comic books

Before the burkini furore, there was Kamala Khan, the superhero in a burkini

The Marvel Comics superhero chooses to wear a burkini as she fights for freedom.

Not for the first time in history, and certainly not for the last, what women wear has become, once again, the centre of a political controversy. The “burkini ban” that rocked French beaches has spawned a great deal of comment, but despite the Council of State’s ruling that such a ban is illegal, many mayors have chosen to keep it in place, citing “terror concerns” and France’s rather problematic adherence to “secularity” above all, a desire that has resulted, previously, in moves to ban headgear that designates any form of “religious affiliation”, including turbans.

People around the world have rallied against the ban, among them Muslim women who argue that the garment – which in most incarnations looks much like a wetsuit with some covering for the head, leaving just the feet, hands and face exposed – has nothing to do with terrorist outfits. Freedom of choice and comfort are what they cite, divesting the contested garment of any religious affiliation. Indeed, the woman who claims the trademark on the term “burkini”, Aheda Zanetti, has stated that she designed the garment partially in response to increased “secular” crackdowns in France, and their banning of the hijab.

Zanetti says that the burkini is a means to facilitate more the participation of conservative Muslim women in outdoor activities. This has been dramatically brought to life by a figure who is, arguably, the most well-known burkini wearer in popular culture today: Marvel Comics’ current reigning Ms Marvel, Kamala Khan.

Enter Kamala

Kamala burst onto the comics scene in February 2014, heralded by articles celebrating her as the first Muslim character to headline her own comics series. Created by a team including Sana Amanat and writer G Willow Wilson, award-winning author of Alif the Unseen, Kamala has shapeshifting powers, a result of her Inhuman heritage, and finds inspiration for her superhero mission in the teachings of her Pakistani immigrant parents, as well as her fangirl-like obsession with the Avengers, in particular Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel.

The series has achieved commendable critical and commercial success, not least for its extremely deft handling of its main character’s cultural and ethnic background. At the start of the current run of the series, Kamala is 16, weighed down by the cares that plague many high-schoolers – homework, crushes, and the desire to belong.

Her identity as a Muslim, while important in terms of locating her family and their religious beliefs, does not define her. It’s telling that when we meet her, she’s sniffing a forbidden fruit: a Bacon-Lettuce-Tomato sandwich in a deli, not precisely dying to try it, but daring to put a toe over the line, in the manner that many teenagers do.

Her parents might not let her go out for late-night parties, but it’s never presented as the action of an orthodox “strange” family; Kamala herself understands that her parents are merely protective – the idea of her identity as Muslim being something that cages her is, tellingly, only bandied about by a white classmate, Zoe, who asks her and her hijab-wearing friend, Nakia, about “honour killing” and then remarks, "Wow, cultures are so interesting."

Enter the burkini

But on to the burkini. When Kamala comes into her powers, her first instinct is to take on the form of someone “cool” and “powerful”, and that is, tellingly, the blonde, white Ms Marvel, clad in thigh-high boots and a leotard. It becomes fairly obvious, however, that Kamala is not comfortable in this avatar, and, soon enough, when she actually decides to take on the superhero mantle in all seriousness, she discards that image, using the tools at hand to fashion an outfit for herself (or bring out the “geek fu” as she dubs it): a burkini that her traditional mother had once bought her. She might never wear it for swimming, but she can, and will, don it to keep the streets of Jersey City, her home, safe.

Kamala’s choice of the burkini may be simply a practical one – she’s a cash-strapped teenager who’s doing what she can to help the world, and will use whatever she can to aid in that mission – but for the writers, this was probably a conscious decision. By putting the burkini to use (and Kamala explicitly calls it one), this first female Muslim superhero pushes boundaries, those that have until now kept people who look like her from mainstream superhero-dom, and also rebelling against dictates that prescribe when and how cultural signifiers should be used.

Yes, she attends youth lectures at the neighbourhood mosque. Yes, her parents are not keen on her going to parties with her high school cohorts, and yes, someone bought her a burkini – but no, Kamala seems to emphatically state, that does not make her an “oppressed” Muslim woman. She’s just a normal teenager, living a normal life and making the best of her parents’ rules, rules which are not presented as any more draconian than those her peers live under. The comics make sure to humanise her parents too, as people who have come to a new country in search of a better life for their children, who want them to do the best they can and encourage them to their best ability.

