Leiden Islam Blog

Muslim female superheroes

Muslim female superheroes Kamala Khan, Marvel's new superhero. Image: Marvel Comics

Female superheroes were already part of the medieval Arabic and Middle eastern entertainment scene. These warrior women deserve more attention than they have got so far. Therefore, Remke Kruk wrote the book "The Warrior Women of Islam."

Breaking news! Muaaz Khan, in The Guardian of 13 November 2013: “Last week, Marvel announced the launch of the new Ms. Marvel title, which focuses on superhero Kamala Khan. A teenage Muslim girl growing up in Jersey City, Kamala's mission is to attempt to put right the wrongs of the world. Kamala joins a small but growing number of Muslim comic book superheroes. Shortly after 9/11, Marvel introduced the burqa clad Sooraya Qadir, who has the ability to transform into sand.” As the picture accompanying the article demonstrates, Kamala also has extraordinary powers: she can change shape and lengthen her arms and legs at will.

For me this is doubly amusing news: Marvel Comics probably did not realize that their new addition to the entertainment world is not nearly as revolutionary as they might think. My book that just came out, The Warrior Women of Islam, deals with martial women battling for noble (or not so noble) causes in pre-modern Arabic stories. The medieval Arabic (and, in general, Middle Eastern) entertainment scene also had its female superheroes. In the days before cinema, television soaps and computer games, public entertainment consisted, among other things, of long adventure tales told in daily instalments by professional storytellers. Every day at a fixed time, after work was done, a storyteller would sit down in his usual place and continue his account of the adventures of a favourite Muslim hero and his companions. An enthralled audience sat down around him to listen to the next instalment of the brave hero’s courageous deeds and the dangers that he had to confront.

It was a scene that could still be witnessed in the Arab world until a few years ago. And, remarkably, the hero was by no means always a man. Audiences, even though they largely consisted of men, fully appreciated a woman performing courageous deeds. Princess Dhât al-Himma, a brave and pious Muslim warrior woman who defeats many male opponents in a single combat, is a leading heroine in the long, long tale known as The adventures of Princess Dhât al-Himma and her son Abd al-Wahhâb, dating back to the twelfth century. In modern print, the tale takes up more than six thousand pages, and it took the storyteller more than a year to finish it.

Many other warrior women join in the adventures of Princess Dhât al-Himma. Their martial prowess is impressive. Read about the combat between Princess Qannâsa and young Târiq: “Târiq jumped towards her in his attack...She held out until, when they had come very near to each other, he directed his spearhead at her. She stretched out her hand towards him, took hold of the point of his lance, spurred on her horse with all her might and broke the lance in two.”  Later on, Qannâsa leads an army towards Iraq. Basra soon surrenders to her, and, approaching Baghdad, she manages to defeat the caliph’s army.

There is Karna, an enemy queen who later marries a Muslim and converts to Islam. She is a very redoubtable opponent: she is so strong that she takes hold of a camel’s legs in anger and lifts it, permanently bending its legs. Her Muslim opponents are not only fascinated by her strength but also by her beauty: she appears on the battlefield in magnificent clothing, but soon throws it off to have more freedom in the battle.

Or look at Ghamra the daughter of Utârid, an intrepid Arab girl who is so angry at her cousin for spurning her love that, disguised as a man, she seeks him out and challenges him to combat. She defeats him and utterly humiliates him. As a result, he falls deeply in love with her, but she adamantly refuses to have anything to do with him anymore. When she is forced to marry him, she ties him up on their wedding night and rides off into the desert. Having joined her tribe, she becomes a warlord in her own right.

Or, in another medieval adventure tale, we have the brave Unaytira, posthumous daughter of the great hero Antar. At fifteen she kills her first lion, cleaving it asunder, and soon after defeats and kills a male attacker. Together with her two half brothers she revenges her father’s death, and she ends her life battling side by side with the Prophet Muhammad in the company of her mother, her husband and her sons, all of them brave warriors.

Or see the indomitable A’isha in The adventures of Baybars, who is angry about the way her brother treats Sultan Baybars’ messenger. She draws her sword, forcing him to release the messenger. Then she pulls out her dagger, strikes her brother on the head and calls him a number of bad names before sending the messenger on his way.

As we see, female superheroes were part of the Muslim entertainment scene long before they were thought of by Marvel Comics. They deserve more attention than they have got so far. That is why I wrote The Warrior Women of Islam.

For more information about the book The Warrior Women of Islam (I.B. Tauris, 2013), click, for instance, here, or the LUCIS-website.

This article is also published on the weblog of Remke Kruk.

A review of the book can be found on the website of World Literature Today.

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