And then today DC posts this little nugget:
Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the heroes of the Justice League will join forces with Teshkeel Comics’ THE 99, the award-winning original superhero group based on Islamic culture and history.
THE 99 team, which debuted in June 2006, was recently identified by Forbes Magazine as one of the “Top 20 Trends Sweeping the Globe.” Not too shabby, huh? In THE 99 — created by Naif Al-Mutawa — are a team of superheroes, including Jabbar the Powerful and Noora the Light who must collect 99 gems encrypted with the wisdom and power of the ancient Dar Al-Hikma library of Baghdad, which are spread across the globe.
The mini-series will be penned by incoming AZRAEL scribe Fabian Nicieza, who’s no stranger to THE 99, having written the series previously. We’re saving the artistic announcement and official release date for another day, once we’re ready to show off some of the art.
After hearing about French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposed ban on burqas and the controversy it caused, I immediately thought of this well-written post by Jehanzeb Dar. In the post Dar reflects upon the X-Men character Dust, created by Grant Morrison during his now classic run on X-Men, and the depiction of of Muslim women in an age of comics where “female characters are depicted with large breasts and skimpy skin-tight (or lack of) clothing”. Ultimately Dar feels that while a step in the right direction the character still reinforces old Muslim stereotypes.
What are some of these stereotypes? One is something that I’ve in the past fallen victim to myself; namely, the criticism and misunderstanding of the hijab and burqa. I think as Americans a lot of times this misunderstanding presents itself as sympathy for the wearer. We “feel bad” for Muslim women because they’re “forced” to conceal themselves. However is the Islamic teaching of modesty any more “restrictive” than a Hasidic frock? Any criticism of that attire would come off as anti-Semitic (and rightly so.) It’s a lifestyle choice, and a religious one at that. Sarkozy comments that “In (France), we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity,”. He doesn’t take into account that this is part of an identity; that to some fashion isn’t the be-all, end-all of what makes a person unique.
In the world of comics, though, it seems Dust’s identity is at times based solely on dress. While it’s interesting that Marvel has created a truly positive depiction of a Muslim character they certainly haven’t done much to build her up in any way. In fact her only contribution to the team seems to be “token Muslim girl”, who doesn’t really do much because her religion won’t allow… well, anything. I understand her having to constantly defend herself amongst her peers – they’re young, and part of being young is the ignorance and misunderstand youth brings – but her arguments always seem so weak. It’s as if the writers write her to be “wrong”; like her religion is “wrong”, and if you live in the U.S. you have to be just like the rest of us good, white people. At best she was a plot device for Morrison’s story, and now she doesn’t bring much else to the table.
That being said, she’s religious, and unashamedly so, which I think is a good thing. She’s often seen praying, asking God to forgive her sins. Unless it’s Nightcrawler in a confessional booth we don’t see much of that in comics. I myself am not an incredibly religious man but I can appreciate that aspect of humanity being represented in media. Another aspect I thought was smartly done was her first appearance story. Yes, it’s admittedly heavy-handed; Wolverine gutting Taliban members while saving the Muslim girl is such a power fantasy that I’m surprised Morrison didn’t have Logan use his dick to impale them all rather than his claws. That being said I don’t think it was a case of, as Dar put it, the “Western male gaze”; I don’t think Morrison was saying the Muslim world needs the Western world to rescue them. I just think it was his incredibly obvious, intentionally ham-fisted way of introducing a positive Muslim character. By having a negative characterization of the Muslim world victimize a positive characterization it makes the dichotomy especially stark and gets the point across to your average American that these are just people, and some people are good and some people are dicks, and it doesn’t matter the color of their skin, because, yes, in 2002 we still need to have THAT conversation.
Another thing I like about her character is that her power reflects her environment. I think it’s cool that she turns to sand and cuts people up. I mean, fuck yeah, drive that point home. Remind people where she’s from at all times. Make it not “weird” that there’s someone from Afghanistan on the team, or that there would be someone with a burqa in comics. Diversity in media starts when people stop caring so much, and people stop caring so much when they’re used to something. So ok, maybe this opens Dust to being too much of a stereotype for now. As long as this gets the ball rolling, and as long as she’s not doing something stupid like declaring jihad on the Avengers, I’d say no harm no foul.
So, yes, I like Dust. Or rather, I like the idea of Dust. There’s room for improvement, sure, but at the end of the day I think Dust was a good idea that has just been horribly mishandled. So how can Marvel improve her?