The Story of Asra: The First Khaleeji Female Superhero(ine)

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AngelPolacco

Asra, a young 15-year-old girl, is on the path to save the Arabian Gulf from an evil fortune teller who seeks to obtain immortality through the collection of women's souls. 

Before she turns into this butt-kicking superhero, Asra is a passionate footballer who could best any boy on the field. One ominous day, the fortune teller, Um Al-Lail, appears and steals Asra’s soul. This antagonist has an appetite for the souls of women, essentially eradicating them from the world. This propels Asra to take up the mantle to brave the post-apocalyptic land with a small band of followers to help her save the country and the fate of women from the clutches of Umm Al-Lail.

An intriguing character and storyline created by Northwestern University in Qatar’s lecturer in residence, Anne Peterson Sobel. Sobel hails from Chicago, Illinois and drew her inspiration for Asra from the women’s basketball team at NU-Q. 

Image source: NU-Q Facebook

“I saw [the NU-Q team] play a championship when I was on a pre-hire visit in February of 2010 and I saw a lot of superhero potential there,” Sobel said. “I started assistant coaching the team as soon as I arrived in Qatar because I really wanted to do some hands-on, experiential research on the subject.”

Sobel changed Asra’s sport from basketball to football because she wanted to add a dimension of women’s history, as Asra is a teenager living in the 1970s and football is more accurate to the timeframe. “Whether the story takes place on the pitch or the court, the spirit, spark, and talent of the young women I met on the NU-Q Wildcats team are definitely still alive in Asra’s character,” Sobel said.

The main audience for Sobel’s graphic novel and character is primarily young women living in the Middle East. Of course Sobel still hopes to attract Western readers as well, since she is originally from there. It would also answer the many questions of Westerners when Sobel tells them that she resides in Qatar. Among these questions are if Sobel is required to cover and if she is permitted to drive a car. She hopes to shatter these negative perceptions and stereotypes through Asra’s story.

“There are so many great characters in the story that I think will have universal appeal,” Sobel said. “It’s always been important in my creative work to showcase the diversity and complexity of women who are often underrepresented in Western media. Women are doing fantastic things here, I’d like people back home to know more about that.”

Sobel also hopes to raise more awareness on women’s history through her graphic novel. She believes that in contrast to men, it’s nowhere near as closely researched or known about.

“I love the idea of using entertainment to tell us stories about important women from the past from around the world,” Sobel said. “You can’t always be as accurate to the truth with creating a fiction narrative - especially a superhero story - but you can pique people’s interest in important historical figures and hopeful create more interest surrounding their stories,” she added. 

The reception for Sobel’s character has mainly been positive. Asra embodies and embraces the modest values of the region, which makes her relatable. According to Sobel, female superheroes have the tendency to be far from modest. Asra’s character is tough, brave, and relies solely on her brains and brawn to reach her goals rather than her looks. 

Image source: Huffington Post

“People have an immediate response to Hatem Aly’s renderings of Asra. They seem to connect with Hatem’s illustrations from the start,” Sobel said. Hatem Aly is the one who has brought Asra’s character to life in the graphic novel through illustrations. 

Despite the positive acclaim and reception, Sobel had still encountered some obstacles with Asra’s conception and story. Most of Sobel’s obstacles had to do with accessing and researching women’s history in the Gulf, as most stories are shared orally within families and tribes. It took Sobel a long time to gather all the accurate information in order to create her characters for the graphic novel.

“[It’s] a great tradition, but it makes it tough for an outsider like me to learn about what life was like the past,” Sobel said. “I ended up finding some amazing resources - including a book called Gulf Women commissioned by Sheikha Mozah and edited by Amira Sonbol - that I highly recommend!” 

Let's hope that there are more empowering stories out there geared towards, not only women in the Gulf, but women around the world. What do you think? Who are your favorite female superheroes?