“As a drama student, one of the reasons I didn’t pursue acting was because there were never any roles for me to audition that wouldn’t compromise my religious dress,” model and modesty advocate Mariah Idrissi reveals. “Although there are millions of Muslim women in the world, it’s rare to see us in comics, animation or film.” It wasn’t until Mariah was working on a project with British-Bangladeshi director Islah Abdur-Rahman that he suggested, “You should have a look into Faiza Hussain, she's a Marvel superhero".
Mariah wasn’t disappointed. “To my pleasant surprise, there was Faiza, a British Pakistani Marvel superhero who works for the NHS and wears a hijab! As I read more about her, I felt connected to her character and decided to get in touch with Paul Cornell, creator of Faiza Hussain. I was curious as to what inspired him to create her because for me, she was more than just a comic book character. She represents opportunity and inspiration beyond comics. She sparks the thought that maybe, we’ll see more characters like Faiza Hussain in film and TV.”
Faiza Hussain isn’t the only Muslim superhero on the Marvel roster. She stands alongside: Kamala Khan who’s Marvel's first Muslim character to headline her own comic book; Dust who is a niqab-wearing mutant called Sooraya who boasts ability to transform her body into a raging sandstorm; Bilal Asselah, a French-Algerian known as Nightrunner dubbed the Batman of Paris; and Khalil Qisma whose alter ego is Kismet, Man of Fate. However as the global pandemic rages on, and questions about representation become ever more urgent, Faiza Hussain’s identity as a British Muslim, whose codename is Excalibur – named after the legendary sword of King Arthur – has become the ultimate emblem of intersectionality.
Mariah explains, “There are many possible and rational reasons why, but I feel now more than ever with the world opening their eyes to the disproportionately represented people, this is a great time for Faiza Hussain to gain some attention and open conversations.”
Why is this particularly poignant? Mariah points out, “The fact that she works as a doctor for the NHS and uses her acquired powers to heal people feels so relevant in the times we’re in. British Pakistani doctors make up ten per cent of all doctors in the UK but are less than two per cent of the country’s population. Faiza’s character is a perfect fit for the Marvel family and is exactly the superhero we all need right now.”
Here’s Mariah’s conversation with Faiza Hussain’s creator Paul Cornell:
Mariah: What motivated your writing career?
Paul: It was my escape from bullying at school. I started to write about my own circumstances, changing them to what I wanted, putting myself in control of that mental world.
Mariah: Have you always been a comic book fan or did this interest develop after working on specific projects?
Paul: Always, from the time my Dad would bring comics home for me. I was raised on Asterix, Stan Lee and Chris Claremont.
Mariah: What inspired you to create Faiza Hussain and how did you choose her name?
Paul: I was putting together a team of modern British superheroes, and I very much wanted to include a Muslim woman in traditional garb, and to see if we could reasonably make that into a superhero costume without compromising it. The symbol she wears is actually the county crest of Essex, because she’s from Chelmsford. Her name came about in discussions with a group of Muslim women who I met at a BBC conference, who advised me throughout the run.
Mariah: What are your keys to bringing a character to life?
Paul: I put myself in the minds of all my characters. They’re all me. If you write a character as something other, something external, I think readers tune out.
Mariah: Why do you feel it’s important to have more diversity in comic book characters and are there any taboos that need to be broken?
Paul: It’s just the right thing to do. This is a popular medium that should reflect reality as it is now. As the forces of the right try to narrow the definition of personhood it’s more important than ever to make sure everyone gets included. Every child should have a superhero who reminds them of themselves, on the deepest level.
Mariah: Why did you connect wielding the sword of Excalibur with Faiza who’s a doctor for the NHS?
Paul: Excalibur, and this is said in the comic, represents complete acceptance. Faiza pulls the sword from the stone without realising what it is, during a moment of danger, when many others have failed. The sword thinks she’s worthy of carrying it. It’s the deepest possible badge of Britishness.
Mariah: Did you face any opposition when pitching this character?
Paul: No, actually, Marvel were extremely keen. There was a lovely supportive atmosphere on that title.
Mariah: What genre do you enjoy writing most?
Paul: I’m a science-fiction and fantasy writer in books, comics and TV. I think I most enjoy the rural fantasy of my Lychford novellas.
Mariah: Aside from your own creations, who are your top three favourite Marvel characters?
Paul: Pete Wisdom, who I didn’t create, but who I used a lot. Shang Chi, the Master of Kung-Fu. And the macabre Man-Thing!
Mariah: Are you working on anything currently that we should look out for?
Paul: My last Lychford novella, Last Stand in Lychford, is out this autumn, and I have three creator-owned comics being released in 2020/21.
Images of Faiza Hussain: Courtesy of Marvel Photo of Paul Cornell: Lou Abercrombie Additional reporting: Alison Tay