VOICES

Marvel’s first Muslim female superhero is the culture shift I've waited a long time to see

By playing a totally relatable Muslim teenager, Iman Vellani is making it possible for Muslim girls, and even Muslim women like me, to be proud.

Fara Abdullah
Opinion contributor

The latest title character of "Ms. Marvel" is built around the superhero alter ego of an absent-minded adolescent superfan, Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American girl who inherits some very unexpected powers. 

But Iman Vellani, the 19-year-old actor who plays Kamala in this charming new series, is an actual superhero. By playing a totally relatable Muslim teenager, navigating the same confusing relationships most kids her age must, Iman is making it possible for lots of Muslim girls, and even older Muslim women like me, to be proud. 

Proud of who we are, where we came from and where we’ve made it to. Because Marvel’s first Muslim hero isn’t just a Muslim but a Muslim girl. And behind "Ms. Marvel" is a fantastic, diverse team, including other very talented Muslim women, whom we should all pay that much more attention to. 

Challenging both Islamophobia and misogyny

It’s one thing to see such a public challenge to ubiquitous Islamophobia. It’s another to see such a public rebuke to rampant misogyny in the very same gesture. 

I’ve waited a long time to see this. 

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Iman Vellani, 19-year-old Canadian star of Disney+ series “Ms. Marvel.”

By all accounts, I’m certainly blessed. I’m the CEO of Bitsmedia, which produces the world’s largest Muslim lifestyle app, Muslim Pro, with nearly 117 million downloads.

But as a Muslim woman in an industry sometimes overflowing with patriarchy and sexism, getting here wasn’t easy. Many doubted me, including, unfortunately, fellow Muslims. If not for the example of the women who raised me, I hardly could have made it this far. 

In fact, when Kamala’s school counselor confronts her in the series’ first episode, encouraging her to start setting goals and laying out a plan for how to achieve them, I smiled at memories my mom loves to share with me. Whenever she suggested things my younger self could do to improve, I’d say yes. A religion class? A music class? Swimming lessons? Voiceovers on the radio?

Yes, yes, yes! I didn’t know what I wanted to do – except everything. How I’d get there was something I figured out later. But even then, I knew already I could get there. 

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I didn’t know many Muslims, let alone Muslim girls, who got to do many of these things. But I did have Muslim women around me who proved time and again that they were strong, resilient and dedicated, giants whose shoulders I still stand on. My aunts, my mom and their best friends poured their heart and soul into food stalls and catering, seizing every opportunity they could to showcase their skill and their dedication. 

My real life Muslim superheroes

That’s something I bet a lot of other Muslim women can identify with – but which very few of us see fairly, let alone lovingly portrayed, in popular culture. 

Growing up, we rarely ever saw Muslim women succeeding. Such gender stereotypes felt suffocatingly pervasive. Almost wherever we looked, Muslim women were routinely reduced to dull, inaccurate caricatures, so often made out to be weak or oppressed.

Which is why Ms. Marvel means so much.

Kamala (right, Iman Vellani) hits the school cafeteria with friends Nakia (Yasmeen Fletcher) and Bruno (Matthew Lintz) in the Disney+ series "Ms. Marvel."

A positive depiction of Muslims, aimed at younger audiences, will help change the hearts and minds of the world’s future leaders. This humanization is exactly what we need in an age of bitter and entrenched polarization. Though, if we’re honest, it’s going to take a lot of sustained effort to break though the barriers that have built up. 

Which is why it’s work I’ve dedicated myself to, too. 

Over the past year, my team and I have been working on Qalbox, a first of its kind platform which will train and inspire the next generation of Muslim content producers. It is my hope that through the platform, which just launched, more ordinary Muslims can share the nuance, diversity and complexity of their lives with the wider world.

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Because there are things that frustrate Muslims about our communities. But there are many more things that inspire and strengthen and nourish us. When I watch young Kamala struggle to balance her desire for independence with her love and loyalty for her hardworking parents, I can’t help but think of my own childhood. 

Growing up, I watched my parents dedicate long hours to running a restaurant, their business nearly upended by SARS and then by COVID-19. They might not have agreed with every decision I made – we disagreed on the best academic path to professional success – but they always were supportive of me.  

And because of the example and fact of their dedication, I can manage more than 70 staff across four countries. 

That’s hardly the story we hear about Muslim women in the world. So, yes, we need Muslim girls and Muslim women showing their whole selves to the world. 

We as Muslims must do more to tell Muslim stories. Rising to the occasion, challenging bias and empowering our next generation might be hard work, but it’s the work this moment calls for. 

And isn’t that what being a hero is all about?  

Fara Abdullah

Fara Abdullah is co-CEO of Bitsmedia, developer and publisher of the Muslim Pro app – the world’s leading Muslim lifestyle app with nearly 117 million downloads worldwide. She is also helping launch Qalbox, a dedicated streaming content for Muslim audiences and producers.