Growing up a Muslim woman in America, you are told two things: one, that you are a terrorist, and two, that you are oppressed.
The media treats you with a mixture of contempt and pity; you are a threatening outsider, but also one that needs to be rescued from your tyrannical husband or father.
Marvel's new series starring a Muslim female superhero attempts to flip the script. As Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American teenager living in Jersey City, discovers her superpowers, she also grapples with cultural, religious, and coming-of-age issues.
This is a huge step forward, considering that back in 2008, the Obama campaign had removed two Muslim women from sitting behind the podium at a campaign rally so they wouldn't appear in photos or television coverage.
Until then, I, too, had been swept away like millions of other young Americans in the energy and the promise of the Obama campaign, and then I realized that perhaps he didn’t want my support after all (President Obama later apologized personally to the women, so all was forgiven).
As I watched the GOP primary debates in 2012, eager to partake in the political process as a newly minted political science major, I was crushed when candidate after candidate declared that they’d never appoint a Muslim to their cabinet. The more "moderate" ones said that they’d require Muslims to take a special oath before serving in their government.
That was the moment when I realized that, no matter what I did, a large segment of the American public would always consider me an outsider, even an enemy. As a child, I remember how excited I was to accompany my mother to her citizenship test, telling my teachers that my mom was finally going to become an American. After 9/11, it felt like that had been an illusion, and even I, who was born and raised in America, would never be considered American enough.
As a strong-willed woman, I was also frustrated by the media’s portrayal of Muslim women as backwards and oppressed. I wished journalists would write about something other than the headscarf. Ironically, it is this obsessive focus on whether or not the headscarf is oppressive that has stripped Muslim women of our agency, by reducing us to the veil and constraining our role to our appearances.
This one-dimensional portrayal fails to account for the strides that Muslim women have made in America. We comprise the most highly educated religious group in America, after Jewish women. Research by Gallup shows that 43% of Muslim women have a college or postgraduate degree, compared to 29% of American women overall. Muslim women are more likely than Muslim men to have a college degree, and just as likely to have a profession. The study also found that Muslims, especially young ones, experienced a sense of alienation from mainstream American culture.
Despite the news media’s fascination with Muslim women, they are rarely represented in TV shows and movies (come on, America, even Canada has Little Mosque on the Prairie). A parent was outraged when one children’s book about a Muslim girl was included in a school book fair. It’s funny how people that are supposedly concerned about Islam oppressing women are quick to silence the voices of Muslim women themselves.
This is why the character of Kamala Khan is so important, and even necessary. There is a dearth of substantive portrayals of Muslim women, and this has the power to create change.
As the creative team for the series includes two Muslim women, I am hopeful that it will acquaint the wider American public with a multidimensional, more realistic representation of Muslim women. Just as importantly, it goes a long way towards making Muslims feel included in American culture.
Others in the media should take heed.