Burka Avenger: Conservative Pakistan’s New Animated Liberal Superheroine

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Poster for the Burka Avenger series
Sebastian Abbot / AP

She already had her own Facebook page with over 20,000 fans, as well as a phone game, soundtrack and T-shirts — and she hadn’t even made her entrance. Now she has: Burka Avenger, Pakistan’s new controversial cartoon series starring a female superhero of the same name, premiered on Pakistani television on July 28. Whether the mild-mannered school teacher who dons a black burka to fight evil is a commercial success remains to be seen. But for now, plenty of eyes are on her.

The Urdu-language series is the brainchild of Pakistani pop star Aaron Haroon Rashid, who also sings its English theme song “Lady in Black” with rapper Adil Omar. (“Don’t mess with the lady in black when she’s on the attack!”) Drawing parallels with the Taliban’s attack last year on the then 15-year-old child rights’ activist Malala Yousafzai, the slick, well-produced series follows the adventures of Jiya, a quiet teacher called to action when local villains threaten to, among other things, close the local school. “Armed with only books and pens” and a coterie of fierce martial arts moves, Jiya, who does not wear a burka in her normal life,  puts on the billowing black garb to hide her identity, help her fly around, and — if one chooses to dig a little deeper — reappropriate what some interpret as a symbol of oppression into a force for good.

(MOREPakistan’s Malala Problem)

That last bit has caused a stir in Pakistan, where many question whether the burka should be held up as something cool and superhero-y for kids. Bina Shah, a feminist blogger in Pakistan, points out in a July 28 post that the show’s producers are making a sly play on words by having Jiya be a burka-wearing martial arts supremo. “’Ninja Turtle’ is a common epithet for burka-wearing women who behave aggressively in public, thinking that the burka gives them the religious superiority and moral authority to break every rule in sight, especially while driving,” writes Shah. She also takes issue with the garment’s glorification. “Pakistani girls and women need to know that their natural state of being is not hidden away, shrouded by yards of black cloth to make their presence in society acceptable, safe, or halal … It will horrify me if little girls start wearing burkas in imitation of their hero, because that would be indoctrination of the worst kind.”

Why should such a positive symbol — the Burka Avenger is Pakistan’s first female hero — be bogged down by questions over whether the garment is a tool of suppression or empowerment and choice in conservative Muslim communities? Creator and producer Rashid, who goes by the stage name Haroon, has repeatedly defended the decision, telling the Associated Press that the burka was simply chosen as a culturally appropriate tool to conceal their hero’s identity: “Since she is a woman, we could have dressed her up like Catwoman or Wonder Woman, but that probably wouldn’t have worked in Pakistan.”

True. And while the series’ website reiterates the program’s goals “are to make people laugh, to entertain and to send out positive social messages to the youth,” it is hard to imagine that Rashid and his collaborators were unaware they were wading into deeper waters. Though Rashid told NDTV that he started working on the show before Yousafzai was shot last year, the decision to have Jiya fight for the right to education in the show’s first episode is still a straightforward condemnation of the Taliban’s attacks on hundreds of schools in the country’s northwest. Rashid has said the next 12 episodes will tackle other social issues like discrimination, child labor, Pakistan’s crippling energy shortages and the environment.

It’s part of animation’s long tradition of multi-tasking, born of the fact that when cartoons are being watched by children, there are usually adults in the room. Many animated series have artfully woven loftier social themes and ideas into their visual antics; a few have become some of the best social commentary of their time. If Burka Avenger has children and grown-ups alike talking more about the rights and role of women in Pakistan, then the lady in black will truly have pulled off some kung fu magic.

Want to judge for yourself? Watch the English-language trailer here.

