I really struggled as a teenager with self-hate and distancing myself from my identities. I shook off microaggressions and commentary on how “weird” I was for being perceived as “so normal” but not dating or drinking. I moved from Florida to Canada because of systemic poverty and overt racism in post-9/11 America in Florida.  I moved to Canada and to many people’s disbelief, things did not get better as promised – they got different.

I skipped a grade and went right to high school. Academically I transitioned well, socially I did not. I was embraced by a group of white, blonde, societally beautiful girls. My pictures from freshman year show me next to four blondes with blue or green eyes; I stuck out like a weed amongst roses.

[bctt tweet=”I really struggled as a teenager with self-hate and distancing myself from my identities.” username=”wearethetempest”]

We were best friends; I even went to their family holiday events in that year of being inseparable, as the spectacle non-white, non-Christian friend. I laughed along at their jokes about people like me because I “was different.” Young and naïve, I prided myself on not being like the other Muslims and brown girls these white Canadian teenagers had encountered. That is, until I learned that they started having secret hangouts where they would drink without me and order pepperoni pizza. When I found out, they adamantly justified with “Oh, we know you have the weird rules and you aren’t even allowed out late.”  When I was fully allowed to stay out late and my “weird rules” were tenets of my religion, I actively choose to follow, it was, “We love you, but you know, you don’t drink.” I swallowed my inability to express why these words still felt like there were subtext isms there.

I chose to modify them as my cool, white, beautiful, blonde friends accepting and respecting me.

It was not until drinking and dating became central parts of their scripts that their disdain for accepting a Muslim non-white friend became apparent.

They loved me in parts.

They loved that I was from Florida. As Canadians, they sensationalized my upbringing as one that must be reminiscent of MTV cribs or The O.C.  I did grow up in Orange County Florida, but far from what they envisioned. They loved my vernacular, which was acquired from growing up cash poor in Florida’s subsidized housing system. I live action role-played the Muslim Pakistani Arab America they envisioned until I became too weird.

[bctt tweet=”They loved me in parts. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

I began to question my place as diaspora and, as a Muslim who suppressed my beliefs publicly, I wondered if I was ever going to fit into the myth of Canadian Multiculturalism. I had a war raging inside me constantly – anytime I thought I would fit in, a microaggression would occur and I would remember again my existence in limbo. Having parents leave lands exploited by imperialism and occupation, having parents who broke their backs, callused their hands, took abuse from systemic structures, and had their accents mocked, I wanted to belong here but did not. At the same time my embodiment belonged nowhere else.

I attempted to find non-physical spaces and scoured books for stories like mine, a Muslim girl in diaspora filled with guilt and longing.

Fast forward to now, at 23 years old, after over a decade of trying to find myself through stories, I finally find myself in the last place I expected – a comic. As an avid avoider of comics, I held off reading the new Ms. Marvel starring Kamala Khan as the lead. I was worried about seeing lives like mine poorly written and reliving a sea infested with trauma, stereotyping and microaggressions.

1I was pleasantly surprised as I flipped through the pages and witnessed scenes that resonated with previous experiences I have had and continue to experience, that spoke to my existence as a Muslim American woman in diaspora.

Within the first few pages, I found my struggles leaping off the page, the scenes so palpable. Kamala calls her friend Nakia by a shortened westernized nickname, Kiki. Nakia asserts that she does not want to be called by that nickname. As a child, I realized early how easy it is for people to bastardize the beautiful name my mother gave me. I also realized how easy it is for people to stereotype individual identities based on names.  It also took me a long time to be proud of my name and all of meaning and history it holds. I still struggle with correcting people and ensuring they honor every syllable in my name, the name my mother blessed me with.

[bctt tweet=”I also realized how easy it is for people to stereotype individual identities based on names. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

Within this introductory section we also witness Nakia assumed as a submissive brown daughter, who must have oppressive Muslim men in her life that must be violent. Living in the west and navigating feminism, I have often also faced such loaded assumptions. Media perceptions have stigmatized Muslim men as inherently more violent, specifically when also racialized. We witness the popular white character Zoe nonchalantly makes these assumptions but is read by Kamala as having good intentions.

When Nakia explains the hijab is her choice and no one has pressured her into wearing it, the conversation is reminiscent of the ignorance many Muslim women face about their choices. Many narratives have illustrated that in a post 9/11 world, many Muslim families fear facing bigotry and prefer the young women in their lives not to wear the hijab, as well as literature about the revival of the hijab in younger generations of Muslim American women.

[bctt tweet=”The Islam I love and know, the Islam I thrive in is one rooted in gender equity.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Kamala, like many young Muslim girls including myself with my old friends, continues to believe Zoe is nice when really her patronizing comments are laced with microaggressions and violent presumptions. Beautiful scenes of identity conflict and growing up as a strong woman are found throughout Ms. Marvel, but I want to leave with a scene that resonated with me on a community level. A scene that reminded me why I love being a Muslim woman to my core now and why I never need to dilute my Muslim identity in feminist spaces.

The Islam I love and know, the Islam I thrive in is one rooted in gender equity. I find solace in knowing my embodiment can be written in ways that are dignified, in ways where readers from any background can gain something. For me as a young Muslim woman in North America, I gain knowing that I am not alone and my story is finally being told. For others, I hope they gain knowledge about my faith and identity, unpack any prejudices and appreciate that Muslim women are not the oppressed tropes painted by mainstream media. Who knew five years ago that we would ever see a Muslim woman portrayed by Marvel in such a way?  A comic that is doing so well with the general public that is in a rare sixth reprint.

Muslim American women can finally flourish a bit within these pages. We can shine in our brilliance, strength and resilience in a society that was not necessarily made for us.

  • Nashwa Khan

    Nashwa Khan identifies as South Asian/African Diaspora living and learning in Hamilton, Ontario. She calls Florida home. Over her undergraduate career in Hamilton, she served on a number of councils including the City’s Status of Women Committee, as Space Allocation Chair of McMaster’s Women and Gender Equity Network, and currently chairs the city’s Youth Advisory Council. Her work has been published in a variety of places including ThoughtCatalog, Guerilla Feminism, and the HuffingtonPostBlog. She is an avid storyteller and lover of narrative medicine.