Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
For the last ten years I have participated in an on-line roleplaying game, originally called High School Heroes, about high school aged super heroes. When the main characters graduated they transitioned to the roll of elder statesmen of their hero community, and we created a new team of heroes. In 2012 The new game was re-branded College Heroes. In any game I want to play a character that is different from what others are playing. I chose Sheba Vander Haven. Originally I envisioned her as a rebel and a bad girl, who did good out of necessity, or default, rather than motivation, but as things often happen in games like this the character took a dramatic twist between concept and where she is now.
She was the child of a secular Persian and Arabic beauty queen and a businessman who traced his family roots to the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. I had chosen them as her parents, since their elder daughter had been part of the original HSH game, and I wanted my newbie to have ties to the original game. Her heroic name is Al-Azif. Al-Azif is an Arabic word for the sound insects make at sunset in the desert (early Arabs thought it was the sound of demons coming out at night.) Many of you might recognize that is the name Lovecraft gave to the original Arabic version of The Necronomicon in his Cthulhu Mythos stories.
My original concept was basically a good bad girl who was rebelling against her parents, by not eating meet, and dating her ex-boyfriend was a drug dealer, and not knowing why. (Her father put an experimental chip in her body giving her powers but making her a human Gennie pig without her knowledge) But half the players made characters that were basically rebelling against their family and were moral bad girls or boys. So Sheba began to change.
She rediscovered her Muslim heritage and began to date a decent guy. She lets the school think they have slept together when they have not, because the school might brand him gay or harass him if they found out they hadn’t gone all the way. (He is a male cheerleader ad gets a lot of harassment on that front in the first place) She is finding out what it means to be a Muslim in the modern age. She has some serious concerns about things that others have done in the name of her faith, and has no family support in practicing her religion. She finds prayers give her comfort, but not sure how God can let evil thrive in the world and let evil men use his name. She also sees Christian students around her drinking and having sex, and then going to church on Sunday and seeing no conflict with the two lifestyles and wondering if she could live that way too.
Sheba who was named after a fellow student in my UCLA Iranian history class, and is based in some part on every teenage girl I ever met is a strong character who tries to live life differently than those around her. At the time I knew of no other female Muslim superheroes. Since then I have become acquainted with three.
Kamala Khan AKA Ms. Marvel (IV). How much do I love Kamala Khan? I named my goat Cleas’ first female daughter Kamala Khan. Kamala isn’t just a great representation of Islam she is also a great representation of what it means to be a teenager and what it means to be hero. But when I first heard that Marvel would make the new Ms. Marvel a Muslim-American, I thought it was… well stunt casting. Just trying to be inclusive and use the minority group that was in the news, boy was I wrong.
Marvel has always done a good job connecting with audiences that feel alienated. Mutants have long been representive of people who feel they just don’t fit in. Kamala as an American of Pakistani descent, and has never quite felt she fit in before her powers emerged. In ways she became part of greater America society by being a hero despite being born in New Jersey.
The beauty of the writing in Ms. Marvel is that Kamala appears as a real authentic teenager, not an adult interpretation of a teenager. She writes superhero fanfiction, she wants to make her parents proud but she also wants to fit in with her peers. She gets that having a faith makes her special but it also makes her different and like all teenagers she desperately wants to fit in. She also is surprised when adult authorities seem to be understanding towards her and her feelings. She is a lovably beautiful real and flawed human being. But that is what makes her special. Even Wolverine, who has a long history of mentoring female heroes, says that there is something special and different about her.
In a medium that is full of scantily clad voluptuous women, Ms. Marvel is has a realistic body (well except when she is super stretching her arms and legs but you know what I mean) She looks like a teenager. Her costume is modest but still heroic Ms. Marvel and Kamala Khan can be inspirations to teenage girls. They can see both themselves in her, but also see a window into a different culture.
Her powers give her the ability to elongate parts of her body and regenerate. She got these powers by coming into contact with Terrigin mist, so she is an Inhuman not a mutant. This import because she can be used future Disney projects. In September she will be part of a new teenage superhero team called the Champions. Right now it looks like Kamala is living the American dream, and is destined for greatness.
Bloody Nasreen was created by Shahan Zaidi, a Karachi artist. He based her on the real life families of victims of Pakistan’s terrorist and criminal underworld. Which in reality get almost no justice for their loved ones. Like Bat Man she has no powers other than her fighting skills and sheer willpower. If I was to compare her to her American counterparts, it would be a combination of The Punisher and Kill Bill’s Beatrix “The Bride” Kido.
Nasreen is more anti-hero than super hero. She kills without remorse, but not without reason. In addition to becoming a force for vengeance she also smokes and swears, in ways she is the antithesis of a stereotypical Pakistanis woman. But she has many fans in Pakistan because of her contrary actions not despite them.
Nasreen’s story is deeply influenced by the ‘based on true events” movie Bandit Queen, about Phoolan Devi who after she was raped led a guerrilla war against her attackers. (The real Phoolan would be pardoned and become a member of the Indian parliament.) In 2017, BN will be its own movie. She is a threat to the abusive patriarchy. If Al-Azif started out as a good guy bad girl, Nasreen is an anti-hero taking out even worse killers and villains.
Nasreen is not Pakistan’s first female hero that honor goes to The Burka Avenger. Jiya is a teacher who learned to fight using the mysterious fighting style Tahkt Kabbadi. TK is a fictitious fighting style that is based on books and pens, which is perfect for a teacher. When we first see her, she is in training by catching eggs thrown at her with her eyes closed, and not breaking the eggs. Though a martial artist as opposed to a super powered hero, she follows the western tradition of female chosen ones, like Buffy or River Tam.
She has had over 50 22 minute episodes, recorded in Urdu And translated into ten other languages She fights a cartoon version of the Taliban. The show which promotes good values and education for women, is aimed at the tween and pre-tween audience. To attract young children the stories also include three children (and their pet goat.) Think about what the core of the story is. That is a heavy lesson to break down for young children. A female role model is fighting a Taliban expy, using the tools of knowledge. Pretty deep if you think about it.
The show was created by Aaron Haroon Rashid, who is one of Pakistan’s biggest pop artist. So the series has a lot of catchy music. But in addition to five seasons, it has video games, music and even the goal of all American superheroes merchandise.
These are three (I don’t count mine here) completely different female Muslim heroes. Nasreen is the polar opposite of the Burka Avenger, and Kamala is the Pakistani /Muslim experience through the eyes of someone born in the US. They are different but they have more in common than their gender and religion, they all kick butt when called to.