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How a Pakistani-American Girl Superhero is Saving Her World--And Ours.

Gender Equality Overall, SeattleMartha BurwellComment

Kamala Khan is a teenage Pakistani-American living in Jersey City, and she’s out to save the world. 

Until recently, Kamala Khan lived a perfectly normal life.  But everything changed when she suddenly acquired super powers, and weird things started happening in her neighborhood.  Now she has to battle villains, investigate the mysterious force that's poised to take over the earth, and figure out how to use her new powers.  All on top of dealing with the normal teenage stuff like overprotective parents, new feelings, and complex friendships.  Though her friends know her as Kamala, when she puts on her homemade superhero outfit (a modified shalwar kameez) you may call her Ms. Marvel.

While Ms. Marvel is saving her world from villians, she’s also saving our real-life world a little at a time by busting down stereotypes and showing us that a hero can be a girl, a hero can be muslim, a hero can be real and imperfect and a little bit awkward. 

When the first Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel was released in October 2014, it was an instant best seller.  Since then, more episodes have been released, each of which has built on the initial popularity.

Part of this popularity can be attributed to the fact that Kamala takes on real topics that lots of people can relate to.  Topics like what consent and victim-blaming mean, what it’s like being a second-generation immigrant, and how tough it is to resist bacon (‘delicious, delicious infidel meat’).  

We see the exploration of unfamiliar gender roles, where men are allowed to have heart-to-heart conversations with each other, and Kamala is more often the one saving the guy, rather than the other way around.  We learn about Pakistani culture through Kamala’s interactions with her family and friends.  We even learn a little bit of a new language via Kamala's conversations and when Captain Marvel (aka Carol Danvers, the original blonde-haired, blue-eyed, big chested Ms. Marvel) appears in a dream-like state to Kamala and recites a poem by a 13th century Sufi poet—in Urdu.   But most of all, we see a teenage girl figuring out that despite all the pressure to try to be someone else, it’s best to just be herself— imperfections included.   

To find out more about how Ms. Marvel has been received, I went to Comics Dungeon, a Seattle comic store that has been a staple for comic lovers since 1992.  I had a chance to ask a few questions to Nicole Lamb, a long-time employee, comic insider, and author of the article series "Hardcore Lady Types," that explores female comic heroes. 

Me: What is your overall opinion of the new Ms. Marvel series with Kamala Khan? 

Nicole: Before the series came out I thought Marvel was forcing a new character and was skeptical how it would be executed. Since it's release it has shown that it's not only an excellent story and with great art, but exactly what the community of comic lovers has needed. This representation in both Kamala being a Pakistani Muslim American, but also a young woman navigating through high school, relationships and parental expectations, hits just what the mainstream industry had been missing.

How have comic readers responded?

They have responded positively, in a “must have more Kamala” kind of way… So there's an acknowledgement that this is hitting specific demographics, like families, women (of all ages), or any gender who like their superhero stories to be fun and endearing. It's a big demographic, it's just not all of it. Overall, Ms. Marvel stays at the top of our sales, near the likes of Saga.

What is one of the most interesting or important aspects of the new Ms. Marvel? 

The most exciting moment I've had with sharing Ms Marvel was when I went to a school in west Seattle to give a presentation about the history of comics. Towards the end I made mention of some of the recent series being released and said there's a Pakistani Muslim American superhero named Ms. Marvel and heard gasps in the crowd. That shock and awe shows me that Khamala's heritage is an important aspect and a sorely needed voice in our country. My hope is that this sets a precedent.  I'd like our future to be filled with great stories that won't create a shock because there will be so much diversity that whoever reads comics can see their reflection in the characters.

What would Kamala say about the current presidential elections?

I think she'd be frustrated that there is such immaturity on a presidential level and mad that there is a perpetual anti-Muslim rhetoric on one side. Perhaps though, on another side, she'd be hopeful there might be a President of integrity. 

What are your thoughts on how Marvel has handled gender and ethnicity in this new series? 

I think they asked the right people to be involved. Because of that, Kamala was able to have a strong voice and strength of character that is consistent throughout. I don't think you have to pair like with like though. For instance, having Brian Michael Bendis write Miles Morales Spider-man has worked even though he is white. If you get people who care about what they're doing and who they are writing (or drawing), you'll get good stories. 