Kamala’s burkini symbolises where she comes from, but it also highlights the choice and freedom that same garment permits her: the choice to go out into the city and fight for justice, and the freedom to do it in comfort, not worrying about looks and jeers and living up to standards arbitrarily set by superhero icons, men and women, who have gone before her. Far from being the symbol of oppression and extremism that France’s mayors seem to view it as, Kamala’s burkini allows her to step out of the shadows and take on the “real” bad guys – to protect, ironically, the very freedom that naysayers seem to be trying so very hard to take away.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Virat Kohli and Ola come together to improve Delhi's air quality

The onus of curbing air-pollution is on citizens as well

A recent study by The Lancet Journal revealed that outdoor pollution was responsible for 6% of the total disease burden in India in 2016. As a thick smog hangs low over Delhi, leaving its residents gasping for air, the pressure is on the government to implement SOS measures to curb the issue as well as introduce long-term measures to improve the air quality of the state. Other major cities like Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata should also acknowledge the gravitas of the situation.

The urgency of the air-pollution crisis in the country’s capital is being reflected on social media as well. A recent tweet by Virat Kohli, Captain of the Indian Cricket Team, urged his fans to do their bit in helping the city fight pollution. Along with the tweet, Kohli shared a video in which he emphasized that curbing pollution is everyone’s responsibility. Apart from advocating collective effort, Virat Kohli’s tweet also urged people to use buses, metros and Ola share to help reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

In the spirit of sharing the responsibility, ride sharing app Ola responded with the following tweet.

To demonstrate its commitment to fight the problem of vehicular pollution and congestion, Ola is launching #ShareWednesdays : For every ​new user who switches to #OlaShare in Delhi, their ride will be free. The offer by Ola that encourages people to share resources serves as an example of mobility solutions that can reduce the damage done by vehicular pollution. This is the fourth leg of Ola’s year-long campaign, #FarakPadtaHai, to raise awareness for congestion and pollution issues and encourage the uptake of shared mobility.

In 2016, WHO disclosed 10 Indian cities that made it on the list of worlds’ most polluted. The situation necessitates us to draw from experiences and best practices around the world to keep a check on air-pollution. For instance, a system of congestion fees which drivers have to pay when entering central urban areas was introduced in Singapore, Oslo and London and has been effective in reducing vehicular-pollution. The concept of “high occupancy vehicle” or car-pool lane, implemented extensively across the US, functions on the principle of moving more people in fewer cars, thereby reducing congestion. The use of public transport to reduce air-pollution is another widely accepted solution resulting in fewer vehicles on the road. Many communities across the world are embracing a culture of sustainable transportation by investing in bike lanes and maintenance of public transport. Even large corporations are doing their bit to reduce vehicular pollution. For instance, as a participant of the Voluntary Traffic Demand Management project in Beijing, Lenovo encourages its employees to adopt green commuting like biking, carpooling or even working from home. 18 companies in Sao Paulo executed a pilot program aimed at reducing congestion by helping people explore options such as staggering their hours, telecommuting or carpooling. After the pilot, drive-alone rates dropped from 45-51% to 27-35%.

It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that the growth of a country doesn’t compromise the natural environment that sustains it, however, a substantial amount of responsibility also lies on each citizen to lead an environment-friendly lifestyle. Simple lifestyle changes such as being cautious about usage of electricity, using public transport, or choosing locally sourced food can help reduce your carbon footprint, the collective impact of which is great for the environment.

Ola is committed to reducing the impact of vehicular pollution on the environment by enabling and encouraging shared rides and greener mobility. They have also created flat fare zones across Delhi-NCR on Ola Share to make more environment friendly shared rides also more pocket-friendly. To ensure a larger impact, the company also took up initiatives with City Traffic Police departments, colleges, corporate parks and metro rail stations.

Join the fight against air-pollution by using the hashtag #FarakPadtaHai and download Ola to share your next ride.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Ola and not by the Scroll editorial team.