Friday, April 15, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: DS Shahara Hasan (Bodies)

So far in Arab-American Heritage Month, we’ve celebrated by looking at Tzipporah from Prince of Egypt and how she subverts our expectations of “historical” Arab womanhood and by examining Gazelle from Kingsman and how her characterization pushes back against our stereotypes of female submissiveness or “oppression” in Arab culture

Today, then, we’re going to look at a character who represents a much more common modern experience than either of these two, a woman who wears a headscarf but also interacts in a 21st century technological police force. Who holds true to her Muslim culture but openly admits to not being particularly religious. Who lives in a secular society, balancing the weight of her past and familial expectations against her future and career aspirations. And who is absolutely kickass. Today we’re going to look at Detective Sergeant Shahara Hassan from Vertigo’s Bodies.

Now, you’ll be forgiven for not knowing precisely what I’m talking about here. Bodies, an eight-part miniseries comic that came out in 2014, isn’t exactly the kind of big name comic event that got everyone talking. Or if you did hear about it, you probably heard something along the lines of how confusing it was, how the baffling mystery never really made sense, or how the four story structure was really unnecessary. I’m not saying any of that is true – I certainly enjoyed it – but rather that you’d be entirely forgiven for not really knowing much about DS Hasan at all.

So, Bodies is, as I said, a comic. Written by Si Spencer with art by four different artists, the comic follows four distinct storylines in four distinct time periods. In each story we follow a detective investigating a murder. The hook is that all of these detectives are solving the exact same murder. And not like a copycat – they are all solving literally the same murder with the same body of the same victim who comes back to life. It’s a weird story.

All of our heroes live in London and in each case the murder gets embroiled in the social conflict of the day. So for Detective Hillinghead, working in Victorian England, people are wondering if this killing is related to Jack the Ripper or the recent crackdown on “sodomites” in that part of town. In the 1940s, Detective Weissmann finds himself on top of a powder keg when the body is accused of belonging to a German spy. In the hazy futuristic wasteland of one of the stories, the body becomes part of a larger conspiracy about amnesia clouds and what has happened to society.

But we’re concerned about the story that takes place in present day London, where the murder in question is giving to DS Hasan to investigate and quickly becomes embroiled in an ongoing conflict with a group of xenophobic protestors. In other words, in the present day, the story becomes one about Islamophobia, anti-Muslim sentiment, and how a society afraid of change can quickly turn violent. 

I won’t go so far as to spoil the actual story of the comic for you – partly because I don’t understand it well enough to ruin it – but suffice to say that in each case, the actual circumstances are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more going on here, and for a lot longer, than seems immediately clear. What matters for us today is how DS Hasan comes off in the story and what that says about our cultural representations of Arab-descended women.

Shahara Hasan is a complex figure and one that we can appreciate for her complexity. First introduced in full body armor as she breaks up a race riot, she’s conflicted about her role as a police officer, but not conflicted enough to quit. She calls the police “the biggest gang there is” and seems uncomfortable associating with him. But neither is she comfortable when her coworkers verbally identify her with the “Islamic agenda”. DS Hasan doesn’t really fit anywhere, and while she’s quick with a quip or a witty rejoinder, she’s still painfully aware of this.

Basically, DS Hasan is a very good cop in a very bad situation. She’s invested in her culture, even going so far as to still wear her hijab on duty and in her personal life despite not being particularly religious. She’s fending off the advances of a fellow detective, but she sometimes wonders if she wants to fend them off or if she wants to give in. She’s worried about her family with all this anti-Muslim violence going on. And she’s trying to investigate a case that stubbornly resists logic or sense.

She’s got a lot going on.

Eventually the investigation itself turns on her, with Hasan being accused of terrorism and murder, a convenient scapegoat who asked too many questions and had the wrong color skin. Don’t worry, there is a happy ending, but it’s worth remembering that competent and kickass as Hasan is, she still can’t totally escape the glare of institutional racism. Her bosses love her when she solves cases, but as soon as there’s a whisper of doubt around her, they’re quick to throw her to the wolves.

And in a lot of ways, I think that’s what makes Hasan such a fantastic character. Because we recognize her. Tzipporah is historical and Gazelle exists in a world of superspies and supervillains. Shahara Hasan, for all that her story is very strange, exists in a world we can recognize as her own. 

She uses humor to deflect harassment. She has to deal with allegations that she slept her way to her position and also that she’s a secret terrorist reporting back to Kabul. She’s a complicated woman living in a world that rejects her complexity, and I can totally sympathize with that.

It’s also interesting, though, that the story makes a point of reminding us how intensely British Hasan is. I mean, she’s a Muslim and she’s Arab-descended and she’s very attached to her heritage, but she’s also a London girl. She talks about growing up rooting for England’s national football team and liking fish and chips and how the color of her skin and the scarf on her head don’t make her any less British. Not at all. 

To top it all off, she’s a detective in the police force, an occupation you rarely see a Arab-descended character in, let alone a female Arab-descended character. She’s taken this position because she likes protecting people, and again that’s a subversion of our usual expectations about Arab womanhood. She can wrestle a perp to the ground and shove a boot between his shoulder blades to keep him from coming back up without missing a beat. We just don’t see that very often.

I suppose what I’m getting at here is that DS Shahara Hasan is notable if only for how normal she is.

I mean, it sounds silly, but it’s true. One of the defining factors in how Arab-descended characters are represented in Western culture is how they are so often othered. They are placed in a role as the exotic “other”, someone different from the protagonist and the audience, someone who they cannot or will not understand. Shahara Hasan, on the other hand, is not some elusive other. She is us. She’s a perfectly normal modern woman, and that is her strength.

She’s a perfectly modern woman who wears a headscarf. Hundreds of millions of perfectly modern women do. She’s a perfectly modern woman who works as a police detective. Lots of women do that. She’s a perfectly modern woman who has to deal with harassment at work both because of her race and because of her gender. Again, many many modern women get the joy of dealing with that one.

DS Hasan is an Arab-descended woman who reminds us that she’s human too, just like us. She has to fight the forces of xenophobia and racism and sexism, but we aren’t given the luxury of siding with her opponents. Instead, we’re right there with her, locked into her perspective and forced to admit that she is not the other. She’s just like us.

She isn’t a superhero, she isn’t a cartoon character, and she’s not a walking stereotype in a scarf. She’s a person and she forces us to recognize that. If nothing else, I am grateful to Bodies for that. 

I mean, I’m also grateful for a lot of things because Bodies is a great series, but definitely this. So thank you, Si Spencer and thank you Meghan Hetrick (the artist for Hasan’s story). Thank you for giving us a fully realized Arab-descended character who forces us to recognize her humanity. Who is capable of being sexual without being sexualized. Who wears a headscarf but refuses to enter a mosque. Who represents the complexity and beauty of the modern world.

Detective Sergeant Sharaha Hasan is someone we need.


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