What do you think the next big hit will be?

Nicole Lamb of Comics Dungeon  (Photo courtesy of Nicole Lamb)

Nicole Lamb of Comics Dungeon (Photo courtesy of Nicole Lamb)

My thoughts are to mainstream companies: you have to diversify your line, have characters of different genders, sexuality, religions, have different types of stories, dark and gritty, fun and light, have all-age tales. Try different things and see what sticks. I see the market as always changing and the demographics are shifting. Ultimately, if you tell a wide variety of stories you'll have a wider fanbase because one size doesn't fit all in comics. When Marvel put out Khamala Khan Ms. Marvel, they did something no one had done before and it was wildly successful.

That's not to say do a cookie cutter version of this. 

Find voices that are not being heard or written about and tell those stories, such as gay men, transfolk and people of color. I hear time and time again from our community, where are the brown superheros? People want to see themselves in stories, especially those where the characters are being strong and are victorious. 


In closing, I'll mention one of my favorite moments of Ms. Marvel, which takes place in the most recent episode.  The world is about to end, and Kamala's best friend Bruno finally tells her that he has feelings for her. Her response?  She gently says to him: "Being Ms. Marvel--it's filled up my heart and my life in a way that nothing else I've done ever has...I'm not ready to be anything else, to anyone else.  I need to give this everything I've got."  In essence, she's choosing personal development and growth over the attention of a boy.  

This seems like a small thing, but it's incredibly important.  Far too often, we see teenage girl characters in pop culture defining themselves mainly in relation to a boy or man.  It was refreshing to see a young female lead defining her worth through her own strength and individuality.  And the most important part: she defined it for herself.

Next, I hope she gets to battle some more of our real world villians—racism, sexism, perhaps Donald Trump?  Find out in the next volume, to be released on June 14th.  


This interview has been lightly edited. 

For more posts on gender and diversity, see the "It's All Connected" intersectionality series.  

Why I Don't Carry Pepper Spray

Gender Equality OverallMartha BurwellComment

I remember in 6th grade fighting the Red Man. 

No, it wasn’t some racist activity where we played ‘Cowboys and Indians.’  The Red Man was literally a man dressed in a puffy red foam outfit that we, sixth grade girls, had to "escape" from.  The scenario was that he was grabbing us to kidnap/kill/assault/rape us.  And we had just learned all our defense moves, which we were now supposed to practice on this poor guy, whose job it was to spend all day pretending to attack 11-year-old girls. 

Eye poke. Throat punch.  Palm to the nose, upwards, to shove the bone into the brain. Knee to the scrotum.  If he has you in a neck lock, wiggle so your throat is in his elbow and you can breathe.  Then use your heel to kick in his knee, or slide it down his shin and try to stomp his toes till they break.  Luckily for him, the Red Man was wrapped in foam and we couldn’t actually do him any harm.

But this was terrifying to 11-year-old me.  Which is why I remember it so well to this day. 

And the boys?  I don’t know how they got to spend that afternoon, but it certainly wasn’t being taught how not to kidnap/kill/assault/rape girls (or even how to physically defend themselves, like the girls). They never had a class on what consent means.  Or what healthy relationships look like.  Or what to do if you see someone being harassed.  They definitely weren’t taught how to recognize if they themselves, or their friends, are harassing or being violent. And what they learned on their own, through pop culture, porn, friends, and family, clearly left a lot of them dangerously confused (or even feeling entitled), based on our appalling rates of violence against women.

I don’t necessarily think it was wrong for Monroe Middle School to teach girls self-defense. 

But in neglecting to educate the boys, they put the responsibility of avoiding violence on girls and women.  Rather than putting the responsibility of not being violent on boys and men. This planted the seed of fear in us girls that only grew as we aged and began to see the horrifying statistics of violence come true in our own groups of friends.

And as practically all women (at least in the US) will tell you, that fear is still a daily part of life, and we have good reason for it.

They’ll tell you that they put their keys between their fingers if they’re walking alone.  They’ll tell you about how excited they are for the new app that tells your friends when you get home safely.

They’ll tell you that every dark walk down an unfamiliar street means you automatically scan for a safe escape.  Where can I run?  Is my phone accessible? What weapons do I have?  Who would help me? 

