How Across the Spider-Verse blazes a trail with first hijabi Spider-Woman
Malala Windsor, aka Spider-UK, opens up an exciting future for Muslim Marvel representation on and off screen.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is a ground-breaking film in many ways, between featuring six unique animation styles, to becoming the 10th highest-grossing movie of 2023 and the best reviewed Letterboxd film.
One particularly trailblazing feature was the first ever Muslim, hijab-wearing Spider-Woman. The new character, Malala Windsor (Spider-UK), only graces the screen for a few lines, but her presence did not go amiss amongst greatly appreciative fans.
The voice actress, Sofia Barclay (who appeared in Nida Manzoor’s Muslim show We Are Lady Parts) shared her thoughts on her character, saying: “I think she’s quirky and cheeky, her look celebrates the traditional hijab style, but with typical Spidey-characteristics!”
When asked about the character's more famous name-sake, the Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, Sofia said: “Who better to model a superhero after than a real-life superhero? A woman famous in real life for her integrity and bravery when faced with dangerous odds: yes please!”
Kris Anka, the character and costume designer on Across the Spider-Verse, explained that he was asked by the directors and producers to make Spider-UK a Muslim woman with a hijab. The design itself was two months in the making and he started planning it two years ago.
Kris did extensive research into how different women wear hijabs, reaching out to his hijabi friends and studying the movement of headscarves in sports.
“I ended up taking a lot of inspiration from runners and swimmers and used that to help define her overall body type, but also the construction of her suit,” he said. “We wanted her to feel practical but based on authenticity.”
Kris explained how “the big phrase with the movie is that ‘anyone can wear the mask’, but it's equally as important for us making the film that we back that up...We want everyone to believe they can be the hero.”
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Marvel and Sony have been making strides to include Muslim characters lately, with the Spider-Man universe at the forefront. The first hijabi Muslim character to grace the MCU was in Spider-Man: Far from Home, where British-Pakistani actress Zoha Rahman played one of Peter Parker’s classmates.
Equally, in Insomniac’s Spider-Man PS4 game, a background hijabi character refuses Spider-Man's handshake and hug due to religious principles, but expresses her admiration as a fan.
With Ms Marvel’s Kamala Khan featuring as one of the protagonists in the upcoming The Marvels, it’s exciting to see where the Muslim Marvel representation is heading.
Personally, I’d love to see a crossover between Ms Marvel, Spider-Man India and Malala Windsor. Also, since Muslims can’t eat or touch pork, I think it would be hilarious to see Malala interact with Peter Porker (who’d likely appreciate the fact she doesn’t eat his kind).
When asked about Malala’s future potential, Kris Anka said he hopes we see more of her - “We put a lot of work into making her character and I think there's a lot of fun to be had and great interactions with the other characters.”
As a Muslim Marvel fan myself, I was overjoyed and honestly surprised to see this character be included in such a celebrated blockbuster. Having “hijabi-cosplayed” as Spider-Gwen recently at MCM’s Comic-Con, I was brainstorming future characters I could see myself as and the scope to choose from was fairly limited.
As Muslims, we usually must be quite creative in imagining ourselves as a part of these worlds, which we are often excluded from. In the rare moments where we are depicted in fiction, Muslim characters are either negatively stereotyped or have compromised their faith to be deemed more palatable to Western audiences.
The picture is changing though with the help of organisations like UK Muslim Film. Sajid Varda, founder and CEO, explained how his organisation “aims to ensure that Muslims are portrayed authentically on screen and have better representation both in front of and behind the camera”.
He referred to the inclusion of a hijab-wearing superhero on screen as “a fantastic step forward”, adding: “When Muslim audiences see themselves portrayed positively, it makes them feel valued and appreciated. This is important for fostering understanding and respect for different faiths and cultures among global audiences.”
Sara Alfageeh, a 27-year-old Muslim illustrator, author and game developer, shared her reaction to the character: “As a teenager, it was about adding my hijab to my favourite characters. Now? I’m not Spidey-in-a-hijab. I’m just Spidey. Simple.”
The artist’s re-imagined drawing of the character Dust led her to design an official character for Ms Marvel: Amulet.
“I know why this representation is important, because if I didn’t see Ms Marvel (the first Muslim superhero to lead a Marvel story), I would not be a professional artist today. Seeing Malala Windsor, I wonder how many more artists will emerge to tell their stories too.”
One such artist and hijabi cosplayer that has emerged in recent years is Zainab B Jiwa, who recently hosted the BAFTAs red carpet.
Zainab has cosplayed numerous characters from Disney, Marvel, anime and more, including Spider-Man India at Comic-Con. Her artworks include drawing herself into these narratives, which you can see on her Instagram page.
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Zainab views “hijabi cosplay” as a fun challenge to create costumes that are in harmony with her hijab. She spoke about having to previously adapt Princess Jasmine's outfit and even Spider-Man's costume to fit her modest values.
With a character like Malala Windsor however, those changes wouldn’t be necessary - “I could cosplay her today, right now with the things I already own,” she excitedly shared.
Aya Younis, a 21-year-old freelance illustrator, noted the intricate detail that went into Malala’s character design: “What I especially loved was the fact that they didn’t just throw a hijab onto a standard Spider-Man design, but actually chose what feels like a fully fleshed-out character."
“With the wave of Spidersona art following the sequel’s release, I definitely wanted to create my own! I wanted to show that a skin-tight superhero suit isn’t a prerequisite to saving the world.”
Aya remarked “instead of designing Muslim characters to compensate for a lack thereof, I now design them knowing there’s a space for them in the animation world”.
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