Part 1: Female, Muslim, and mutant: Muslim women in comic books

In the male-dominated world of comic books where female characters are depicted with large breasts and skimpy skin-tight clothing, it’s interesting to examine whether or not Dust, a Muslim female member of Marvel Comic’s X-Men since 2002, and other Muslim super-heroines, escape the sexual objectification and sexism that women often suffer 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.

Sound familiar?

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?”

“Toorab! Toorab!”

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?

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.

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