An example of the "Stop Telling Women To Smile" series:   Street Sign 2   by  Jeffrey Zeldman  is  licensed under   CC BY 2.0.

An example of the "Stop Telling Women To Smile" series: Street Sign 2 by Jeffrey Zeldman is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

I myself, like most other women, have often changed my route while walking home to avoid harassment.  But harassment is so common that it’s sometimes not even avoidable.  In fact, if I want to go out at night on Capitol Hill (where I live in Seattle) I have to factor in whether I have the energy to deal with street harassment that night, because it happens almost Every. Single. Time.

Carrying fear of violence is so ingrained in women's minds that it is almost unconscious.  And it’s an enormous drain on ourselves, as countless women have told us, such as "Stop Telling Women to Smile" artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, and as blogger Gretchen Kelly wrote recently

So over the past few years, I began to think, why is it my job to avoid harassment?  Why is it my job to change my route?  Why is my job to spend money on self-defense items?

This is why I don’t carry pepper spray. 

Because for me, carrying pepper spray is like letting those who would harm me win before they ever lay a finger on me.  It would be a physical reminder dangling from my keychain that I should always be afraid, always be ready. 

Not carrying pepper spray is my way of saying “you can’t win. I can choose whether to be afraid, and how much to be afraid.  And I’m choosing not to be *as* afraid every day.”  

It doesn’t mean I’ve somehow solved the problem of street harassment.  It means that I’m becoming more conscious of how we, women, have been conditioned to be afraid, and it means I’m not letting that fear drag me around as much as I’ve been trained to.

Of course, every person deals with this issue differently, and I’m absolutely not judging those people that do carry pepper spray or other defense mechanisms.  Everyone handles harassment differently and there is nothing wrong with carrying pepper spray or getting trained in self-defense if that’s what works for you!

But for me, when I need some inspiration, I like to think of this passage from Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild. Near the end of her iconic solo hike along the 2,650 mile-long Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), she’s joking with her 3 male friends about how she got the nick-name “Queen of the PCT.”

Best Book of 2014   by  Heather  is  licensed under   CC BY 2.0.

Best Book of 2014 by Heather is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

(Queen of the PCT is your nickname) “ ‘Because people always want to give you things and do things for you,’ added Rick. ‘They never give us anything.  They don’t do a damn thing for us, in fact.’

I lowered my sleeping bag and looked at them, and we all laughed.  All the time that I’d been fielding questions about whether I was afraid to be a woman alone—the assumption that a woman alone would be preyed upon—I’d been the recipient of one kindness after another.  Aside from the creepy experience with the sandy-haired buy who’d jammed my water purifier and the couple who’d booted me from the campground in California, I had nothing but generosity to report.  The world and it’s people had opened their arms to me at every turn.”

I want to help create a world that has open arms, a world that is safe for all.  And so instead of carrying pepper spray, I’m asking us to educate boys and men, and even more, I’m asking boys and men to educate themselves. 

Will you join me?


Learn more:  For teaching boys and men about consent, see “The Good Men Project,” which has quite a few teaching guides for all ages, including this one.

Take Action: If you’re a parent or involved with schools, call your school and ask them if they include quality training for all children about consent and avoiding violence.  If they do not, urge them to include this critical topic in their health classes or special curriculum.  If they continue to only have self-defense training only for girls, explain to them the danger of leaving boys out of the conversation.  

Take Action: If you identify as male, I encourage you to explore Seattle’s own Wholehearted Masculine, which provides a dialogue about masculinity and how we can widen the definition.  Dan Mahle, the founder, offers occasional workshops in Seattle on masculinity. 

I Love You Man: 5 Tips for Stepping Into More Mature Masculinity

Gender Equality OverallMartha BurwellComment

*Guest post by Dan Mahle, orginially published on wholeheartedmasculine.org*

I grew up never telling anyone that I loved them. Not even my parents. The word “love” used to feel too feminine, too emotional, too vulnerable.

As a young man impacted by old masculine norms, there was no room for love in my vocabulary. Even with my best friend, the closest I got to expressing my love and appreciation for having him in my life was to say “I love you, man.

Sure, I told him I loved him. But why did I feel compelled to include “man” at the end? It always felt distant and passive. Why couldn’t I just tell him that I loved him – straight up? What was I afraid of?