Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The 99: A More Inclusive World

sara.gladwin's picture

“Who are the 99?

An ever-growing team of specially powered young people. The 99 prevent disasters, help people in need, and perform good deeds under the banner of the 99 Steps Foundation.

What are the Noor Stones?

Each member of the 99 bears a Noor Stone- an ancient gem of power. Forged out of the destruction of ancient Baghdad, the Noor Stones were created to preserve the wisdom of the ages. When bonded with a specific young person, each gem grants him or her a different gift of power”

            This is the first box visible on the inside page of a comic called ‘the 99.’ It is written by Naif Al-Mutawa, who first starting writing ‘the 99’ for his children. Although it is a secular comic book, intended for children of all races, religion and ages, it is based on the ninety-nine principles of Islam.  Al-Mutawa became increasingly concerned with the negative images portrayed of Islam by the American media after an Islamist extremist group hijacked American planes and crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11th, 2001. Consistently, he saw Islam as a religion take the fall for the beliefs of an extremist group, which was not a true reflection of the principles of Islam. Watching his children growing up, he realized that his children would not only be subject to the prejudices the American media creates but be internalizing the negative portrayal of Islam on their own self-image. ‘The 99’ was born out of a need to positively influence Islamic vision; to reclaim how people perceive and interact with a religion other then there own. Al- Mutawa believes that the only way to truly create cultural understanding between two different cultures is through arts; something as simple as a comic book containing values that can be connected to all types of people, not just those of the Islamic religion. What I would like to explore is whether or not this is true and whether or not this can be considered a “feminist effort.”

A way in which ‘the 99’ could possibly be considered a feminist text would be in its lack of labeling.  Although based on Islamic principles, it is not labeled as Islamic and in considered a secular comic book. The secular nature allows the comic book to reach a wider audience; people who may not even realized they are reading something that is based on a religion. In this way, the comic book can be more inclusive of people across different cultures. While it is not labeled as feminist, I believe the goal of the comic book is aligned with the goal of a feminist agenda, which aims to create language and culture that is more inclusive of everyone and more representative of multiple voices. The comics feature ninety-nine people, who have all a “Noor stone” which lends them a particular power. The powers and stones each correlate to particular principle of Islam. However, instead of the directing the reader, the book remains one that many children all over the world can relate to.

The vision of the author is another way in which this comic book presents as a feminist effort. The author believes arts will be the only way to create understanding of another culture and break down prejudices. In this way, he is also working toward a more inclusive world, one in which we do not judge the cultural Other simply because they are different or by their “otherness.” This inclusiveness vision is also one of a feminist nature, to move toward a more open world is to move away from the directed world of a patriarchal structure.

Peggy McIntosh, in her essay “interactive Phases of Curricular Re-Vision: A Feminist Perspective” talks about the phases she believes education reform has gone and will go through. The first stage of education teaches history without women in it. The second phase points out a few women in history who have managed to be successful but forgets to include the voices of the many. The third phase begins to frame women as an anomaly or the ways in which they have been absent from power structures and influencing societal change and dominant culture. The fourth phase presents women as history to be studied in themselves, and the final phase is a more inclusive history, that includes both genders. I believe ‘the 99’ can be a part of her fifth and final phase, the “phase in which History (or Knowledge) gets redefined, reconstructed to include us all” (22). She describes this phase as being vague; one reason being that we have had so little time to conceive this phase, while we’ve had “6,000 years carefully building a patriarchal structure of knowledge” (23). However, she describes this phases as one that can reassess the structures of power and deconstruct the damage done by the broken pyramid psyche, one that views the world in terms of power dynamics. This phase examines multiple perceptions and multiple voices.

‘The 99’ achieves this goal. It re-writes the principles of Islam and disperses them between 99 individual people of all walks of life. In this way, history is re-written as well to include everyone, not just Islamic people but people of all religions, races and ages. Not only that, but as McIntosh hopes, “Phase 5 curriculum promises to produce students who can carry with them into public life the values of the private sphere,” it allows this inclusiveness to be shared with the world, as children can read comics and share them with their friends.

If a comic book like ‘the 99’ is what is necessary to achieve inclusiveness, ‘a phase 5’ type of understanding about the world, then my question is what other ways can we forge curriculum around arts and culture? And what other types of work do we start not only examining, but creating?


sara.gladwin's picture

something else!

