Female, Muslim, and Mutant: A Critique of Muslim Women in Comic Books – Part 2 of 2

By Guest Contributor Jehanzeb Dar, originally published at Broken Mystic

While I believe there is very little known about the images and roles of women in comic books, the subject of how Muslim female characters are portrayed is even smaller. In part 1 of this essay, I looked at how the character of “Dust” was depicted in a popular American comic book (X-Men). In part 2, as promised, I will examine how numerous Muslim female characters are depicted in comic books written by Muslim writers. I will begin by discussing two female characters in Naif Al-Mutawa’s fascinating comic book, “The 99,” and then critique two more female characters appearing in the world of AK Comics, founded by Dr. Ayman Kandeel. Al-Mutawa’s company, Teshkeel Comics, and Dr. Kandeel’s AK Comics couldn’t be any more different in their presentation of female characters – the former shows us arguably the best depictions of Muslim female characters to have ever appeared in comic books, while the latter gives us an unimaginative redux of unrealistically curvaceous and buxom super-heroines who look like clones of Wonder Woman and Catwoman. By bringing these characters into the spotlight, we can learn how incredibly significant it is to battle sexism and racism in comic books as well as how we can create a much-needed dialogue and understanding between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world.

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, 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. The story begins in Baghdad in the mid-13th century when the Mongol invasion threatens the great city and most importantly, the Dar al-Hikma, or “The House of Wisdom.” As many history buffs know, the library of Baghdad doesn’t survive –the Mongols destroy it and burn every book – but Al-Mutawa explores the human imagination and shows us an untold story of librarians and scholars who preserve the library’s knowledge within 99 mystical gems known as Noor Stones (“Noor” being the Arabic word for “Light”). The Noor stones were taken to Andalusia and preserved in a fortress, but one man’s thirst for power caused the fortress to erupt and scatter the stones all around the world. We are brought to the present day in Paris, where a scholar named Dr. Ramzi Razem quests for the lost Noor stones with his organization “The 99 Steps Foundation.” There are many naysayers at Dr. Ramzi’s presentations and call it mere myth until one day, something extraordinary happens…

Those who are able to activate the Noor Stones are called gem-bearers. We learn later on that the Noor Stones choose their bearers therefore they are useless if possessed by anyone other than the ones destined to bear them. The first female character we are introduced to 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 truth 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 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 shines light and reveals a ventilation shaft for her to climb into. She crawls to the end of the shaft but comes to a dead end because 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 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 at “The 99 Steps Foundation,” she learns from him 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 quickly becoming one of my favorite female characters in comic books. I was saddened that there have only been 7 issues released in the United States so far (there are 12 issues in the Middle-East) because, in my opinion, Noora is the type of character we need to see more of in comic books. When we are first introduced to her, she is wearing a red t-shirt and blue jeans, and although she is drawn with curves, it’s very subtle and not drawn out of proportion. From Noora’s depiction, it is made very 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 exposing their larges breasts or shameless close-ups. There was not a single panel in the comics where I found she was being objectified or exploited; she struck me as a real character, someone with her own mind, thoughts, and beliefs. One of the most important lessons I learned from screenwriting class was to make characters accomplish things on their own, i.e. let them work through their problems because that allows them to learn and discover something new about themselves. This doesn’t mean that no one is allowed to assist them; it just simply means that no one else should do all the work for them. Noora’s premiere issue reveals to us that she is a three-dimensional and strong-willed character because she broke out of the prison by herself. She started to dig her tunnel, but before she could complete it, the kidnappers discovered it and sent her to another dark room. Even as she is beaten, bruised, and exhausted from days of digging, she refused to give up, and she found the Noor Stone not simply because it chose her, but because of the will-power that exists within her. Noora is not rescued by anyone and taken to the headquarters of “The 99,” she fights her way free against all odds – this shows us that she has agency; she has control over her kidnappers and refuses 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 scenario I described above runs parallel with Islam’s Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Although Muhammad wasn’t kidnapped, he was meditating in a 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 is sees 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 I believe this is a very positive and timely achievement. 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!).

Noora has fascinating powers such as spreading waves of light from within herself, deflecting darkness that exists inside of her enemies, and she can detect who is trustworthy since she can see what is within you! She can also create optical illusions to make her and fellow 99 members invisible. There is one scene in the comic book where the characters are being chased, and in order to lose the crowd, Noora makes an illuminated “copy” of herself running down another side of the street, while in actuality, she is really hiding in an alley. The “copy” that the people are chasing is really just a trick of light.

