From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

A Critique of Muslim Women in Comics — AK Comics’ Jalia and Aya

Jalila: Protector of The City of All Faiths

Pictured above is “Jalila: Protector of The City of All Faiths” who appears in AK Comics, founded by Dr. Ayman Kandeel. Not to sound too negative in my introduction of Jalila and the other female super-heroine, “Aya: Princess of Darkness,” but the images and roles of women in Kandeel’s comics are not an improvement from what we typically see in mainstream American comic books. These characters represent an unimaginative redux of unrealistically curvaceous and buxom super-heroines who look like clones of Wonder Woman and Catwoman.

Unlike “The 99,” the writers and artists for AK Comics seem to be more concerned with drawing voluptuous women rather than focusing on character development and original storylines. In fact, the image you see posted above is rare to find since censors in Egypt have now colored Jalila’s exposed stomach with a lighter shade of blue. You can still see the details on her stomach, but I guess the added colors from the censors make her look like she’s wearing an undershirt, therefore less “exposed.” Yeah, like that changes the way she’s being depicted.

By bringing these characters into the spotlight, we can learn how incredibly significant it is to battle sexism and racism in comic books as well as how we can create a much-needed dialogue and understanding between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Jalila and Aya are replicas of western comic book super-heroines; the obvious difference being they fight crime in the Middle-East. Although there are positive intentions evident in the comics, like how Jalila’s first issue begins with a World Peace Day event in Jerusalem where Christians, Jews, and Muslims celebrate a peaceful coexistence after a fictional “55 Years War,” hardly anything is developed about her character. All we learn about Jalila is that she gets her super-powers from her radiation suit, which was designed by her parents in order to survive the Dimondona blast at the end of the“55 Years War” (Hmm, Dimondona sounds a lot like Dimona, the site of Israel’s nuclear weapons facility). The peace in the holy land is disrupted by two terrorist organizations: The United Liberation Front (PLO anyone?) and the Army of Zios (I’m going to take a wild guess that this refers to Zionism).

It looks like things will get interesting when Jalila learns that her brother is secretly part of the United Liberation Front, but we don’t learn anything about how they bonded as siblings. What is her personal or social life like? What was her relationship like with her parents? Who are her friends? What are her character flaws? Where’s the inner conflict? None of these questions are answered (her religion is not mentioned explicitly, however it is implied that she is Muslim since her mother is seen wearing the hijaab in a photograph).

As she soars over Jerusalem, she looks like the Arab version of Wonder Woman – thin waist, large breasts, and you know the rest. Like Wonder Woman, Jalila looks empowered with her cockiness and crime-fighting, but with her skin-tight costume and provocative poses, we must ask: is she really empowered? There are a lot of references to her gender whenever she fights thugs, who are all men of course, and it seems very clear that the writers and artists want to promote feminism and equality of sexes in the Middle-East. This is, without a doubt, a very important message, but these messages are contradicted by the way she is scantily depicted as a sex object.

As she spies on a secret terrorist base, a sleazy and ugly old man puts a knife around her neck and says, “Hi beautiful… we’re going to have a fun time, baby!” Jalila elbows the man and then knees him in the chest: “This is my idea of a fun time,” she says. On this page, her entire back is faced to us twice, including one full body shot of her slightly bent over. She attacks the remaining thugs saying, “that’s right, boys, I can melt guns as fast as I can melt hearts!”

Along with how she is objectified visually, Jalila’s cockiness and innuendos contribute to the “male gaze,” which basically means she is being depicted the way her heterosexual male writers and readers would like to see her. This may include emphasis on her curves, close-ups of certain body parts, sexual innuendos in dialogue or visualization, and even making her do things according to patriarchy and/or typical heterosexual male fantasies. When she is arching her back, stretching out, leaning over, or doing split kicks just to show off her impossibly perfect physique, one must question the sexualization of her character.

Aya, the Princess of DarknessAya, the Princess of Darkness (pictured right), is not much different from Jalila, except that she is a dark-blonde Syrian who might as well be naked because all she wears is a skin-tight purple Catwoman-esque bodysuit and a red hood and cape. Creativity in her character severely lacks when you consider how similar she is to Batman: she doesn’t have any superpowers, she relies on martial arts, her father is murdered, and she vows to make sure no one else experiences the tragedy she went through.

