Camel throwing warrior women

There have always been Muslim superwomen

Marvel ComicsIslamic superhero Kamala Khan is supposed to become a role model for muslim girls

By Marleen van Wesel

The comic book characters may be new, but Muslim heroines have always been around; Arabist Remke Kruk has written a book on the subject: “There are plenty of brave girls who are ready with a sword.”

Last autumn, Marvel Comics introduced a new super-heroine, Muslim girl Kamala Khan. She can stretch her arms and legs as far as she wants, change shape if necessary and is to be a role model for young Muslim girls.

“The story takes place in New Jersey; a lot of thought has been put into this angle”, Remke Kruk (1942), professor emerita of Arabic, reckons. However, the phenomenon itself is far from new and Kruk has written a book about it: The Warrior Women of Islam, Female Empowerment in Arabic Popular Literature.

Kruk can’t say whether these tough, dominant women, of whom tales have been told since the Middle Ages, were also regarded as good examples. “Most of the stories were mainly told by men and listened to by men. A respectable woman would not have listened to a storyteller in the town square or other public spot. Women would only have heard stories told at home.”

The story-telling tradition lasted for generations, as Kruk recalls: “I witnessed it once myself in a park in Morocco. Every day, the storyteller would come along on his bike and from afternoon prayer until evening prayer, he would read to the people who sat around him on the ground on pieces of cardboard they had brought along. The listeners knew whole pieces off by heart. They weren’t interested in hearing the short stories from Arabian Nights; they preferred long, ongoing stories that, after the death of the hero, would continue as the story of his or her children.”

She fetches a thick, thousand-page book. “For instance, another six volumes were written about this princess, Dhât al-Himma.”

In Egypt, stories are still told at parties with musical accompaniment. “But most café proprietors turned the storytellers out on their ear when radios and televisions became available. Nonetheless, the stories are kept alive because they are reworked for television.”

Kruk doesn’t think that Kamala Khan was based on the warrior women. “But they could have done”, she claims. “The stories aren’t fossils: it’s a living tradition that’s quite suited to adaptation. Perhaps Dhât al-Himma is not quite as suitable as a modern heroine because religion and motherhood have a large role in the story, but there are enough brave, cheerful Bedouin lasses who don’t give a damn about what their brothers say and are ready with a sword if things aren’t going their way.”

In the same way that Kamala Khan can extend her limbs, Muslim heroine Sooraya Qadir, a.k.a. Dust, created by Marvel over a decade ago, can change into sand if she needs to. The superpowers of the warrior women were less explicit: “The women were very beautiful though, according to the standards of the age: very heavily built women who had no trouble picking up a camel and throwing it if they were angry. A palm branch on a sand dune was considered the perfect shape for a Muslim woman: a slender upper body with a broad, puckered belly and curvaceous hips.”

Women were also cast as baddies: “Emancipation had progressed at least that far. There were wicked sorceresses and evil queens, usually old, which made them even uglier, with clumps of hair sprouting randomly on their bodies. They were often nymphomaniacs too, dragging young men back to their tents even at the age of 102.” Good women were portrayed as respectable. “Sometimes, they might seem indecent, but at the end of the tale, they would still be virgins when they married. Women who weren’t always came to a sticky end, even if it was because they had been raped.”

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