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. In her super-heroine suit, it may be argued that she is drawn stereotypically with the leather clothing, but there is nothing extremely provocative about it. What’s important is that she is given background for her character – we see her living with her uncle, suggesting that she has lost her parents (though nothing has been mentioned about it thus far) and we see her trying to understand who she is with these new-founded powers of hers. 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 a prominent role in helping the group on their missions. When we first see her, she wears hijaab while showing some of her hair, as women in Iran typically wear it, but that is changed in the next 6 issues. It seems that the writers decided to make her wear the full hijaab, i.e. to cover her hair completely. Buran offers sarcasm and humor to balance out Dr. Ramzi’s often serious tone, and it’s also 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 our community is. But the complaint I would have about Buran 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? In the upcoming issues, I’m very confident that there will be (and there should be) a Muslim character that wears hijaab and is one of the 99. According to interviews, a new character will be introduced named Batina, the Hidden, and she will be wearing a burqa. Hmm, burqa, hidden… hey, it works!

Pictured above is “Jalila: Protector of The City of All Faiths” who appears in AK Comics, founded by Dr. Ayman Kandeel. Not to sound too negative in my introduction of Jalila and the other female super-heroine, “Aya: Princess of Darkness,” but the images and roles of women in Kandeel’s comics are not an improvement from what we typically see in mainstream American comic books. Unlike “The 99,” the writers and artists for AK Comics seem to be more concerned with drawing voluptuous women rather than focusing on character development and original storylines. In fact, the image you see posted above is rare to find since censors in Egypt have now colored Jalila’s exposed stomach with a lighter shade of blue. You can still see the details on her stomach, but I guess the added colors from the censors make her look like she’s wearing an undershirt, therefore less “exposed.” Yeah, like that changes the way she’s being depicted.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Jalila and Aya are replicas of western comic book super-heroines; the obvious difference being they fight crime in the Middle-East. Although there are positive intentions evident in the comics, like how Jalila’s first issue begins with a World Peace Day event in Jerusalem where Christians, Jews, and Muslims celebrate a peaceful coexistence after a fictional “55 Years War,” hardly anything is developed about her character. All we learn about Jalila is that she gets her super-powers from her radiation suit, which was designed by her parents in order to survive the Dimondona blast at the end of the“55 Years War” (Hmm, Dimondona sounds a lot like Dimona, the site of Israel’s nuclear weapons facility).

The peace in the holy land is disrupted by two terrorist organizations: The United Liberation Front (PLO anyone?) and the Army of Zios (I’m going to take a wild guess that this refers to Zionism). It looks like things will get interesting when Jalila learns that her brother is secretly part of the United Liberation Front, but we don’t learn anything about how they bonded as siblings. What is her personal or social life like? What was her relationship like with her parents? 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 she soars over Jerusalem, she looks like the Arab version of Wonder Woman – thin waist, large breasts, and you know the rest. Like Wonder Woman, Jalila looks empowered with her cockiness and crime-fighting, but with her skin-tight costume and provocative poses, we must ask: is she really empowered? There are a lot of references to her gender whenever she fights thugs, who are all men of course, and it seems very clear that the writers and artists want to promote feminism and equality of sexes in the Middle-East.

This is, without a doubt, a very important message, but these messages are contradicted by the way she is scantily depicted as a sex object. 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 elbows the man and then knees him in the chest: “This is my idea of a fun time,” she says. On this page, her entire back is faced to us twice, including one full body shot of her slightly bent over. She attacks the remaining thugs saying, “that’s right, boys, I can melt guns as fast as I can melt hearts!” Along with how she is objectified visually, Jalila’s cockiness and innuendos contribute to the “male gaze,” which basically means she is being depicted the way her heterosexual male writers and readers would like to see her. This may include emphasis on her curves, close-ups of certain body parts, sexual innuendos in dialogue or visualization, and even making her do things according to patriarchy and/or typical heterosexual male fantasies. When she is arching her back, stretching out, leaning over, or doing split kicks just to show off her impossibly perfect physique, one must question the sexualization of her character.

Aya, the Princess of Darkness (pictured right), 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 severely lacks when you consider how similar she is to Batman: she doesn’t have any superpowers, she relies on martial arts, her father is murdered, and she vows to make sure no one else experiences the tragedy she went through. To Batman fans, this sounds somewhat recycled. The difference of course is that Aya’s mother is not only alive, but imprisoned because she’s accused of killing Aya’s father!

So what does Aya do? She becomes a law school student who attends her classes always wearing a midriff t-shirt and tight jeans that look like they will slip down her waist. But don’t worry, the censors in Egypt took care of that and colored over her exposed mid-section. Now it just looks like she’s wearing a tight and transparent undershirt! Problem solved.

