Female, Muslim, and mutant: Muslim women in comic books
A convoy of jeeps packed with turban-clad and bearded Taliban militia roar through the rocky streets of a small Afghan town. The engines slowly die down as the militiamen hop off their vehicles and prepare to unleash havoc and raid homes.
But something unusual mystifies them and halts their extremist fervor. An ominous silence fills the town, as if it were a strange pause in reality. They ponder, “Has the town been abandoned?” The silence is interrupted by the desert wind blowing against curtains and flags, while startling the braying animals. The radicals soon realize: the wind is not alone.
A female voice emerges from gusts of sand and warns the Taliban to turn back. The leader becomes infuriated and threatens to burn the entire town to the ground if the people don’t come out of hiding. The invisible entity replies as her voice steps closer to the militia, “[The town] is under my protection. Leave before you get a demonstration of what that means.” The leader is not intimidated and asks what will happen if he does not retreat.
“I’ll rip the skin from your bones,” answers the wind.
Infused with arrogance, the Taliban scoffs, “I would truly like to see that.”
Immediately, the gust of sand swirls into a tornado and swallows the leader’s hand and disarms him of his assault rifle. The sandstorm retracts while the Taliban leader screams and looks at his skeletal hand in horror. Finally, the Taliban rush to their jeeps and speed off from the town. The desert wind and sand transform to reveal the city’s invisible hero.
Meet “Dust,” or Sooraya Qadir, a burqa-garbed adolescent Afghan girl who has the ability, as shown in the scene above, to shape into sandstorms and tear the skin off her enemies. She has been a member of Marvel Comic’s X-Men since her first appearance in 2002 and she currently appears regularly in the Young X-Men comic books.
In the male-dominated world of comic books where female characters are depicted with large breasts and skimpy skin-tight (or lack of) clothing, it’s interesting to examine whether or not Dust and other Muslim super-heroines escape the sexual objectification and sexism that women often suffer in comic books. Are the Muslim women subjected to stereotypes? Are they doomed to the same fate of other female characters? Does the “male gaze” still apply?
The X-Men universe is the perfect place to accommodate a Muslim character. X-Men fans, or those who have seen the films, already know that the storyline centralizes on how mutants – evolved and “gifted” humans with superpowers – are discriminated against by other human beings. Mutants are misunderstood, feared, and hated by the public, while the media and government powers propagate fear, persecution, and even war against them.
Recall the opening scene from X-Men 2 when a mind-controlled Nightcrawler nearly assassinates the President of the United States and the television headlines scream: “Mutants Attack the White House.” The X-Men – mutants who had absolutely nothing to do with the attack – are seen crowded around the television and watching the news report, feeling as if they were responsible.
Many Muslim-Americans may relate well to this scene, especially how it correlates with their own experiences immediately after the September 11th attacks. X-Men producer Lauren Shuler Donner even explicitly stated on the DVD for X-Men 2, “If there is any oppressed minority – homosexual, religious, Muslim, whatever it is – that is the most absurd question that people do ask: ‘Can you try not to be who you are?’ And so we felt it was very important to show this whole absurd side.” Considering how relevant X-Men is to current events and social issues, how does Dust fit in at Professor Xavier’s Institute for Gifted Youngsters?
Grant Morrison, the X-Men writer who created Dust, said in an interview, “It can only happen at Marvel. As Wolverine comes closer to unlocking the dark secrets of his past, an Afghan Muslim mutant joins the X-Men. You want daring? You want different? Then meet Dust as New X-Men challenges the rules again.” Though the word “awesome” may initially spring to mind when one reads this statement, it can be strongly argued that the male gaze is still in effect.
