I still remember the way my jaw dropped when I first discovered that the new Marvel superhero was to be portrayed by a Pakistani female – Kamala Khan.
As delighted as I was, I expected nothing more than the overused, lazy stereotypes of Muslims that are routinely shown on television; oppressed, unhappy women, dominating and bitter men, and an alien culture rooted in violence, misogyny and fear.
To my surprise, Ms Marvel nailed nearly every detail of growing up as a Muslim in the West – without any of the cliched tropes. I was even more thrilled when I discovered that Kamala would also be played by a Muslim actress (Iman Vellani) and the show was written and directed by Muslims (Bisha K. Ali, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah).
From grappling with overbearing parents, illuminaunties and ignorant classmates, Ms Marvel very accurately describes how many of us feel as South Asian Muslims of the diaspora.
The miniseries not only truthfully depicts Muslims as a whole, but I was also pleasantly surprised to see a hijabi female – for the first time ever – owning the narrative that hijab is indeed a choice.
Yet somehow, I saw countless Instagram comments from angered users stating why they were still unhappy with Ms Marvel’s representation of Muslims and Islam.
“Cringe,” one user commented, “why did they have to make the characters such stereotypical Pakistani nerds?”
“Not all Pakistani parents are this strict,” another user said, “I hate that we’re being stereotyped yet again.”
“What Pakistani parents would make their daughter wear salwar kameez to a comic con event? They’re really pushing the stereotypes here.”
I get it. I get that not all Pakistani parents would be as strict as Kamala’s. Not all of them would have a problem with her going to an event unchaperoned and would force her to wear traditional clothing.
But many of those complaining seem to conveniently forget that there are a lot of Pakistanis who are raised with this level of firm parenting. I myself remember seeing dozens of Pakistani girls reluctantly dressed in traditional attire at parties and other school events at the behest of their conservative parents, not to mention how they were strictly forbidden from attending any mixed gatherings.
Were some of Ms Marvel’s narratives fuelling stereotypes? Maybe so. Depicting South Asian Muslim parents as strict, with an emphasis on family honour and shame probably doesn’t do us any favours. But we’d be lying if we told ourselves that these aren’t common themes that South Asian Muslims grow up with.
How many times have we watched our dreams come crashing down as our parents told us, “But what will the people say?” How many times have we had to sheepishly turn down an invitation to a party, not even bothering to ask our parents because we knew we would never be allowed to attend?
Of course, this is a cultural rather than religious issue, but culture and religion are intertwined for many Pakistanis.
Muslims are multi-faceted beings. Some are stricter, some are more liberal. Not all of us will think and act the same. We are a diverse people and each have our own understanding of our faith, which is, unfortunately, a difficult concept for many to grasp.
It’s impossible for one television show to accurately represent every single Muslim in the world. Ms Marvel is the story of Kamala Khan, one 16-year-old Muslim girl. Her character cannot embody each and every Muslim there is.
We have to appreciate how far we’ve come. A Muslim character is being portrayed by a Muslim actress, authentically. The show has been directed and written by Muslims. We’re no longer fighting to see a Muslim face on television. We’re no longer cringing at the Muslim characters desperate to be saved by Western civilisation, or the hijabi females eagerly anticipating the day that they are ‘liberated’ by their Western prince.
Maybe not all Muslims can relate to Ms Marvel. Maybe the writers could have broken the mould by incorporating bolder characters and storylines. Maybe there is more we can do for the Muslim community in the mainstream media. But hey. It’s a start.