On the website for AK Comics, it is stated that Aya’s character flaw is that she’s too serious. But this is quite contrary to what’s presented in the comic books – she’s just as cocky and sarcastic as Jalila is. 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 treated in Muslim countries. Like I mentioned above, there are perverted men who want to do more to Jalila than kidnap her, and there are other male characters that are incredibly abusive, particularly her two brothers. One, as I pointed out earlier, is part of a terrorist organization and all he does is shout at Jalila and slam the door in her face, while the other one is a drug addict who gets so angry that he slaps her across the face because she flushes his drugs down the toilet. In fact, he slaps her so hard that blood shoots out of her mouth. Rather than screaming at him, Jalila watches her brother weep in shame and apologize to her. Jalila hugs him and tells him “it’s ok” and that she “understands” how difficult it is for him. Aya is fighting for her mother’s freedom and trying to prove her innocence. One cannot help but see the parallels this has with how Muslim women are accused of certain crimes that they did not commit in Muslim countries (for example, raped women in certain Muslim countries often get accused of adultery if four witnesses are not provided). It would be wrong to deny that these things have happened in the Muslim world, unfortunately, but when the writers emphasize so much on women fighting against the patriarchy in the Muslim world, doesn’t that reaffirm the stereotypes that many non-Muslims in the west have about Islam?

There is a scene where one of Aya’s friends gets very sexual with her boyfriend, who turns out to be the villain, and Aya says to herself, “she is always getting involved with the wrong men!” Again the overemphasis on gender issues seems to justify certain stereotypes about the Muslim world.

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 incredibly suggestive and provocative images of them crawling after being punched by foes or posing like they’re on a supermodel catwalk or even displaying their tight see-through shirts where their nipples are visible in some panels – what purpose do these messages serve and how do they improve the way women are perceived and treated in the Muslim world? Sure, they don’t look oppressed, but it certainly looks like male sexuality is being privileged over female sexuality. But it’s not just Jalila and Aya that are drawn in this manner: every female character, no matter how minor of a role they play, are drawn as buxom and skimpy dressed “babes.” I am reminded of how comic books, in the west, 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 distributes 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 because of their depictions and poor character development.

As a quick side note, there are those who say men are objectified in comic books too, but I argue that the objectification of men is not as severe as the objectification of women. Muscular male superheroes may portray the “ideal body image” for males and females, but it’s more centralized on showing their strength and powers, whereas with women, the thin-figure, enlarged body parts, and the swimsuit poses have more to do with sex than with demonstrating their strength or powers. Female characters are drawn more sexually and in more sexually suggestive ways than male characters will ever be.

Unlike “The 99,” Jalila and Aya lack symbolism, depth, originality, and most of all, they lack their own culture and individuality! The issues of terrorism and women’s rights in the Muslim world are very important and they must be discussed through this kind of medium, but it doesn’t mean that the writers and artists should sell-out to the images promoted in mainstream American comic books. Jalila and Aya just have Arabic names, and to strip them of their culture and religious background reveals implications that the Muslim world should conform to typical western standards. Improving one’s society and conformity are two separate things; being influenced and inspired by American comic books is not the same as copying and imitating American comic books. Although we can find some similarities between “The 99” and the “X-Men,” the comic book is a huge step in the right direction for Islamic literature. “The 99” is receiving positive reviews from popular comic book websites such as “The Comic Book Gazette” and is distributing their next set of comics to the U.S. next fall. AK Comics on the other hand is losing their popularity and struggling to promote their characters. “The 99” borrows elements from Islamic culture, creates an original story, and introduces us to strong-willed and positive female characters. Stereotypes about Muslim women are broken even without overemphasizing on the femininity of the characters and the roles they play, and instead the writers focus on making the characters real – people we can relate to. Unlike Jalila and Aya, Noora and Hadya are not bragging about their femininity while beating up men, instead we see that they are two different characters with their own personalities.

“The 99” is a breath of fresh air in the comic book world and the creative team should be applauded for its positive representation of Muslim women. I’m hoping that it will reach wider audiences and help promote positive depictions of female characters. There is room for improvement in “The 99” though. The writers prefer not to discuss the religion of the characters because they believe it will disrupt the universal message of the comic book, but I personally believe it won’t create a barrier at all. If anything, it will help break more stereotypes and raise awareness for more important issues, like what is it like to be a Muslim in a post 9/11 world, or what is it like being a superhero and coping with your religious identity? Not all of the 99 members are Muslims, but this creates a wonderful opportunity for the characters to explore themselves and learn new things from each other. As I mentioned above, it is significant to discuss issues that confront the Muslim world today, and through a medium such as comic books, we can truly convey important messages that will inspire a large body of people.