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.

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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.

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