To Batman fans, this sounds somewhat recycled. The difference of course is that Aya’s mother is not only alive, but imprisoned because she’s accused of killing Aya’s father! So what does Aya do? She becomes a law school student who attends her classes always wearing a midriff t-shirt and tight jeans that look like they will slip down her waist. But don’t worry, the censors in Egypt took care of that and colored over her exposed mid-section. Now it just looks like she’s wearing a tight and transparent undershirt! Problem solved.

On the website for AK Comics, it is stated that Aya’s character flaw is that she’s too serious. But this is quite contrary to what’s presented in the comic books — she’s just as cocky and sarcastic as Jalila is. In fact, Aya and Jalila might as well be the same character because their storylines are so underdeveloped.

Not only do both of their comic books show them objectified in the same manner, but they also contain similar references to gender, which gets so overemphasized that they generate stereotypes about how Muslim women are treated in Muslim countries.

Like I mentioned above, there are perverted men who want to do more to Jalila than kidnap her, and there are other male characters that are incredibly abusive, particularly her two brothers. One, as I pointed out earlier, is part of a terrorist organization and all he does is shout at Jalila and slam the door in her face, while the other one is a drug addict who gets so angry that he slaps her across the face because she flushes his drugs down the toilet. In fact, he slaps her so hard that blood shoots out of her mouth. Rather than screaming at him, Jalila watches her brother weep in shame and apologize to her. Jalila hugs him and tells him “it’s ok” and that she “understands” how difficult it is for him.

Aya is fighting for her mother’s freedom and trying to prove her innocence. One cannot help but see the parallels this has with how Muslim women are accused of certain crimes that they did not commit in Muslim countries (for example, raped women in certain Muslim countries often get accused of adultery if four witnesses are not provided). It would be wrong to deny that these things have happened in the Muslim world, unfortunately, but when the writers emphasize so much on women fighting against the patriarchy in the Muslim world, doesn’t that reaffirm the stereotypes that many non-Muslims in the west have about Islam? There is a scene where one of Aya’s friends gets very sexual with her boyfriend, who turns out to be the villain, and Aya says to herself, “she is always getting involved with the wrong men!” Again the overemphasis on gender issues seems to justify certain stereotypes about the Muslim world.

On one hand, Jalila and Aya serve as vehicles to teach younger people to not join terrorist organizations, don’t take drugs, and don’t abuse women, but on the other hand, there are countless pages of incredibly suggestive and provocative images of them crawling after being punched by foes or posing like they’re on a supermodel catwalk or even displaying their tight see-through shirts where their nipples are visible in some panels – what purpose do these messages serve and how do they improve the way women are perceived and treated in the Muslim world? Sure, they don’t look oppressed, but it certainly looks like male sexuality is being privileged over female sexuality.

But it’s not just Jalila and Aya that are drawn in this manner: every female character, no matter how minor of a role they play, are drawn as buxom and skimpy dressed “babes.” I am reminded of how comic books, in the west, were once a way to “girl watch” during the late 1940’s before the advent of Playboy and Penthouse, and it seems that AK Comics provides a way for young Arab boys to ogle at busty and curvy women. Since AK Comics distributes their books in the United States, the western heterosexual male reader has more chances of perceiving Jalila and Aya as “hot Arab babes” than feminists because of their depictions and poor character development.

As a quick side note, there are those who say men are objectified in comic books too, but I argue that the objectification of men is not as severe as the objectification of women. Muscular male superheroes may portray the “ideal body image” for males and females, but it’s more centralized on showing their strength and powers, whereas with women, the thin-figure, enlarged body parts, and the swimsuit poses have more to do with sex than with demonstrating their strength or powers. Female characters are drawn more sexually and in more sexually suggestive ways than male characters will ever be.

Unlike “The 99,” Jalila and Aya lack symbolism, depth, originality, and most of all, they lack their own culture and individuality! The issues of terrorism and women’s rights in the Muslim world are very important and they must be discussed through this kind of medium, but it doesn’t mean that the writers and artists should sell-out to the images promoted in mainstream American comic books.

Jalila and Aya just have Arabic names, and to strip them of their culture and religious background reveals implications that the Muslim world should conform to typical western standards. Improving one’s society and conformity are two separate things; being influenced and inspired by American comic books is not the same as copying and imitating American comic books.

Jehanzeb is a film student who writes about Islam, Feminism, Politics, and Media. This piece was originally published on his blog.

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