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Why It Matters That Marvel Introduced A 19-Year-Old Muslim Woman As A Superhero

I spend my days getting young women across America interested in politics, and I can’t tell you how important it is that the new series Ms. Marvel stars 19-year-old Iman Vellani in her debut role as Marvel’s first teenage Muslim superhero.

The Marvel Universe already finds an engaged audience in young women. I know because I often bring up Marvel plots at conferences when I’m talking to young women. But this new step in representing a young Muslim woman as a superhero will make a big difference to their sense of what is possible. And that will translate outside the world of comic books into real life.

The Ms. Marvel actor, Vellani, is a lifelong Captain Marvel fan and even dressed up as the character for Halloween. The television series, based on the comic book series, tells the story of Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American high schooler in New Jersey, who struggles to understand and embrace all facets of her life and identity. After admiring the Marvel superheroes from afar, she’s mysteriously granted powers that allow her to fight alongside them. Yet, her biggest fight would be that within herself. It’s a common theme within the Marvel Universe, a reckoning of external reality, internal conflict and extraordinary power. 

I saw my first Marvel movie, a Spider-Man film, when I’d just left high school. I immediately resonated with Peter Parker’s conflict to embrace all aspects of his reality while at the same time embracing his power. But I also love how Marvel highlights the even greater impact we make when we all walk in our power.

Just two weeks ago, I referenced two scenes from Marvel movies while speaking at a women’s conference. The first was from Avengers: Infinity War, when the character Wanda Maximoff is losing to an enemy who tells her she is about to die alone. It turns out that’s not true; her female allies show up to help. Then in the second movie, Avengers: Endgame, there’s another scene where all the women from all the different Marvel movies show up and battle together for a common goal and purpose.

Scenes like these serve as reminders of our true power as women. I talk to young women about owning that power so we can do good in our communities. I also talk about how we can have more impact when we team up and help each other.

Many young women today don’t think of themselves as political. But they do say they are concerned about how issues show up in their communities. From gun violence to climate justice to student debt to reproductive justice and LGBTQ+ rights, young women feel strongly about their experiences. That’s often the first step toward realizing that if they want things to change, they need to own their political power by running a campaign or running for office to get a seat at the decision-making table.

But young women are more reluctant to run for office than young men. They need to be asked several times before they seriously consider running for anything. Overcoming that disparity requires having women in powerful roles that others can look up to. There’s a saying, “you can’t be what you can’t see,” and it’s so important for young women who want to make a change in their communities to meet other women like them who have gone before them, run for office and made the difference. That’s why representation matters, from the oval office to the big screen.

In the Spiderman movies, Uncle Ben and Aunt May tell Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I tell young women that their power is their passion, and the experiences they’ve been through poise them to create change. And I tell them that with that power comes the responsibility to use what they’ve been given, much like Kamala Khan, to turn around and have an impact.

If watching Marvel television shows and movies help young women feel powerful, then I’m all for it. Because on and off the screen, women are increasingly flexing their power. And the more that young women feel a sense of possibility, the sooner we’ll have leadership in America that reflects the country it serves

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Tanna Abraham is the National Deputy Program Director of IGNITE, America’s largest, most diverse organization devoted to young women’s political leadership.

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