Whether it was sitting in front of the TV on a Saturday morning watching Batman the Animated Series, or jumping around the living room pretending to be Superman with my little brother, I have always loved superheroes. I was fascinated by their colourful costumes, their powerful moves, and their unwavering sense of justice. It never even crossed my mind that I was always admiring the stoic white guy, I had no concept of prejudice at that age.
But as I got older, I started questioning it – where was the character like me? Why did it always have to be the men who were the heroes, and why were the POCs always the bad guys? Comics condition kids from a very young age to develop the basic understanding that the white guys are good, and the brown guys are bad. This characterisation is even worse when you’re a mixed-race girl, because not only do you start seeing your parent’s race as being the bad guys, but you start seeing women as being the weak ones, always needing to be rescued by a tough, strong man.
Of course, there were exceptions to this rule – Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Catwoman etc. But women can only be heroes on one condition – if they’re sexy. Whilst Batman gets a cool batsuit full of special features, and Thor stands tall with his hammer, cape flaring behind him, the female costumes seem to be designed with nothing but sex appeal in mind. Women have thin, skin-tight costumes and exposed flesh, clearly not recommended when you’re going to be in a fight, but who cares about practicality when you can cater to the male gaze?
So when, as a teenager, I found out about the character of Dust, I was intrigued. A niqabi superhero who’s part of the X-Men team? Now there’s a character I can get behind! Sooraya Qadir, aka Dust is a fearless Afghani who discovered her powers when a slave trader tries to forcibly remove her niqab. She is able to transform herself into a cloud of sand, and attack her enemies with the sheer force of nature, hence the name Dust. Not only does Sooraya become a fully-fledged member of the Young X-Men team, she also holds staunchly to her religious beliefs as a Muslim, and is even depicted praying in the comics.
However, it appears that even a devoutly Muslim character like Dust can’t get away with having a modest costume, and even whilst wearing a niqab, the comic illustrators saw fit to sexualise her. Instead of giving her a loose fitting costume, in line with her beliefs, she is depicted wearing a skin tight niqab that accentuates her figure, and that far from purveying the modesty that she is obviously inclined towards, just serves to give her more allure. This is particularly damaging because not only does it make a mockery of what the niqab stands for, it reinforces to little Muslim girls that we will only be accepted in society when we tailor ourselves to suit Western ideals. Dust can’t be part of the X-Men without losing an integral part of her identity – she keeps the face veil, but loses the modesty that is imperative to the niqab’s meaning. At this point, all she is doing is wearing extra clothing, it does not serve the true purpose of wearing niqab – to express modesty and obedience to Allah SWT.
Muslim artist and comic enthusiast, Sara Alfageeh was having none of this, and decided to take matters into her own hands. She imagined her own version of Dust, with a costume displaying Sooraya’s commitment to her religion, as well as the tough attitude she undoubtedly would need to have. The pictures are a brilliant depiction of a woman who believes in Islam and the X-Men at the same time, and truly reflect the diversity of Islamic dress.
The beauty of these is that not only are they a much more realistic depiction of the kind of woman who would wear a niqab, and be a superhero at the same time, but they also connect a lot more with what Muslim women who read comics would probably relate to. Comics are an escape from the real world – they are heroic fantasies, and the whole point of a fantasy is that people want to believe it’s possible, they want to believe that they could be the hero. So when Muslim girls hear about a superhero who works for the X-Men and devoutly follows her religion, we get excited. But when that character is depicted as yet another piece of eye candy, dressed to look sultry and seductive, it’s hard to feel that same connection. Sara’s art is brilliant because it shows a character who looks AWESOME! The girl in those pictures doesn’t look vulnerable or overtly sexy, instead she carries her femininity with confidence. THIS is the kind of character that Muslim women so desperately crave to see in their comics.
Finally, I feel I could not do justice to this article without mentioning the new Ms Marvel, Kamala Khan. Whilst she doesn’t wear the traditional Islamic hijab, she does dress in a costume that looks like a modest variant of Captain Marvel’s suit, and really suits Kamala’s personality. The first edition of the new Ms Marvel comics won a Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story in 2015, which demonstrates that there really is demand for female Muslim characters, and that they can be just as exciting superheroes as the typical demographic. Her religion is not a deterrent to her heroics, and it’s actually her imam who gives Kamala the motivation to really dedicate herself to helping others as Ms Marvel.
Ultimately, it’s great that the comic industry is making steps towards Muslim representation, but there is still plenty of room for development, and I for one am truly excited to see what will happen in the next few years.
Melika Jeddi is a psychology graduate and aspiring writer with a passion for creativity. She is looking to start a career as a freelance writer alongside her regular job.