Ms. Marvel Handles Its Muslim Representation With Great Sensitivity

This article discusses elements of "Ms. Marvel" explored in the first two episodes. There are no major plot spoilers, but if you want to go in completely fresh, bookmark this story for next week.

For a few years now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has rapidly expanded its franchise to include characters from marginalized communities and feature them at the forefront of superhero entertainment culture. From T'Challa in "Black Panther," to Shang-Chi in "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," to giving more female superheroes a chance to shine and not just further the narrative of their male counterparts, Marvel Studios has been actively focusing on what mainstream entertainment has been lacking so far.

While a lot of work still needs to be done, we must give credit where credit is due. In the MCU's Disney+ shows that have been championing character-driven stories lately, the latest entrant is a victorious, history-making star. With "Ms. Marvel," we meet Kamala Khan, the MCU's first South-Asian Muslim (!!!) superhero. Writing this sentence alone gives me goosebumps. In 25 years of my life as a South Asian, Muslim woman, not once have I imagined that someone representing my background will have her story unraveled for millions to see. With the current state of affairs and the rising Islamophobia across the globe, watching a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager save people from bad guys almost feels ironic. 

"Ms. Marvel" delivers a tale that is not only riveting but deeply emotional and resonant. It is proof that representation is essential, and when illustrated through the lens of those who have lived these experiences, it's a winner. Kamala's journey so far is a heart-warming tale that gives you a personal glimpse into a lesser-known culture, and breaks the many warped, pre-conceived notions of it. "Ms. Marvel" is unapologetically Muslim; it is written by a Muslim writer for everyone who loves a good superhero story, but especially those who belong to the Muslim community.

Ms. Marvel raises honest questions about growing up Muslim

The first two episodes of "Ms. Marvel" do a terrific job of introducing Kamala Khan. As a Pakistani-American Muslim teen growing up in New Jersey, Kamala is surrounded by a massive Muslim community. She attends lectures at the mosques, celebrates Eid at a cultural carnival (where can I attend one of those?), and lives in a close-knit home that puts family before all else. Kamala doesn't care about the American teen dream; she just wants to go to a superhero convention.

Kamala's mother Muneeba is the perfect portrait of every Brown Muslim mother, and disapproves of her daughter's obsession with superheroes and thinks she lives in a fantasy land. She refuses to let Kamala go to superhero conventions because of the "tight" cosplay suit and all the "haram" (unlawful in Islam) going on there. Now Kamala might be surrounded by a Muslim community, but she's also attending a school that is majorly non-Muslim. Plus, she lives in the United States, a predominantly non-Muslim country. Kamala is constantly battling an internal conflict with what she can and cannot do — and it's only natural for her to feel that way. Being rebellious and going against the word of a parent to attend a superhero convention doesn't make Kamala's character a dull, typical caricature of a Muslim girl being oppressed by her faith. It makes her experiences valid.

The focus is on Kamala's ethnicity

"Ms. Marvel" very honestly raises questions about the experiences of Muslim teens growing up in an environment that is majorly non-Muslim and not understanding of the culture, the faith, or its traditions and rules. Kamala's internal struggle might not resonate with Muslim teens and adults who perhaps grew up in less-conservative homes, but you need to understand that for many of us, her experiences are a reality. And it helps that these criticisms are addressed only with love, a credit to head writer Bisha K. Ali's brilliance.

Kamala's ethnicity is the focus from the beginning. There are conversations about what a haram is, there are beautiful sequences depicting the ​​wudu (a type of ritual purification done before prayers,) the namaz (prayer) being performed in a mosque, and the dialogue isn't dumbed down for a non-South-Asian audience. Her story makes me wonder if we live the same lives. There is a moment when the teen is persuading her mother to let her go to Avengers Con, and when she refuses, Kamala asks if she isn't trustworthy. Her father reassures her, replying, "We trust you but not anyone else." If I had a dollar (or a rupee?) for every time I heard that growing up, I would've been ... well, you get the point.

Ms. Marvel is for everyone, but especially Muslims

As I said before, "Ms. Marvel" is unapologetically Muslim; it's not afraid to ask questions to deliver a truthful story. But it also has A LOT of fun with its South Asian Muslim rep. It's chock-full of relatable details that I can point out and declare "Solidarity, sister!" Kamala wears a Nazar amulet on her neck. People mispronounce her name, and she can't be bothered to correct them. Shoes are stolen at the local masjid (mosque). The women's section of said mosque has walls that are crumbling down. The speakers don't work. Middle-aged aunties indulge in gossip. Teens Snapchat and Instagram. Some listen in silence. The Eid celebration has a halal food truck. There's positive representation of the hijab. Moving stories of the India-Pakistan partition are shared over dinner. And there's much conversation about how Shahrukh Khan rules. These experiences resonate with me ... even though I live an ocean away from where Kamala does.

The representation is accurate ... and fun!

The Muslim representation in "Ms. Marvel" is profoundly accurate, and the show has so much color and life. It packs short jokes and hilarious tidbits in super-sized packages. There's a scene in the second episode of "Ms. Marvel" where Kamala faints during dinner, and her brother Aamir responds with what is arguably the funniest dialogue in the show, "Somebody grab the Zam Zam!" Now, if you are Non-Muslim, you have no idea what he's talking about. Maybe you didn't focus hard enough to remember that five-word sentence and were more anxious to see if Kamala would wake up. But I understood that reference, and it made me laugh for a good ten minutes. To put it simply, Zam Zam is miraculous holy water with immense significance to Muslims, and this statement works like an inside joke only we will understand. It helps make the show feel tremendously personal — like it was made for me, you know? No one attempts a silly explanation to give our non-Muslim viewers context, which would probably diminish its effect.

"Ms. Marvel" is for everyone who loves a good superhero story, but it's custom-made for Muslims to see themselves, their experiences, and their stories on a global platform. I might not have superpowers. But I share Kamala's experiences.

Iman Vellani is spectacularly charismatic

Kamala Khan is a fan-favorite superhero from the pages of Marvel comics. When the trailer for the series was released, many comic-book fans were disappointed that they had changed the origin of her powers and the way she uses them. In the comics, Kamala gains her abilities from Terrigen Mists (​​a mutation-causing substance). She can enlarge and extend her limbs and shape-shift. The MCU reworks her abilities, and she now uses crystalline purple energy to stretch her limbs. Her powers come through a mythical-looking wristband, which has a dark, secret origin story connected to her family. All I'm going to say is: please don't let these changes deter you from enjoying "Ms. Marvel." Iman Vellani is incredible as Kamala Khan, and "Ms. Marvel" is precisely what the MCU can deliver when it dares to have fun.

Iman Vellani is so captivating as the titular superhero that it's hard to believe this is her first acting gig. At fifteen years old, Iman cosplayed as Ms. Marvel for Halloween, and her peers at school thought she was The Flash. Today, at nineteen, she stars as the lead in "Ms. Marvel" and plays a superhero she sees herself in and admired growing up. Her story deserves to be heard. I was floored. I cannot imagine anyone will not be.