For those who are unfamiliar with the terminology, the “male gaze” is essentially female characters being depicted and presented in ways their heterosexual male writers, artists, and audiences would like to see them. In the case of Dust, we can make an argument for the Western male gaze: an “oppressed” Muslim girl is rescued from Afghanistan by Wolverine, a Western male mutant. Wolverine is told that the Taliban were trying to remove Dust’s burqa, obviously to molest her, and since there don’t seem to be other Muslims around to take a stand against the Taliban’s perverted behavior, who better to rescue her than Wolverine, or rather, “Western democracy?” The scenario of Dust fighting the Taliban, as admirable as it is, occurs enough times in later issues that it makes one question if this is how Western male writers, artists, and readers want to see a Muslim super-heroine, i.e. to rebel against her oppressors, the mutual enemy of the U.S. government?
To support this argument even further, there are many factors to consider, including political context. For example, Dust makes her first appearance in New X-Men # 133 which was published in December 2002, a little over a year after September 11th, 2001. In the issue prior to her debut (issue # 132), Morrison writes a tribute to the victims of Genosha, a fictional mutant homeland, where 16 million mutants were killed.
There were two direct references to September 11th used in Marvel’s advertising of the comic book, calling the Genosha tragedy “the X-Men’s own 9/11.” The final page of the comic book shows the X-Men team crying at their loss. Next month, in issue # 133, we open to a full page of Wolverine slaughtering Taliban militants. Even worse, we see Pakistani terrorists hijacking an Air-India plane while Professor Xavier and Jean Grey are aboard. Xavier uses his psychic abilities to convince the Pakistani hijacker, whose name happens to be Muhammad, to put down his weapon and surrender to the Indian authorities. Muhammad begins to cry and as he is arrested, he says, “It’s true, I don’t know what I’m doing with my life!” Morrison takes revenge on Muslim extremists by (1) brutally slaughtering them (via Wolverine), (2) passively using mind tricks on them (via Xavier), and (3) rescuing an “oppressed” Afghan Muslim adolescent girl and taking her home (via Wolverine again)!
Well, almost “home.” Wolverine carries Dust back to an X-Men headquarters in India (no X-Men headquarters in Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, I take it), where Jean Grey invites Dust to reveal herself from concealment. “It’s ok, Sooraya,” Jean says, “You can turn back into human form now.” Finally, Dust appears in her black burqa saying “Toorab! Toorab!” Wolverine remarks, “It means ‘dust.’ It’s all she says.”
Wow, the Arabic word for dust, “toorab,” is all she says? Not only does Morrison introduce us to a super-powered Muslim girl, but also to somewhat of a doll that exclaims “Toorab! Toorab!” whenever she gets excited about transforming back into human form. Is it possible to imagine Wolverine’s conversation with her flying to India? “So kid, what’s your story?”
Dust can be easily compared to the hooded Jawa creatures from “Star Wars” who live on the desert planet of Tatooine, always bustling around and saying the same things over and over again in their alien language.
We not only see a political bias here, which in turn justifies the Western male gaze, but we also see a female Muslim character that doesn’t have much of a personality. In other words, Dust is a token character. Morrison doesn’t even return to her character after this issue; instead he hands her over to other writers, but perhaps for the better, since they make significant improvements.
Male dependency is another element at work here. Although one could argue that Wolverine is practically an indestructible character with his adamantium skeleton and rapid healing factor, it’s hard to believe why Dust would need any rescuing, considering her superpowers and her human enemies. If she was being recruited, the situation would be different and we wouldn’t see any sign of male dependency, but since we see a man rescue her, we assume that Dust’s superpowers are inferior: she is not nearly as powerful as male characters like Wolverine. We have seen female characters rely on their male counterparts in comic books many times before: Super Girl, Bat Girl, Spider Girl, the Huntress, She Hulk, Lois Lane, and so on.
Importantly, there is not a single positive Muslim male character in Dust’s debut issue. There are the Taliban militants that want to molest her, and there are the Pakistani hijackers, but the Muslim women, who Morrison couldn’t possibly kill off since they are “victims” in the Muslim world, are innocent, good, and “waiting to be saved” by Western men. The racism and sexism work hand-in-hand.
