Commodification of identity politics | Pakistan Today

Commodification of identity politics

Do we need Kamala Khan? To some, the answer is a no-brainier: a super strong superhero who also happens to be female and a Muslim – it couldn’t possibly tick more liberal boxes. But what it also does is underscore the ongoing commodification of identity politics.

We all want our identities to be magnified, strengthened, and amplified across all fronts – physical and mental strength, smarts, or attractiveness, to name a few traits of the Marvel superhero in question – and pasted on every nook and corner of the world for everyone to see, admire, and aspire to become.

Much of this rhetoric is both true and relevant in this day and age when Muslims are being targeted in the west for being the root of evil. Oh how amazing to behold a 16-year-old Pakistani-American (more American than Pakistani, one may add) girl with superpowers fighting off evil, created by the heavyweights of the comic world, Marvel – a dream come true for liberals, including the desi liberal.

The one who is already fairly well liberated, by virtue of their placement in society or (much more rarely) by their own philosophical awakening. The one who is already enjoying a life much closer in proximity to that lived by their peers and counterparts in the West, as compared to someone hailing from the lower rungs of society. The one who is already so westernised, they don’t even need the western brand of liberation. The one who is already perceived as less of a Muslim by the staunchly religious. Yes, the staunchly religious.

The one who is largely antagonised by the West (and vice versa). The one who wears the hijab and grows a shaggy beard and is the “shady one” in the neighborhood in most parts of the western world. The one who is a traditionalist in religion, whose perception of Islam has no room for hair flowing in the wind and a grown girl running in the streets on her own, even if she is several times stronger than the men she encounters. The one whose small but significant percentage doesn’t even understand the language. The one whom we are trying to change by attempting to reform the Muslim identity – and failing miserably.

Of course, what is important to highlight here is the inertia within this antagonised segment against reform. For this section their Muslim identity dominates their American – and indeed their Pakistani – identities. There is not nearly enough talk of integrating the overtly religious into western societies, for that inevitably hinges on the much stalled Islamic reform. Discussing that, of course, is binned under the lazy label of Islamophobia, with safeguarding the ideology superseding the need to secure the rights of a specific group of the society – which in this case are the Muslims.

So basically what is happening is that neither the orthodox Muslim is considering reform from the position of the minority, nor is the majority enabling a narrative where such a reform is possible. What we have from the latter is either demonising of an entire group of people, Muslims – especially those that appear a certain way – or a demonising an entire group of people, white – and perpetuation of white guilt, which in itself underscores racism of low expectations.

It is asking too much for Marvel to carve out an opening where the much needed narrative can be squeezed in. But let’s cease to pretend this is about the liberation or empowerment of the female Muslim.

Let’s just agree that Kamala Khan is simply the exploration of an American girl with superhuman abilities, as its part creator Sana Amanat once stated: the character is a result of an attempt to “explore the Muslim-American diaspora from an authentic perspective”.

Fair enough. You want a version of yourself to become a part of the superhero world – fair enough. But let’s not pretend this creation is going to change much socially when it comes to changing the supremacism American’s views about Muslims – or indeed the Islamists views about Muslims.

Of course, men like the POTUS would suddenly change their outlook on a certain sector of their own society just because a fictional character half created by a Pakistani Muslim says they are awesome (because she herself is one). The white supremacist and the radical Islamist would suddenly forget 9/11 and how they’ve both used the same incident of human tragedy to self their divisive narratives.

Let’s not kid ourselves.

Kamala Khan is a comic book character. A girl from New Jersey with inhuman abilities, who is a human-Kree hybrid and a super badass. A Marvel hero inspired by the actual Ms. Marvel, Carol Denver’s, who has cool powers like shape shifting and superhuman healing. And we, the Pakistani Muslims, are stoked that she is a Pakistani Muslim and a girl, on top of all that, because it brings the international spotlight on us for a good reason, for once. Muslim kids on American and European streets are over the moon for having a superhero that looks like them – someone they can aspire to become.

But let’s not, for a second, pretend that this fictional superhero would scratch even the tiniest hole in the bubbles of those two sectors of the world that the international media claims the movie would be targeting.

The white supremacist and the Islamist both give the least of damns what a Muslim girl from New Jersey who is half Kree and half human is doing on the big screen. It would take more than a Kamala Khan to defeat the mentality of both these tragically rigid and impregnable characters from the contemporary world.

Thank you for the character, Marvel, but please do not package your attempts at global appeasement in the wrap of social change. You’ll make good money out of it, because it fits the liberals’ – the prime audience where the money is going to come from – idea of diversity.

But unfortunately this idea of diversity – like good old racism – defines individuals from the colour of their skins. It’s not really diversity, if of skin colours and not ideas.