The word ‘superhero’ conjures up images of a handsome white man, or occasionally a woman, who embodies bravery and gallantry; he or she is a distinctive character with supernatural abilities that they employ to battle evil. This is because for many years, mainly western popular media has been the primary source of information about what, why, where and how superheroes operate in the world. Consequently, it is impossible to picture a superhero as a person of color, let alone a woman of color. However, Marvel Comics have tried to alter this perception with their latest series, Ms Marvel, in which a teenage Muslim Pakistani-American Kamala Khan, dubbed Ms Marvel, sets out to save the world.
Kamala Khan is a superhero that many Pakistani girls, particularly those who are immigrants, can identify with. She lives in a household where religion and Pakistani cultural values play a vital role in everyday life. Like many Pakistani parents, her parents are cautious about her safety and have set certain boundaries that she cannot transgress. On the other hand, being a Pakistani-American Muslim girl in her school, she faces bullying on an everyday basis. The viewers can see Kamala in the context of Clash of Civilizations by watching her daily struggle to fit into her social life, while also living up to her family’s expectations.
From Kamala Khan to Ms Marvel – A Journey Embedded in Partition
Kamala becomes aware of her powers after she receives a generational heirloom (bangle) from her Nani. She first sees the marvels of this bangle at the AvengerCon and later on Eid, events where she manages to save her classmate and a boy from falling. The bangle makes Kamala a superhero and her lifelong wish of being something more is fulfilled, but the burden is a lot for her to bear as she constantly sees visions that are completely unknown to her. Kamala’s journey from a normal girl from New Jersey to becoming a superhero is rooted in the events of the partition of Pakistan and India. The generational heirloom (bangle) that she receives from her Nani belonged to her great-grandmother Aisha, a being from the Noor Dimension. In 1942, Aisha and her team had discovered the bangle in a ruined temple in pre-partition India. This bangle was the tool for Aisha and her team to return to the Noor Dimension but due to the raid by the British army, Aisha gets separated from the rest. Later, Aisha gets married to a Muslim man and bears a daughter named Sana, Kamala’s Nani. As years passed, the people in her community, predominantly the Hindus, started giving her family a tough time because the talk of partitioning of India gained momentum and areas with a Hindu majority started viewing Muslims as a threat. These circumstances compel Aisha to take the extremely difficult but necessary decision to migrate to Pakistan along with her family. When this family reaches the train station, Aisha gives the bangle to her daughter for safekeeping and asks her husband to take the train to Karachi along with Sana. Although for a brief moment Sana (Nani) gets separated from her father, later “a trail of stars” appears and takes her back to her father. It is later revealed that this “trail of stars” was from Kamala who was transported back to the night of migration and saved her Nani.
Ms Marvel – A Transnational Superhero
Ms Marvel is an idiosyncratic series for audiences across the globe including the Pakistani audience that makes her a transnational superhero with an ethno-religious identity that is different from all other superheroes. She has an individuality but is communal, her nationality is American as well as Pakistani, and she attends religious events. She offers prayers at the mosque but at the same time she is also secular, her ideas are conservative but also liberal, she is different yet same. Kamala aka Ms Marvel is a brown Muslim girl that makes her not-so-American while simultaneously allowing her to resist and transcend the political and historical othering that might have made her unacceptable. She challenges the traditional superhero tropes in the times when xenophobia, racism and misogyny are prevalent.
The roots of Kamala’s heroic powers in the post-partition era are as important as her present identity. The story of the Pakistan-India partition has been overshadowed in the western popular discourse. Both India and Pakistan share the same history, but the former has been given an extensive voice in the mainstream western media, so much so that it molded historic facts according to its wishes. Hence, the idea that Congress pushed for a united India, but Jinnah spread the communal virus to create a separate country has been addressed in this series. In an interaction with Kamala, her Nani remarked that her passport was Pakistani, her roots Indian “and in between all this, there is a border marked with blood and pain. People are claiming their identity based on an idea some old Englishmen had.”
The scenes from migration were somewhat misrepresented in the last episodes of the series. Migration was a gruesome and terrible event, which made life miserable for the migrants. Families were robbed, women were raped, and men were slaughtered. Ms Marvel, on the other hand, failed to show these horrors, which gives the global audience the message that this event may not have been as painful as it actually was.
Ms Marvel – Breaking the Stereotypes
Muslim women in the western discourse are depicted as vulnerable, docile, dependent on men, victims of domestic abuse and constantly in need of a savior. Their mental capabilities are often neglected and they are shown as individuals wrapped in veils, brainwashed and controlled by the strong men of their families who impose religious beliefs and ideas on these women. However, Ms Marvel changes this stereotyping and introduces a family that demonstrates the multiplicity of the Muslim identity. Kamala’s parents are protective Muslim parents, have different expectations of her than that of her brother, which reinforces the conventional stereotyping of immigrant Muslims but, they are not as strict as immigrant parents are often shown to be. They tend to play the good cop/bad cop strategy with their daughter and also listen to what she has to say without involving any violent means. Kamala’s brother Amir is the most religious person in the family, who frequently gives moral and religious advice to his sister. Unlike the popular depiction of Muslim brothers in the Western canon, Amir is quite understanding of his sister and her desires, and never imposes his beliefs on Kamala.
Similarly, Kamala is shown as a teenage girl who loves superheroes, so much so that she spends her free time writing fanfiction, but at the same time she offers prayers with her family at the community mosque. Similarly, Kamala finds it hard to finalize a costume for her superhero self mainly because she had seen female superheroes in extremely sexualized attire. Kamala’s struggle is genuine because she wants to maintain her own identity. She does not want to accept the widely acceptable clothing for herself, which shows that she is in charge of her decisions. By the end of the series, we see that the outfit that Kamala finalizes is the one her mother had gifted her, not revealing and with a scarf that Kamala wraps around her neck. While using a head scarf is considered backward by the liberal and secular communities across the globe, for some Muslim women, it is a sign of liberation and individuality. This notion can be seen in Kamala’s friend Nakia, who wears a hijab out of her own free will, despite disapproval from her father. Similarly, she does not intend to assimilate into American culture, and the series does not represent her in an inferior position because of this.
While stereotypes regarding gender are challenged in Ms Marvel, cultural stereotypes are not. The series depicts a family with overprotective parents who give more value to their son’s opinion. They have different expectations from both Kamala and her brother.
Language is a huge part of any culture and when a community speaks a foreign language, the accents tell a lot about the origin of people. Ms Marvel shows us Pakistani characters who speak with Indian accents. This points to the lack of research and wrong casting choice as well as direction. Words and phrases that are used in the Indian context are employed in casual conversation. For example, Kamala’s father showed excitement by saying “chak de phattay” in a scene. Additionally, in the subtitles, the dialogues in the Urdu language have not been translated; the language in itself was changed. In short, the subtitles replaced the word “in Urdu” with “in Hindi”, which seems insensitive at the very least, while at its worst it takes away from the Pakistani identity labelling all South Asians as somehow Indian.
Ms Marvel is an attempt to create a superhero from Pakistan and consequently from South Asia, which is certainly a step forward. However, they did so at the expense of Pakistan’s history and its culture. Although, a positive aspect of this misrepresentation is that now debates about Pakistan’s history will be a part of popular discourse and people all over the world will start taking an interest in Pakistani culture. Hence, Ms Marvel is one of those complex and inclusive television series that allows Pakistan and Pakistanis, especially the Pakistani diaspora, to be seen but at the same time Western media’s attempts to appear inclusive will always remain a half-hearted effort if the representation of the “other” communities is false or half-baked. HH
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