Dust would not make her next appearance until January 2005 in New X-Men: Academy X #2, where she is officially a member of the mutant team. This time under the authorship of Nunzio DeFilippis and his wife Christina Weir, Dust is explored and developed a little more. However, stereotypes about Muslim women persist, namely Orientalist stereotypes which present inaccurate representations of Muslim women (mostly revolving around the obsession with the veil) in order to reinforce the “cultural superiority” of western civilization.
In issue # 2, for instance, Dust meets her roommate, Surge, who wears a tight tank top and pink shorts that are seemingly slipping down her waist. Provocative lyrics play from her boom box: “Yeah I drive naked through the park, and run the stop sign in the dark…” Surge is immediately hostile towards Dust because of the way she dresses. “So you don’t like my music, huh?” she says. Dust responds shyly and explains she doesn’t understand American music. Surge replies, “Yeah whatever, and speaking of things we don’t understand, is that outfit you’re wearing actually a burqa?”
Dust tries to explain, but Surge interrupts and says wearing a burqa is shameful to women and makes them “subservient to men.” Dust replies politely, “No, the burqa is about modesty. There are boys and men on campus, and it is not right for me to show off by exposing myself or flesh to them.” Surge snaps back, “Are you saying I show too much flesh?” Again, Dust politely tries to explain, “No I do not judge the way you dress, I only ask that you do the same for me.” Surge walks to the door and says, “You do judge me… I don’t need to be lectured by someone who’s setting women back fifty years just by walking around like that.” Surge leaves the room and slams the door, leaving Dust dejected and discouraged.
No matter what one’s stance is on the burqa or the headscarf (hijaab), it is clear that this scene puts Dust on the defensive. In a place where mutants are supposed to feel accepted, Dust is misjudged because of her choice of dress. In later issues, particularly New X-Men: Hellions #2, we learn, from a conversation with her mother, that Dust is not forced to wear the burqa and she enjoys the protection it gives her from men. For Dust, the burqa is a choice, and that must be respected and defended.
However, Dust’s reasoning for wearing the burqa is somewhat inaccurate and stereotypical. This may be due to the writers’ apparent misunderstanding of Muslim women and Islam in general. Quite frequently, Dust speaks about “protecting herself from men,” which not only make men out to be lustful and perverted, but it also sexualizes herself and makes her an object of desire. The beautiful teachings of modesty for both genders in Islam tend to be mistaken for the stereotypical notion of “protecting women from men.”
These beliefs keep her side-lined and in the background, while the rest of the young Mutants develop interact with one another and participate in extra-curricular activities. It is her religion that divides her from others, which not only plays into stereotypes about how “religion divides,” but also how Islam in particular places “harsh restrictions” on Muslim women in general.
Almost every time the reader sees Dust, she is praying and asking God for forgiveness for whatever sin she may have committed. A common stereotype that prevails in the west about Islam is that it doesn’t promote “freedom.” The word “Islam” means “submission” and this term is often associated with “slavery.” But Islam is not slavery – to be a servant of God, as believed by Muslims, is seen as humility and liberation of the Soul. It is to acknowledge a higher power greater than one’s self.
Unfortunately, Dust fulfills the negative stereotype that Islam is restrictive and that God is someone to constantly ask forgiveness from, especially if you’re a woman. It makes the reader perceive her as a “religious nut” as Surge calls her at one point. Other than her religious beliefs, Dust’s personality is almost non-existent. When Surge tells her it’s “no big deal” when men stare at her (or any woman), Dust responds with weak comebacks which only reinforce the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims. What are Dust’s hobbies, one may ask? What does she do on her free time? Who does she sit with during school assemblies? Who sits at her table during lunch breaks? These unanswered questions keep Dust’s character underdeveloped and incomplete.
While some may argue that Dust has a lot of potential as a Muslim super-heroine in mainstream comic books, there is a lot of room for improvement. She represents the overly cliché Orientalist stereotype that perpetuates the notion that most Muslim women in the world veil or are obligated to veil by their “oppressive” culture, religion, and/or men. Dust is also the product of a post 9/11 storyline that was loaded with Islamophobia and Muslim men playing the typical role of “Muslim terrorists.” To counter these stereotypes, it may interest comic book writers and artists to not only educate themselves about Islam, but also immerse themselves in the Muslim community.
