Comics scholar Safiyya Hosein explores how superheroes like Dust and Ms. Marvel can both perpetuate and subvert stereotypes.
When Safiyya Hosein, an avid reader and comics writer, started to get frustrated with how Muslim characters are represented in fictional stories, she decided to help change the narrative.
Hosein, who is currently completing a study for her PhD in Communication and Culture from York and Ryerson University, is especially interested in the perceptions of female Muslim superheroes in the communities they represent, and how fictional representations affect real consumers.
As a professional comics writer—with a piece in the latest Toronto Comics Anthology about two Muslim women that seek the help of a genie to save a local community centre—Hosein plans to publish a page of her official dissertation in comic form.
Hosein’s study, which is funded by Partnership for Change: The RBC Immigrant, Diversity and Inclusion Project at Ryerson, is mainly centered around depictions of two Marvel Comics heroes: Dust from the X-Men series, who wears a niqab and can turn into living sand, and Ms. Marvel, a Muslim Pakistani-American shapeshifter. She recruited 10 participants between the ages of 18 to 28, mostly around Ryerson’s Toronto campus, through flyers and talks in classes. She showed them a presentation about the two heroes, and interviewed them about their perceptions.
Hosein said that most of her participants really connected with Ms. Marvel, who is presented as a typical down-to-Earth teenager from New Jersey and addresses themes of identity and religion.
“It gives them someone who's a more positive archetype to relate to,” she said. “For female Muslims, when they have a role model, or somebody that they can relate to, that's positive for them, because normally the perceptions and depictions of Muslims in mainstream media are negative.”
Dust, on the other hand, represents a more tokenized Muslim identity that isn’t well represented, Hosein said—most of her participants didn’t find her relatable either. She thinks her depiction is orientalist, which shows in the fact that her powers are directly related to sand and deserts.
She chose to focus on Muslim women because they’re depicted in a lot of stories as needing to be saved from oppression. In Dust’s comic debut, she is saved from the Taliban by Wolverine while unconscious. “There was always a fascination with Muslim women in popular culture as oppressed,” Hosein told me.
Hosein thinks that when creators aren’t familiar with the community they’re writing about, it’s more likely that that representation will be inaccurate or stereotypical: “There's never been a Muslim that's been [Dust’s] creator, and it shows,” Hosein said.
Ms. Marvel, on the other hand, is co-created and written by Muslim women, which she said has caused the character to be written in a much more sensitive and realistic way. Still, Hosein points out that though Ms. Marvel’s stories address stereotyping of people of colour in general, they haven’t directly addressed the everyday Islamophobia that American Muslims face. “Ms. Marvel is an American superhero at the end of the day, so why don't we see her address this reality that so many Muslims live with and live in fear of?” she said
Hosein said that the one thing that stuck out to her and her two research assistants is how every person they spoke to dealt with their Muslim identity in different, personal ways. “Islam is very much not a monolithic faith,” she said. So though Ms. Marvel might be relatable to some, having just one well-written Muslim superhero isn’t enough.
If she had the chance, Hosein would want to further study the representation of Muslim men, who are often depicted as violent and uncivilised—though there are some exceptions, like the Green Lantern Simon Baz. Even in these stories of female Muslims being freed from oppression, the underlying message is that they’re freeing themselves from oppressive men: “When you think about that, what does that say about Muslim men?” she said.
“Identity is such a personal thing,” Hosein said. “You can belong to the same culture and religion, but you would have different ways of seeing it.”
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