MOREChand Bibi’s School: A Pakistani Teacher’s Courageous Quest to Educate Girls

67 comments
Kayee
Kayee

Dear Krista,

As an animation student passionate about social issues, I am a strong advocate for using art to convey meaningful messages that inspire change. Naturally, I am extremely encouraged to know that the Burka Avenger is a pioneer in fighting discrimination and promoting education for girls in Pakistan. My childhood in the United States was shaped by character such as Bugs Bunny, Snow White, Peter Pan, and Spiderman. While these characters all inherently promote generally good character (not without a cheesy joke here and there,) and The Burka Avenger is unique in that it does more than entertain—it has the potential to establish the importance of education and equality in children from an early age—something that I would love to see more of in a society that is becoming more politically and culturally complex. There already seems to be a trend towards helping Muslim women vocalize their rights and struggles through creative means—as seen in the Women on Walls graffiti movement in Egypt. In my research concerning the power of animation in society, there is an expansion to increasingly use animation as a way to educate and inspire because of the influential nature of the moving art—and the Burka Avenger is one such example. Haroon Rashid himself is quoted to say “Each one of our episodes is centered around amoral, which sends out strong social messages to kids. But it is cloaked in pure entertainment, laughter, action and adventure.” Thus, I am in complete agreement with you that if marketed and executed correctly to inspire discussion about women’s rights among both children and adults, The Burka Avenger may be one of the most memorable and influential animated projects of our time.

While I am eager to follow up on the progress of this ground-breaking new series, the rise of this television has already provoked its share of controversy by using the burka as a cool superhero costume as you have mentioned. An article in patheos.com also voices the concern of a woman over how a hijab is still a tool that allows her more respect even though she may not feel like herself. In a culture where women’s rights and education is particularly sensitive, do you believe that The Burka Avenger can be a pioneer for a trend of meaningful animation programs for children, and what are cultural and societal boundaries that we have to be wary of? I understand that there are many political and social undertones that may tie into events such as the Malala incident. Thank you again for such an insightful article and for shedding light on a subject that is bursting with potential. 

DanyaEgel
DanyaEgel

@TIME this could be the beginning for a change in gender roles. Having a modern female hero.

MediaCastleX
MediaCastleX

@TIME she looks like Sand from the X-men, or at least just the outfit...I'm sure her eyes were a different color?

LailaRashid4
LailaRashid4

@TIME debate started cuz people judged before watchin cartoon. she doesn't wear headscarf whn doin good everyday deeds.only whn fighting!

Harvey99
Harvey99

I saw the trailer. Apparently the Social Message they are trying to promote is that books and pens are only good for throwing at people. (Not kidding, she uses books and pens much like how batman would use his batarangs, or ninjas would use shruiken)

Abijango
Abijango

@DaniSharaf did you read the other articles on it? How they miss the point and keep pointing out that a burka is a sign of oppression

Farisa Afzal
Farisa Afzal

what if its religious, its nothing to be ashamed of

Jen-nee Bouchier
Jen-nee Bouchier

The way I see it, this is leaps and bounds ahead of western media. Name one female super hero who currently has her own show in North America. Yeaaaaaaahhh. So quick to point out the flaws in other cultures but we're not a shining beacon of equality either.

dshikoh
dshikoh

@TIME @TIMEWorld media already has started using it before the show has gained actual popularity

Ruth Pennington Paget
Ruth Pennington Paget

I guess not all women who save the world have to do it in a skintight swimsuit.

Afza Zaidi
Afza Zaidi

Wait why's this controversial :S

David Lautz
David Lautz

Its a bird. Its a plane. No look! Its a flying trashbag!

Arooj Malik
Arooj Malik

And they appeared on a specific tv show, the host is much like Jerry Springer of Pakistan

Arooj Malik
Arooj Malik

She is talking about orphans that are adopted by new parents

Salman Haider-Raja
Salman Haider-Raja

The burqa in this cartoon is only used as a disguise similar to what batman or spiderman would wear. There is not really any religious side to this cartoon, it's more of a cultural thing.

Kyle Lorde
Kyle Lorde

Seriously. I don't know. Are they really misogynist towards them.

Kyle Lorde
Kyle Lorde

What's the culture in Pakistan like towards women?

jessicagares980
jessicagares980

@graciestyle thanks Alise! It will just be on Sunday morning. I had a feeling you might tune in because you're an early bird!

ZohaibKhan
ZohaibKhan

@Arooj Malik Are you comparing Haroon to that American trash, Jerry?

JackieRice
JackieRice

@Kyle Lorde 

Seriously?  Come on, they're 2nd class citizens, especially in households, to even their younger sons!  That's just sooo wrong.

UmeedMeera
UmeedMeera

No everything is change .Media dont show real pakistan..@Kyle Lorde