I spent much of my childhood and teenage years obsessed with anime and comics. Growing up in Mexico, I was part of a generation that saw the introduction of strong female characters in mainstream media, including anime, comics and TV shows. No more Candy Candy with her eternal emotional conflicts over boys, and no more Hello! Sandybell, who spent several season looking for her mother and meeting boys along the way. Similarly, the 90s and 2000s saw a greater focus towards female super heroes that had been previously acted as secondary characters. Thus, Catwoman became an anti-hero in her own right after sixty or so years of being attached to Batman. Similarly, the heavily male-dominated X-Men story became more girl-focused as characters like Jean Grey, Rogue, Storm and the provocative Mystique become more complex and stronger.
In Mexico, manga and anime became extremely popular in the 90s. From Saint Seya and Dragon Ball to Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth, we gained access to these through TV shows, sticker albums, comic books and even web pages, although this was a time where the Internet was scarce in Latin America. Whereas the first two shows remained heavily male-dominated, the latter two were my generation’s introduction to a world that transcended traditional gender roles, heteronormativity and/or the association of females with “evil.”
While Sailor Moon, my personal favorite, in its anime and manga forms (1990s) still had its problems, including the lack of racial diversity and the fact that it was not always particularly feminist, it managed to do a number of things. First, it introduced kids like me to a world where women could be super heroes without men. Aside from Tuxedo Mask, who is kind of like a passive hero (which also provides the heteronormative part of the series) the story is dominated by women of different identities. This takes me to the second point. Sailor Moon taught me that being a woman had very little to do with heterosexuality. In fact, not only did we have Sailor Uranus and Neptune, who were in a non-heteronormative relationship and Sailor Mars who chose celibacy, but the Sailor Starlights who appeared as transgender characters towards the end of the series. But all in all, series like Sailor Moon and Magic Rayearth, and many others out there, represented options for a generation of girls and teenagers that for the first time had female super heroes (and villains) that weren’t mediated by men neither as characters nor in terms of authorship.
Now, fifteen years and a conversion later, I have gotten to see the introduction of Muslim superheroes in this generation’s comic and TV series. Some examples include Dust in X-Men, Ms. Marvel and the Burka Avenger. And whereas Ms. Marvel, written by a Muslim woman, and the Burka Avenger have been overly well-received by audiences that see a positive shift in the superhero rhetoric, Dust’s image is somehow more complex because some suggest it is embedded with Western ideas of the male gaze, the burqa and politics.
And the reality of things is that many of these characters, existing in a Western context or in mediums influenced by the English language, will inevitably be mediated by politics, the immigrant experience in the West and notions of gender that align with Western understandings of such. Therefore, I hoped to be able to provide a list of female superheroes in Muslim contexts that perhaps could broaden the spectrum of female models. By this I don’t mean that the following are feminist Muslim superheroes (I don’t believe a superhero will ever be able to satisfy all the different notions of feminism out there), nor do I mean that one is better than the other. But given the publicity that Ms. Marvel, for example, receives, it is important to check once in a while what else is out there.
Qahera- Qahera is featured in her own web-comic in Arabic and English. She is an Egyptian female superhero fighting misogyny and Islamophobia. Qahera, in her dark gown and niqab, resembles a Robin Hood type of hero in some of the strips. She is very much concerned with social justice, but she is also great in other ways. First, she is depicted in a way that seems to resonate with contemporary Egyptian-centered themes, including the issue of women’s harassment during protests. Next, she is the product of Deena Mohamed, a young Egyptian graphic designer. The fact that Qahera is drawn by a young woman is important because the world of superheroes is still an all-boys’ club; therefore, having an artist that can depict a female superhero from a contemporary female perspective may be empowering to younger readers.
Gogi– Gogi is not quite a superhero since she does not have any special powers and she does not play ninja at any point in time. Instead, she is an urban Pakistani woman making a point about everyday situations. In her own context, Gogi denounces sexism and misogyny from the perspective of an upper-class Muslim woman. The author, Nigar Nazar, sees her as “the symbol of womanhood in Pakistan, with all her adventures and escapades in daily life.” While I would be cautious about making her the archetype of Pakistani womanhood, Gogi is another character that depicts some of the issues faced by Pakistani women from the perspective of a Muslim woman.
Drawn- Mai El Shoush, the creator of Drawn, is a journalist. The main character Rayann Lawsonia, an American-Arab teenager, acquires the power to open the doorway to another world after getting a henna tattoo. El Shoush describes Rayann as more of a feminist superhero in that the attempt was to depict Rayann in terms of her strength rather than her looks. An interesting thing about the story is its focus on the history and importance of the henna tradition. In this story, Rayann’s learning about henna connects her to different cultures and helps her understand herself throughout the story.
Bloody Nasreen– Unlike the other superheroes, Bloody Nasreen was created by a man. Shahan Zaidi sought to develop not a superhero, but a ruthless anti-hero fighting corruption and injustice in Karachi. Nasreen is the image of the beautiful avenger. She is voluptuous, ruthless, violent and pretty, which in itself departs from the other superheroes we have discussed. One of the features that is interesting about the plot is that the story is told from the perspective of Nasreen, who is quite the violent character to start with. She is often seen smoking and carrying weapons, while wearing, often times, traditional clothes. Whereas there is never a mention of Nasreen’s religious affiliation, she works within the context of Pakistan represented as a Muslim-majority country in the text.
The 99- Published by Teshkeel Comics, the comic features 99 superheroes that embody one of the 99 attributes of Allah. The series have been controversial in countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where Naif Al-Mutawa, the author, has faced criticism, threats and fatwas. The 99 fight stereotypes and extremism, while reinforcing positive religious concepts through the 99 names of Allah. Among the 99 there are several women, including Batina the Hidden, who has the power of invisibility and Mujiba the Responder, who can access the collective knowledge of humankind. The 99 are from around the world (not Latin Americans so far though…), and are a pretty interesting example of diversity and religious discourse.
In presenting these examples my hope is that more will come along. In my mind, superheroes and anti-heroes can be interesting sources of empowerment. At the very least, they may represent alternatives to the ways in which Muslim women are depicted in other areas like political cartoons or the ways in which they have been omitted from such content for decades.