Since Dust is the only Muslim character in the “X-Men” universe so far, her character’s depiction tries to represent all Muslim women, which is problematic because it marginalizes many Muslim women who don’t wear either the hijaab, niqaab, or burqa. Possible ideas for additional female Muslim characters could include those who wear hijaab, don’t wear hijaab, and even those who are Shia or Sufi. After all, Islam celebrates diversity and embraces people of all ethnicities, cultures, genders, and schools of thought. What better way to dispel misrepresentations and stereotypes, especially about Muslim women, than to present Islam for what it truly is?
The concept of female Muslim super-heroines in the realm of mainstream comic books is very exciting, but considering the sexism and objectification that women often suffer in this medium, breaking away from stereotypes and misconceptions may seem nearly impossible. However, readers searching for realistic portrayals of Muslim women may find hope in Naif Al-Mutawa’s fascinating comic book series, “The 99.” Published by his own company, Teshkeel Comics, “The 99” shows us arguably the best depictions of Muslim female characters to have ever appeared in comic books.
Judging by the title, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to Muslim readers that Naif Al-Mutawa’s “The 99” is inspired by Islamic culture and religion. For those who are unfamiliar with Islam, the title of the comic refers to an Islamic teaching that God has 99 Beautiful Names or Attributes. Al-Mutawa draws from this tradition and produces remarkable superheroes – most of them teenagers who each embody one of the 99 Names of God via magical gem stones known as “Noor Stones.” For example, if the Noor stone possesses the Divine attribute of “Al-Rafi,” which means “The Lifter,” then the gem-bearer will take on the superpower of “lifting” objects, people, and even one’s own self through telepathic means.
The first female character introduced is the 18-year-old Dana Ibrahim (pictured above) in the United Arab Emirates. Being the daughter of a wealthy father makes her a target for many criminals, and this reality soon dawns on her when a car explodes outside of her university. Amidst the chaos, a group of thugs drag her into a van and speed her off to an isolated prison. Dana has faith that her father will pay the ransom, but just in case, she starts calculating the intervals in which the guards give her food and leave her unwatched, and starts digging a tunnel with a spoon, all whilst wearing a blindfold and having her hands tied. After many days of digging in the darkness, she stumbles upon a magical gem that radiates with extraordinary, mysterious light. Her abductors discover the tunnel and then drag her into another dark room. Angry with tears rolling down her eyes, Dana decides not to give up, and the magical gem she found illuminates to reveal a ventilation shaft for her to climb into. She crawls to the end of the shaft, but only to find that the exit is locked!
Magically, the Noor Stone pours light into the lock and cracks the combination, setting Dana free and racing to safety. She is frightened however because wherever she turns her head, she sees the light and darkness that exists within all human beings. This is visualized brilliantly in the comic book, showing people filled with light, but also with stains of darkness. She says, “It’s not about one person, one place, it’s about who we are.” These words allude to how every human being has light, or goodness, within them, but there are dark elements too that come from the external world. As she is terrified by these visions, she looks within herself and sees an enormous amount of light, but she doesn’t believe it. She doesn’t believe there is goodness in her.
She struggles with inner turmoil and self-doubt – her mother had died a long time ago and her father mysteriously did not take immediate action in paying the ransom. When she returns home, she sees that he is filled with more darkness than anyone she has come across. Because of this, she feels un-loved and unneeded; she feels like she failed her father somewhere in her life and didn’t deserve to be saved. Upon meeting Dr. Ramzi, a devoted scientist searching for the Noor Stones and gem-bearers (think “Professor Xavier of the “X-Men”), Dana learns that the Noor Stones chose her because of something within her. Dana is reluctant to believe until she wears the gem stone around her neck and sees the light within Dr. Ramzi. She tears and says, “I never thought I’d have hope again.” Dr. Ramzi tells her that she is one of the 99: Noora, the Light.
