you’re able-bodied, seek the stories of people with disabilities. The point is, don’t limit your stories. Seek all of them from as many perspectives as possible. Recognize the divine humanity in each diverse story. If you’re a creator, make sure if your characters are people of color or different religions that you do your homework well in bringing them to life. Make sure they are real people whose ethnicity and religious beliefs add to their character instead of forcing them into a stereotype.
This is important, holy work, friends, and it is hard work. We won’t always say the right things or portray people as well as we could. We will blunder. I know I have many times.
But know that this is work for justice. This work of honoring stories honors the beautiful humanity within each person, including my own family. And we need this work to be done now more than ever.