This story was first published by Al Jazeera English on 2 June 2017.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – From Monday to Friday, Hafizah Rashid works as a medical laboratory technician in the Malaysian capital. But on the weekends she is a superhero.
The 33-year-old is one of a growing number of Muslim women embracing the world of cosplay – short for costume play – where comic book, video game and film fans dress up as their favourite characters. From Malaysia to the United Kingdom, these cosplayers are adopting the subculture, merging their fandom with their religion in creative new ways.
Just one step into the apartment that Hafizah shares with her two younger sisters offers a glimpse into their fantasy universe.
A six-foot plastic and foam canon called the God Arc, a weapon for fighting monsters in the Japanese video game God Eater 2, is propped against the wall. Next to it are mannequin heads modelling wigs and a clothes rail packed with a collection of body armour chiselled and stitched by the sisters themselves.
“A cosplayer must understand the character well before portraying [it],” Hafizah says.
The Rashid sisters spend months studying their characters, hand-making costumes and perfecting their performances before entering cosplay competitions in Malaysia and abroad.
Since emerging in Japan in the early 1980s, modern cosplay has taken root in cities across the world. Though it arrived in Muslim-majority Malaysia around 15 years ago, it was rare to find hijabi Muslim women at fan conventions, says Rohayati Paidi, an East Asian Studies lecturer at the University of Malaya. But there has been a shift in recent years as more “embrace their ability to combine their religious beliefs with cosplay culture,” she adds.
Malaysia’s first hijab cosplay event
Key to their participation has been the adapting of costumes to be more modest – in a subculture where women tend to be scantily clad – while remaining true to the characters they wish to portray. Hafizah, a hijab wearer, explains some of the techniques she uses to meet her religious boundaries (The hijab is a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion).
“I choose characters that don’t reveal skin and hair. Because of that, most wear body armour,” she says. She also chooses fabrics that match her skin colour to limit exposure.
Last month, Malaysia hosted its first event dedicated to hijab cosplay. Over two days superheroes, princesses and villains convened at a mall on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur where the headscarf itself took centre-stage. Brightly coloured hijabs were twisted into plaits, converted into masked capes or embellished with rabbit ears as cosplayers transformed themselves into their favourite characters.
While hijabi cosplayers also join the comic conventions that attract thousands across multicultural Malaysia, organisers wanted to create a platform purely to celebrate the novel ways the hijab is being used.
Event co-founder Nurul Syakirah binti Samsol, or Saakira, who also helps run the Hijab cosplay Gallery – a Facebook group attracting cosplayers from around the world says she wanted to show that “wearing the hijab we can still portray characters” convincingly.
Fans take great care to pick characters that they relate to. Nur Zainina Ruzana binti Zulkifli, better known by her cosplay name Nuzaru, says she uses the art to turn into figures who inspire her. To cheers from a crowd of several hundred cosplayers, Nuzaru competes for a top prize at the hijab convention. She lifts the hood of her homemade cape and clutches her magical necklace, dressed as Princess Kida from the Disney film Atlantis crossed with the hooded character from the video game, Assassin’s Creed.
“I love Princess Kida because she’s a really, really strong and tough independent woman. She stands up for what she believes in. And she’s not really afraid of anything,” says the 20-year-old media student.
Creative twists on the hijab
While many hijab-wearers integrate the headscarf into their costumes, others in the expanding subculture design wigs to conceal their hair.
Hafizah is one of a growing number of Malaysian Muslim women donning the hijab in recent years and uses wigs to recreate her superheroes. “It’s all about showing how interesting characters are by injecting creative twists,” she says.
By adapting their costumes in different ways, Muslim women appear, at some level, to be navigating their religious identities.
“It’s very performative. At the same time it’s a religious choice,” says Juli Gittinger, a religious studies lecturer at Georgia College in the United States, who is currently researching hijab cosplay. “The cosplayers are challenging stereotypes but they’re also reiterating ideas of religious norms and modesty.”
This isn’t always a conscious decision. Last year, cosplayer Hijabi Hooligan, aka Dania Khalil from northeast England, ignited social media with her interpretation of the archetypal superhero Captain America, topped off with a hijab imprinted with the US flag.
“A lot of people thought I was American, putting out a statement saying that I belong here,” says the 22-year-old pharmacy student. “I also had quite a few saying they wanted me to move to America.”
The image went viral in the middle of the US election campaign during which now President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric renewed debate about growing Islamophobia.
“I never meant it as a statement in any way,” says Dania, who is a big fan of the Marvel Comics character and is inspiring Muslim women in countries as far as Kuwait and Egypt with her costumes.
“But I feel quite strongly about my identity as a hijabi woman and my right to do what I love. And if I were American, then my right to be a citizen. So I don’t mind if people see it as a message.”
Challenging negative narratives
The hijab persists as a subject of controversy across the world, dividing Muslims and non-Muslims on whether it is a form of female empowerment or subjugation.
In the western world, hijabi cosplayers embracing superhero personas could play a role in challenging negative narratives, Gittinger says.
“There’s a lot of fear and ignorance about this particular idea of head covering and what it represents [in the US]. So I think the more we see it, visible and normalised, the less people would be afraid. I think hijabi cosplay is working towards that same goal.”
Political symbolism aside, for most young Muslim women, cosplay simply represents a portal to express themselves with freedom and creativity.
“I’m actually [a] really quiet and shy person. [But] going into cosplay it’s like you could change your character into a new person,” Nuzaru says. “You can be anyone and anything that you want…You can be super for a day. Who doesn’t want that?”