Dana Ibrahim, or Noora, is the type of three-dimensional female character that many mainstream comic books lack. She is not drawn out of proportion or scantily clad; instead, it is made clear that Al-Mutawa and his creative team (which consists of artists and writers who have worked with DC Comics and Marvel Comics) are more interested in storytelling and character development rather than having full pages of women posing as if they’re in a Victoria’s Secret catalogue. Noora is not objectified or exploited; she is a character that the reader discovers and learns more about – someone with her own mind, thoughts, and beliefs. In the scene in which she was held captive, for example, Noora does not depend on someone to save her, but rather she works through the problem on her own. She breaks out of prison and fights her way free against all odds, which shows readers that she has agency and does not to fall victim to her captive state. As she raced across the city and saw the darkness and light within others, she was learning something new about the world and, more importantly, about herself.
Probably the most interesting part of the Noora’s character is that much of the described scenario above runs parallel with Islam’s Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Although Muhammad wasn’t kidnapped, he was meditating in a dark cave when he first received God’s revelation from the Angel Gabriel. Similarly, Noora is in a dark tunnel where she comes across the mystical Noor Stone, which clearly has Divine implications since it represents an attribute of God’s 99 Names. When Muhammad runs out of the cave, he is frightened because wherever he turns his face, he sees the Vision of Gabriel. He is frightened, but at the same time, realizes that he has reached a transition period in his life – he is making the self-discovery that he is the Prophet of God, to bring the people of the world from the depths of the darkness into the Light. When Noora escapes her dark prison, she is frightened by the new Visions she witnesses wherever she looks. She is frightened, but at the same time, realizes that she has reached a transition period in her life – she is making the self-discovery that she is chosen by the Noor Stone, to help bring goodness and light into a dark world.
Whether Al-Mutawa intended Noora to be somewhat analogous to Muhammad is unknown, but the similarities cannot be denied. Likening a fictional character to a Prophet may be a very touchy subject among more conservative Muslim communities, but if these aspects of Noora’s story are inspired by Muhammad’s mystical experience with Gabriel, then it’s a positive and imaginative reference. Many fictional characters like Neo of The Matrix, Anakin Skywalker of Star Wars, and Aslan of The Chronicles of Narnia have come to symbolize Jesus (peace be upon him), so it’s refreshing to see a positive fictional character inspired by the Prophet Muhammad (and even more so considering those horrid Danish cartoons!).
Another female character worth mentioning from “The 99” is Amira Khan (pictured left), a Pakistani-British teenager who makes her first appearance in issue # 5. With her Noor Stone, she is Hadya, The Guide. She has the ability to map out cities, countries, and even entire solar systems. As written in the comic book, her “brain functions like a telephoto satellite and global positioning tracking system,” and sometimes her maps are so detailed that they are projected as three-dimensional images that move all around her. In her debut issue, she helps a U.S. senator find his lost son in the Colorado Mountains. Like Noora, Hadya’s dress is relatively modest and the focus is on her character.
Neither Noora nor Hadya wear hijaab , but there is a female Iranian character named Buran who does. Although she is not a gem-bearer, she plays an important role in helping the group on their missions. In the first issue, Buran wears a loose-fitting hijaab where some of hair shows, but that is changed in the next 6 issues. It seems that the writers decided to make her wear the full hijaab, i.e. covering her hair completely. Buran offers sarcasm and humor to balance out Dr. Ramzi’s often serious tone, and it’s certainly nice to see a character wearing the hijaab and not looking oppressed.
Al-Mutawa has stated that he chose to include a mixture of Muslim women wearing and not wearing hijaab, and this is important because it shows audiences how diverse the Muslim community is. It may be argued that Buran’s character is that she is limited to being an assistant and wardrobe designer – just because a woman wears hijaab, does that mean she is not capable of being a gem-bearer? Fortunately, in the upcoming issues, Al-Mutawa has stated that there will be more Muslim characters that are gem-bearers and wear hijaab.
