Growing up as a brown Muslim girl, I knew not to use religious terms in public. Their translations were completely innocent – Arabic words, like bismillah, used in Islam to express joy or in remembrance of our faith – but unless I wanted to paint a target on my back, it was in my best interest to be cautious. Not too loud, not in crowds and, most importantly, never in airports.
And so as I watched Kamala Khan and her family’s lives play out on screen, unapologetically Muslim and unabashedly Pakistani, I couldn’t keep the smile off my face.
Kamala is a typical teenager with a classic superhero origin story. She’s obsessed with superheroes, awkward in school and occasionally at odds with her loving but exasperating family. She sneaks out to a fan event called AvengerCon, where she discovers she has cosmic superpowers.
Kamala is also a typical brown, Muslim teenager. Her home is decorated with Islamic calligraphy and prayer rugs, and when she takes her driving test, she starts by saying: "Bismillah." In the first episode, we see Kamala juggle errands as she helps out with her brother’s wedding. To the sound of a classic Urdu pop song, Kamala samples pastel-coloured sweets, examines stacks of jingling bangles and tries on a brilliant orange shalwar kameez.
In the series, Kamala’s superpowers are activated by a piece of traditional jewellery. The moment she puts on an intricate metal bangle, passed on from her nani in Pakistan, she unlocks her true potential. Incandescent purple energy erupts from her hands, saving the life of a fellow teenager.
Kamala finds her heroism in her connection to her culture and her background. Rather than shame and secrecy, it imbues her with a strength she never knew she had.
Before Ms. Marvel, I made a mental note whenever I saw a glimpse of completely positive representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s hard to believe but I remember almost every single one: a hijabi in the back of a science class in Spider-Man; a girl in shalwar kameez at Peter Parker’s homecoming event; a fashionable Muslim classmate who got to say an entire sentence on a field trip; a concerned kindergarten teacher in Hawkeye; a happy wedding attendee in Doctor Strange.
They filled me with incredulous joy, suffused by the warm glow of our split-second moments in the sun. I eagerly pointed them out and replayed them an embarrassing number of times.
Outside of those moments, I might as well have been nonexistent.
Ms. Marvel doesn’t save positive representation for the background of a scene or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Easter egg. Kamala Khan’s Muslim and Pakistani identities are inextricable from and integral to her character, strengthening her arc as a superhero. Her faith and culture are an asset to the show, igniting it with colour and humour, deepening the emotional stakes.
In one scene, Kamala negotiates with her parents to attend AvengerCon at night, without parental supervision. The concept is anathema to her parents, who worry about her safety. Her mother excitedly proposes a solution: Kamala and her dad can attend the event together, in hand-sewn, matching shalwar kameez and neon green face paint to look like 'choti Hulk' and 'bada Hulk' ('big Hulk' and 'little Hulk').
Kamala cringes with embarrassment and her parents’ faces drop. Her dad’s eyes fill with tears at the realisation that his daughter finds his company embarrassing.
It’s equally hilarious and heart-rending, embodying the utter charm of the episode. We see Kamala struggle between her love for her well-intentioned parents and her embarrassment at the ways in which her life seems to differ from those around her. It’s a bittersweet experience shared by so many, including myself.
Like millions of other Muslim kids, I grew up with a constant barrage of negative stereotyping that represented 'visible' Muslims as barbaric, violent and threatening. Negative media portrayals have real-life consequences, heightening the risk of stereotyping, discrimination and violent hate crimes.
It was easy to internalise this messaging and repackage it as shame.
Throughout my teenage life I felt painfully stretched between my faith and my culture, and what the world told me I was 'supposed' to look like. I wore hijab but grappled with awkwardness and embarrassment for wearing longer tops and looser clothing than fashion trends dictated. Even though I loved the spiritual choice I’d made for myself, I hated feeling left out, and I hated the assumptions people made about me based on what I wore.
I struggled with this constantly, avoiding using religious terms in public and feeling ashamed of the way traditional desi clothes stood out on special occasions. In work settings I tried to act perfectly, constantly feeling a pressure to prove myself to colleagues who looked at me with suspicion and judgement.
I loved the Ms. Marvel comic because it was the first place where I truly saw myself. The comics were created and written by Muslim and South Asian writers, who stitched their lived experiences of Islam and desi culture into the fabric of the character’s journey.
But I joked with my friends about the likelihood of a live-action adaptation of the comics. Maybe by the time I have kids, I thought. The world didn’t seem ready – too eager, still, to paint us as villains and monsters.
Now, finally, brown Muslim girls are getting our ray of sunshine. We no longer have to cling to fleeting moments of warmth and light before we’re shoved back into the shadows. Ms. Marvel is here to stay.
It’s a small scene, easy to miss. But when I saw Kamala Khan standing in front of the mirror in a superhero costume, tugging at the back of her outfit, I froze. She wrapped a scarf around her waist and my heart skipped a beat.
In that moment I remembered countless hours spent in front of the mirror, wanting to dress in accordance with my faith and culture but worrying that I might stand out. I remembered tying a sweater around my waist, wearing long sleeves under T-shirts and proudly wrapping my hijab while wishing desperately that people wouldn’t look at me differently for doing so.
I remembered mustering my courage and stepping into spaces where I felt unwelcome. Learning to embrace my faith, no matter what other people would think.
Kamala is undertaking this journey on screen right now, for an audience of the entire world.
These are the tiny details that come with stories written by us, for us. They’re the experiences that shape us and make us who we are. Ms. Marvel embodies those experiences and shows them for what they are: beautiful, not shameful.
I can’t imagine how kids watching the series will feel, seeing their struggles and joys shared by a literal superhero. Scores of people will watch Ms. Marvel and see the lives and culture of brown and Muslim people portrayed as nuanced and complex, joyous and vibrant.
It’s what we’ve always known but have been constantly told otherwise. Our faith and culture make us stronger – they can make us heroes.
Ms. Marvel is available to watch on Disney+