Burka avenger

Why has a Pakistani children’s TV show recently attracted international attention? The animated series is may not at glance appear too different for anything you find on Cartoon Network, but there are some features that make this series a whole different 22 minutes of TV.

Its main character is a woman, something that is rare in series all over the world. What's more, Jiya – a teacher during the day and a superhero by night, fights for rights and values that can be quite controversial in today’s Pakistan. In the first episode, Jiya defeats several bullies who are trying to close down the all-girls school she teaches in. Forthcoming episodes will address such topics as corrupt politicians, environmental degradation and child labour. Also differing from your usual superhero, Jiya uses little violence, and is only armed with books and pens. She fights for “justice, peace, and education for all”.

This all sounds perfectly wonderful: introducing current concerns to children in a suitable and entertaining manner, and encouraging them to fight for their rights and those of others can only have a positive influence on the Pakistani youth, right? Well, according to some women’s rights campaigners, the TV show promotes oppression and enforces negative stereotypes of women. Did I mention that the cartoon is called the Burka Avenger?

Yes, Jiya, when transforming from a mild-mannered school teacher to her ninja-like alter ego dresses up in a burka (if it should rather be a niqab, I apologise, but keeping with the series title I will refer to it as a burka here). This is a magical garment, which allows her not only to remain anonymous, but to fly like a bat and execute some pretty impressive acrobatic stunts. Importantly, she does not cover herself at work, so the burka is reserved for hero activities only. It is probably not surprising that Jiya’s choice of superheroine attire has been the main reason why the series has gained so much attention worldwide.

For a character said to fight against “tyranny and evil” to choose the burka as her costume does seem an odd choice. Several women’s rights activists have expressed concerns that the use of the burka in the superhero context makes a device of oppression appear like a tool of empowerment. Marvi Sirmed, an Islamabad-based journalist and human rights activist, says, "It is demeaning to those brave women in the conservative parts of Pakistan who have been fighting for women's rights, education and justice, and who have said 'no' to this kind of stereotype."

But the show’s creator, popstar Aaron “Haroon” Rashid, says that a burka is a more culturally acceptable hero costume than outfits donned by Western superheroes: “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.” The show’s artistic director Yousaf Ejaz has cited his grandmother’s burka as an inspiration for Jiya’s clothing. "Back in my childhood when she was away, we would steal her burka and act like Batman, wearing that burka: 'I am Batman, look at me!',” he said.

Ejaz’s grandmother, however, might not have considered her garment in such a light matter. While wearing a burka is not religiously mandated in Pakistan, it is still widely used (often because of social pressure) in the more religious areas of the country. On the other hand, more moderate regions where the equality of genders is stronger have seen more girls start wearing burkas willingly to better express their identities as Muslims.

Yes, there could have been better choices for Jiya’s superhero costume, and I agree with the Pakistani feminist blogger Binah Shah that it would be horrifying if little girls start wearing burkas in imitation of their hero, “because that would be indoctrination of the worst kind.” But the overt message of the importance of education and the promotion of equality and tolerance in the Burka Avenger are topics that the discussion of the series should maybe focus more on.

The rate of female literacy in Pakistan has been estimated to be around 12% - a dismal figure, and the Taliban is known for blowing up girls’ schools. I don't think children should be taught that a burka is the way to women’s empowerment, but this kind of an effort to promote education and equality in a country in desperate need of both ought not be overlooked because the heroine is not wearing a cape.

As the shooting of Malala Yousafzai in October last year showed, there are people in Pakistan who, as the villain of the story (not a Taliban member though, but a wealthy village authority), still ask: “What are they [girls] going to do with education? Whether they study or not they are going to end up making rotis in a kitchen.” The Burka Avenger’s answer is clear: “Whether you are a boy or a girl, education is your right,” says the Avenger, a message that comes loud and clear even from underneath the burka.