“The 99” is a breath of fresh air in the comic book world and Al-Mutawa and his creative team should be applauded for their positive representations of Muslim women. There is still room for improvement though, such as exploring the characters’ religious identity. It may be argued that religion would disrupt the universal message of the comic book (since not all the gem-bearers are Muslim), but there’s a pronounced difference between preaching religion and engaging in inter-faith dialogue. “The 99” is a tremendous opportunity to share experiences of being Muslim in a post 9/11 world, as well as conveying a much-needed message of coexistence. For the time being, “The 99” is a remarkable achievement and one would hope that its realistic portrayals of Muslim women will help inspire more positive depictions of women in mainstream comic books.
AK Comics, founded by Dr. Ayman Kandeel, is an Egyptian-based comic company and considered to be the first large scale production of the super-hero genre in the Middle-East. As admirable the intentions of creating Arab/Muslim super-heroes and super-heroines may be, the images and roles of female characters in AK Comics are not much of an improvement from what is typically seen in mainstream American comic books.“Jalila: Protector of The City of All Faiths” and “Aya: Princess of Darkness” are the two main super-heroine characters who lead their own comic book series, and while this may sound empowering, the visuals tell us otherwise. Unfortunately, both Jalila and Aya look like an unimaginative redux of unrealistically curvaceous and buxom western female characters like Wonder Woman and Catwoman.
Jalila’s story begins in a future where world peace was established in Jerusalem between Christians, Jews, and Muslims after a fictional “55 Years War.” However, the peace is disrupted by two terrorist organizations: The United Liberation Front (sounds like the PLO) and the Army of Zios (sounds like Zionism). Although there are positive intentions evident in Jalila’s first issue, very little is developed about her character. The reader learns that she gets her super-powers from a radiation suit that her parents designed in order for her to survive a nuclear blast at the end of the war, however hardly anything details the kind of relationship she had with her parents. What is her personal and/or social life like? Who are her friends? What are her character flaws? Where’s the inner conflict? None of these questions are answered (her religion is not mentioned explicitly, however it is implied that she is Muslim since her mother is seen wearing the hijaab in a photograph).
As Jalila soars over Jerusalem, she looks like the Arab version of Wonder Woman – thin waist, large breasts, and posing for the targeted heterosexual male audience. Like Wonder Woman, Jalila looks empowered with her cockiness and crime-fighting, but with her skin-tight costume and sexually suggestive depictions, one must ask: is she really empowered or is she being objectified because of the way heterosexual male writers, artists, and readers want to view her.
There are a lot of references to her gender whenever she fights thugs, who are all men of course, which make it clear that the writers and artists want to promote feminism and gender equality. Without a doubt, the topics are important for all readers, but these messages are contradicted by the way she is scantily depicted as a sex object. For instance, as she spies on a secret terrorist base, a sleazy and ugly old man puts a knife around her neck and says, “Hi beautiful… we’re going to have a fun time, baby!” Jalila throws an elbow into him and then slams her knee into his chest while exclaiming, “This is my idea of a fun time!” The pseudo-feminism is not only contrived, but also transparent given the way she is drawn. On this page, for example, her entire back is faced to the reader twice, including one full body shot of her slightly bent over in a sexually suggestive position.
Panel after panel, we see the “male gaze” in effect. Whether Jalila is arching her back, stretching out, bending over, doing split kicks, or simply having a conversation with a civilian, the artists never seem to miss an opportunity to show off Jalila’s impossibly curvy figure.
