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.
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.