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.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.