Also I just found out you can buy all the comics online, and then read them sort of like a ebook or a kindle. I think this is pretty fascinating in terms of the transfer of print to online media. This is the link:

sara.gladwin's picture

I have more thoughts about this later....

but this is just a response to some of your questions and some things I was thinking about.

“I'd like to invite you to do a little more work on the graphic form in particular. What is particularly inclusive (or exclusive?) about this mode of creative work? What sort of engagement does it invite (or exclude)? For instance, how universal, how culturally specific, are the images used by Naif Al-Mutawa? What about the words that accompany them? (In what language are they written? What levels of literacy do they presume?)”


There were a couple things I considered when thinking about these questions. The first thing that came to mind was that I considered how people learn and the ways in which comics can (or maybe can’t) address certain learning differences. I am a highly visual learner. When we chose to take the screen away for our class (that usually had all the class notes for that day), I felt lost at first. I was used to having the safety of the notes. It helped to “ground” things that are now all auditorally transmitted in the classroom; whenever I felt like I wasn’t following conversation, I’d look at the screen and have a visual to make the conversation more concrete in my head. Words are not sounds in my head but pictures; the sounds generally have much less meaning while the visual grouping of certain letters is what creates the meaning for me. So I learned to adapt for our class by sometimes looking at the notes on Serendip before class or if I was in class and felt lost I would pull out my own computer to check the notes. So comics for me accentuate what I’m good at and what I like- visual observation. The same is not necessarily true for all students. I talked to several of my friends about this and everyone had different responses. One friend was entirely visual like me, and found the same comfort in pictures. Another friend was highly auditory, and while he could appreciate comics, they did not have the effect. He was unable to process the meaning and storyline as well as he could have done if the same information was transmitted in an auditory way.  Another friend was neutral, finding some auditory things easier to understand, while other times gravitating to visual depictions. So this led me to conclude that whenever learning is taking place only in one form or style, someone is inevitably being left out of the learning process. In order to address multiple learning styles, a classroom would have to include many different mediums; visual, auditory and everything else in between. I like comics because they have writing as well, and can sometimes serve as an auditory if read out loud. Both the language and art of a comic book serve as a multi-sensory learning experience. Still, there are learning styles that may not be completely addressed by a comic book. I took your advice and read a little of “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art” by Scott McCloud and liked immediately how he began be talking about how comic books may be defined too narrowly to begin with (McCloud 3). Perhaps the traditional form of comics does not address every learning style but maybe a more open form could.


            One aspect that is really nice about the cultural images used by the 99 is that the characters come from all over the world, speak many different languages and therefore have many differences in how they act and think. They are all ages; something that I feel creates even more access for a wider audience. A lot of times I feel as though mediums are too directed toward one particular age group. I was watching Ice Age the other night and found it fascinating how many subtle references were directed toward adults so that the movie would address both an audience of children and an audience of their parents.

            I do wish I knew more about the author’s perspective because he created these comics for his American born and socialized children and I wonder if the comics are so easy for me to understand because they are directed at me- and I wondered if I can not see who is not being addressed because I am in the target audience.

Anne Dalke's picture

The Comic Art of Social Transformation

a couple of years ago, Theresa Tensuan organized a marvelous symposium @ Haverford called Drawing the Line: Comics and the Art of Social Transformation. I see your current web-event, showcasing the work of Naif Al-Mutawa, as a good contribution to that conversation. One of your most interesting ideas is the notion that labeling is exclusive, that a text which doesn't name itself either as "Islamic" or "feminist" might do better work--and reach a much larger audience--in both arenas, precisely because it isn't pre-labeled (and so avoids pre-judgment). I haven't read The 99, but I would agree, from your description of it, that it might work well as an example of the sort of inclusive history that McIntosh calls us all to write together.

Before trying to answer the huge questions w/ which your paper "concludes" (=opens up other possibilities!)--"what other ways can we forge curriculum around arts and culture? And what other types of work do we start not only examining, but creating?" -- I'd like to invite you to do a little more work on the graphic form in particular. What is particularly inclusive (or exclusive?) about this mode of creative work? What sort of engagement does it invite (or exclude)? For instance, how universal, how culturally specific, are the images used by Naif Al-Mutawa? What about the words that accompany them? (In what language are they written? What levels of literacy do they presume?)

If you'd like to learn more about "how comics work on us," I'd highly recommend Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (and his very intriguing web sequel, I can't stop thinking....). Some of your classmates are also asking some interesting questions in this regard: see, for example, What's that Word for When You Have to Break It to Find It?