Aya, the Princess of Darkness, is not much different from Jalila, except that she is a dark-blonde Syrian who might as well be naked because all she wears is a skin-tight purple Catwoman-esque bodysuit and a red hood and cape. Creativity in her character is severely lacking when one considers how similar she is to Batman. For example, she doesn’t have any superpowers, she relies on martial arts, her father was murdered, and she vows to ensure no one else experiences the same tragedy. To Batman fans, this sounds somewhat recycled. The difference of course is that Aya’s mother is not only alive, but imprisoned because she is accused of murdering Aya’s father! In efforts to free her mother from prison, Aya becomes a law school student and, for no other reason except to serve the male gaze, she wears skin-tight jeans that look as if they will slip off any moment. While it’s nice to see Aya as an intelligent woman, the clothing degrades her into a sex object.
On the website for AK Comics, it is stated that Aya’s character flaw is that she’s “too serious,” however, this is quite contrary to what’s presented in the comic books. She is just as cocky and sarcastic as Jalila. In fact, Aya and Jalila might as well be the same character because their storylines are so underdeveloped. Not only do both of their comic books show them objectified in the same manner, but they also contain similar references to gender, which gets so overemphasized that they generate stereotypes about how Muslim women are supposedly treated in Muslim countries.
As mentioned above, there are perverted men who want to molest and rape Jalila, and there are other male characters that are incredibly abusive, particularly her two brothers. One of her brothers, as pointed out earlier, is part of a terrorist organization who simply shouts at Jalila and slams the door in her face, while her other brother is a drug addict. The latter gets so angry after Jalila flushes his drugs down the toilet that he slaps her across the face. Rather than screaming at him, Jalila watches her brother weep in shame and apologize to her. Jalila hugs him and says, “It’s ok” and that she “understands” how difficult it is for him.
The treatment of women is quite similar in Aya’s story. She is fighting for her mother’s freedom and trying to prove that she didn’t kill Aya’s father – this eerily seems to parallel how Muslim women are often accused of certain crimes that they did not commit in certain Muslim countries. It would be inappropriate to deny the injustices that some Muslim women face in certain Muslim countries, but when writers emphasize so much on women fighting against patriarchy in the Muslim world, it tends to reaffirm the stereotypes that many non-Muslims in the West have about Islam.
On one hand, Jalila and Aya serve as vehicles to teach younger people to not join terrorist organizations, don’t take drugs, and don’t abuse women, but on the other hand, there are countless pages of sexually suggestive images of them crawling, posing like supermodels, and even displaying tight see-through shirts where their nipples are visible in some panels. What messages do these images send and how do they improve the way women are perceived and treated in the Muslim world? It’s not just Jalila and Aya who are drawn stereotypically; every female character, no matter how minor the role, are drawn as buxom and skimpy dressed “babes.” It’s important to point out that American comic books were once a way to “girl watch” during the late 1940’s before the advent of “Playboy” and “Penthouse,” and it seems that AK Comics provides a way for young Arab boys to ogle at busty and curvy women. Since AK Comics has recently distributed their books in the United States, the western heterosexual male reader has more chances of perceiving Jalila and Aya as “hot Arab babes” than feminists simply due to their depictions and lack of character development.
Unlike Naif Al-Mutawa’s “The 99,” Jalila and Aya lack symbolism, originality, and most of all, they lack their own culture and individuality! Jalila and Aya merely have Arabic names, and to strip them of their culture and religious background arguably reveals a message to conform to Western standards of society, beauty/fashion, and government. AK Comics has potential to bring something new to the comic book industry, especially with its two female characters, but if the writers are really interested in showing truly empowered Muslim women, they need to break away from copying and imitating mainstream American comic books and give Jalila and Aya their own identities as Middle-Eastern/Muslim super-heroines.
If AK Comics can reinvent Jalia and Aya as more complex, realistic, and three-dimensional characters, it will be a revolutionary achievement for Muslim women in comic books alongside Naif Al-Mutawa’s “The 99.”
Jehanzeb Dar is a Pakistani Muslim-American undergrad student and independent filmmaker. He currently blogs at Muslim Reverie, where he critiques media, writes poetry, and reflects on spirituality. He is also a frequent guest contributor on Racialicious. An unedited version of this article previously appeared at Muslimah Media Watch.