ELLE tracks down Munira Mustaffa, the real life DC Comics character Obscura

The intelligence analyst who inspired DC Comics' first ever Malaysian Muslim character turns out to be as amazing as we'd hoped

By Andrea Tim | Published: 4 Mar 2016

The real Obscura
Photo: Munira Mustaffa

Malaysian espionage fighter Obscura may be an elusive character in DC's Batgirl comics, but we managed to catch up with the woman who inspired Munira Khairuddin (Obscura's alter ego). As it turns out, Munira Mustaffa, an intelligence analyst based in the UK, has more in common with the butt-kicking comic character than you might think.

Tell us about yourself.
I work as a strategic intelligence analyst and due diligence consultant for a London-based private firm. I also provide business risk analysis to a few clients. My experience ranges from investigating fraud, money laundering and corruption to asset recovery. I also conduct geopolitical research and analysis on political violence and regional security. I initially started out as a medical student, but switched to Forensic Sciences. From forensics, I majored in Countering Organised Crime and Terrorism (COCT) at University College of London for my Masters degree.

I also run an online project called The Analyst Beast with a former classmate from the COCT programme, within which we intend to write and publish analysis on political violence and security issues from a crime science perspective.

How does it feel, having a comic character created based on you?
When Jaymee Goh first approached me around mid-2014 about [the character of] Katarina Armstrong (also known as Spy Smasher) getting revamped as Munira Khairuddin/Obscura and loosely basing her on me, I was absolutely taken aback. I think one of the first questions I asked was, "Why me?" Jaymee said it was because I was literally the only Malay woman she knew who was doing security studies specialising in counterterrorism at the time. She also told [DC Comics'] Gail Simone that I am a huge Batman fan, which probably helped! Jaymee and Gail asked me to keep it a secret because they weren't sure her publishers would go for it, let alone agree on naming the character after me. After that, I had completely forgotten about the whole thing until I saw around late 2014 that the New 52 series was published, and Munira Khairuddin made her first appearances in issues 32, 33 and 34.

It was only recently when the story finally fully exploded back home, that I began to comprehend the full impact of Munira Khairuddin/Obscura, and what she meant to many young Malaysians. I am just happy to be able to share her with so many young Malaysian women who could see themselves in her.

In what ways are you and Obscura similar?
I guess we both share similar ferocity, dedication and passion for our careers. We are both equally resourceful, tenacious and single-minded in our pursuit, and are completely prepared to hit the ground running when push comes to shove. More importantly, I'd like to think that we are both fiercely loyal, caring and supportive to our friends and family. That we are both good listeners and we would not hesitate to help people out.

How can Obscura be a good role model to women and girls?
I think she inspires many young Malaysian women with the idea that they could be more – that they can be extraordinary too. Obscura strikes me as an intelligent woman – tough, independent and fearless with a ferocious tenacity about her. The fact that Obscura is a Malay woman is important, because diversity and positive representation matters a lot. It's always great to see more female Asian comic book characters – women who we could all relate to. We tend to idealise whiteness as the supreme beauty standard in Malaysia, so it is crucial for Malay girls to see that they can be both brown and awesome. I think we live with this odd paradox about how we view Malay women in Malaysia. Malay women form a significant percentage of the work force, yet people still struggle with the concept that Malay women can be more than just a wife/mother/daughter/sister. We still dispute their suitability to leadership roles and dismiss their professional importance and achievements.

We frequently find in the media the perpetuated stereotype that the ideal Malay woman should be subjugated, demure and reserved with marriage and a good husband as her end-goal. I've had people tell me that it is very unusual for a Malay woman to do what I do. Why? Malay women have been doing plenty of extraordinary and unusual things for years – whether as single ladies, or as married women with children!

What is the best thing you've heard anyone say about Obscura?
A young woman tweeted this.

That was the highlight of my day.

How do you think equality is working out for women, especially in Malaysia?
It's great that many young women are getting more and more serious about feminism. But the way society is structured, I think it will be some time before we can achieve our ideal sense of equality. There are so many things to unpack, and while we strive for equality, often we forget that not everyone is equipped with certain tools that could provide them with the much-needed advantage in life. In other words, even when discussing equality, people often forget to check their privilege. I also think that people's idea of feminism can vary from woman to woman. It's both complicated and complex. Personally, solidarity and inclusivity are very important factors to me. The real challenge is to make people understand how and why solidarity and inclusivity are the key. Everyone is too focused on what they think is right for them, but not for others.

What is your advice for someone wanting to do what you do?
The most important qualification an analyst needs is to find something they like and do it well. Know what you are passionate about, and combine your skills into something practical. Have a clear idea of what you want to do and target those opportunities. Don't let other people discourage you – I used to have people laugh at me and make fun of me when I said I wanted to be an intelligence analyst and practitioner. So don't be afraid to persevere.

My advice for young aspiring analysts is that, apart from having analytic capabilities and conceptual brilliance, they should be able to absorb a deluge of information from various sources and transform it into something intelligible and useful. You should also like learning new things on the go. You will be expected to have intimate knowledge of an area of regional politics, but you can never be knowledgeable on every other area.

Intelligence analysis looks and sounds really sexy in the media, but a lot of it is really research work. Also, you should be a good listener and be able to write well and concisely.

Soft skills are equally important. Do not underestimate the power of networking – it is a good skill to have to be able to get a community of people behind your projects or run a team of people to build up organisations. You should have a good mix of thinking, communicating and managing professional relationships skills. Don't be afraid to try new things as well – it's always a good experience. Go out and seek new opportunities – they will not happen while you stay still.

And most of all, good luck and all the best!

Related: DC Comics character Obscura is Malaysian

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