By Mahvesh Murad
A Few Days Ago, Everywhere in Pakistan
Links to an upcoming animated television show called Burka Avenger have gone viral. I watch the trailer online – The show is about a young school teacher called Jiya in a small town in Pakistan whose secret identity as a masked vigilante helps ensure the town’s safety, progress and most importantly, the education of its female children. She doesn’t have any super powers, but she’s been trained in the art of Takht Karate and her pen is quite literally mightier than a sword. She can’t fly, but she’s got a burqa that lets her glide down from trees while it hides her face. It seems funny, clever, absurd.
(Watch the English version here.)
Soon After, Everywhere in the World
Posts about the Burka Avenger appear everywhere – from blogs to The Guardian to The New York Times. Social media is charged with sudden commentary on ‘what this means’ and whether the burqa-clad vigilante could ever be a Feminist Role Model. Every person with an internet connection is a feminist, and every person with a login id and a password is a critic.
Saturday, 6.02 pm PST on Television
The first episode of Burka Avenger airs on a popular but lurid Pakistani channel (Geo Tez). The animation is well developed, the scenes are short enough for a child’s attention span and the show bears a very clear message. My 5-year-old daughter, who isn’t usually interested in cartoons and prefers things like the Power Puff Girls comics, amazes me by watching it all and enjoying it. She says she likes the ‘nice girl who rescues people’ and finds the use of the burqa ‘funny’. We spend quite some time at bedtime discussing the meaning of the word ‘avenge’.
Meanwhile, in the Hall of Justice
Many are questioning the need to use a burqa at all, which in certain conversations seems to be only a symbol of women’s oppression, an item of clothing that limits women and forces them to hide. A friend points out to me that while the show is based on a powerful idea, it has been trivialized, with no serious attempt to change attitudes. Making the burqa ‘cool’, I am told, will never help change society for those women who have had to wear one without question for generations. ‘We should be working towards an environment where women of every social milieu can choose how to dress’, says my friend, ‘the day Pakistani women can wear anything they want is the day I’ll support a superhero in a burqa’. I completely agree with her desire for Pakistani society to accept that a woman’s body and what she chooses to do with it are no one’s business but hers, but I’m still amused by the idea of a niqabi ninja. Other people are unhappy with what they are calling the ‘glorification’ of the niqab, a veil they clearly don’t approve of. In other places on the internet, people wonder if enjoying the Burka Avenger’s costume is yet another sign that Pakistani society is becoming too accepting of radicalisation, regardless of the fact that this show’s creators have allowed a female character to take ownership and control of the burqa, immediately challenging it as something forced upon women.
The burqa and/or the niqab are things that people all over the world have very strong opinions on, and both are something many ‘progressive’ Pakistanis don’t accept or want in their society. They’d be correct in saying the burqa is a cultural, not Islamic dress code. They’d be right in saying patriarchies (as even seen in pre-Islamic Byzantine art) have forced women for generations to cover themselves in this way against their will. They’d be right in saying a burqa is often a physical hindrance. Sure, things have changed in Pakistan with a very obvious increase in more burqa-clad and head-covered women around. I personally know more women who cover their heads or wear a burqa in public now than ten years ago, or than my mother did when I was growing up. I won’t claim to completely understand why this is happening, but the change is undeniable.
But to assume that a mere burqa can hold women back is ridiculous. If we leave aside the women who choose to wear a burqa, do we assume that every woman who has been forced to wear one (by society, by their husbands, by their fathers, by patriarchy, by that dictator’s tyrannical reign, by the Taliban, by radical extremism, by an incorrect interpretation of religion — take your pick) is rendered entirely invalid by her burqa, with no control over any other aspect of her life? And to assume that girls will be coerced into wearing a niqab or will find it heroic or glamorous because of the creation of a fictional character seems more than a bit of a stretch.
But fine, let’s do that for just a minute. Let’s assume that all burqas are bad, that this idea of making a niqab ‘cool’ is outrageous and dangerous, that it will stall our evolution into a truly liberal society, that all our daughters will be so inspired by Burka Avenger that they will forever stay covered in black cloth. You know, just like the time every Superman fan grew up into an adult who at the slightest sign of trouble ran into a telephone booth, pulled up a chaddi over his pants and tied a towel around his neck.
Perhaps we should give kids more credit. Perhaps they will see Jiya’s burqa as just a tool, as a clever, obvious choice for a Pakistani masked avenger. Perhaps they will see Jiya as their teacher, their ammi, their khala – fighting oppression with what they have so that they can go to school, educate themselves and know that they have a choice. Perhaps every little girl’s life won’t change much but some of them might harbour a tiny, growling, secret ninja in their hearts who will let them challenge their hostile environments or let them ensure that their daughters are educated and their sons are raised to believe that women’s bodies belong to them and them alone. Perhaps, in as little as two generations, an entire belief system will change and evolve gracefully, peacefully.
Burka Avenger has let its protagonist take ownership of the burqa. It is no longer a symbol of the oppressed woman (if you feel that way about a burqa), because it is now a part of her strong, motivated alter ego. Jiya is an educated young middle-class woman (not the brooding daughter of a billionaire), who wears a regular shalwar kameez and does not cover her head in her daily life. To hide her identity she uses the most ubiquitous of items, because if a woman is looking to hide in in plain sight in urban Pakistan’s crowded streets, what better to use than the burqa? I’m sure Burka Avenger could blend seamlessly into any bazaar dressed the way she is.
(Interesting fact: A New York Times article about Burka Avenger states the costume is more streamlined than the burqas women wear in the villages – funny, since most women don’t wear burqas in at least Punjabi and Sindhi villages, they wear chaddars. I won’t comment on villages in KPK, since I have no information about the region.)
Looking at Burka Avenger’s outfit on a larger scale, in a pop culture environment currently sated with hyper sexual female superheroes dressed in straight up fetishistic porn-shop outfits or ‘body condom pervert suits’ like that of Black Widow or Catwoman, I’d say the burqa is an admirable sartorial choice on part of the show’s creators. Finally, we can focus on what a female superhero does, not how her ass looks. Haroon has pointed out that perhaps it wouldn’t have worked to have Jiya’s alter ego in a costume similar to say, Catwoman, and as far as the sexualised latex suits go, I agree with him. Sure, maybe she could have stuck to her shalwar kameez or worn a kurta pyjama and masked her identity with a holey sock or some party mask, but really, doesn’t yanking on an all encompassing, identity obliterating burka/niqab just seem easier and quicker when there are lives to be saved? I’ve never understood how you’d get a latex sheath on fast enough for it to be efficient, anyway.
As the mother of a young girl who gets caught up in this strange ‘princess’ culture that seems to be so, so pervasive now, I’m personally relieved Jiya has a job. Part of me doesn’t even care what her alter ego does, because I’m just so happy to have my daughter enjoy a cartoon where the protagonist has to work for a living. I’ve seen far too many 5-year-old girls say they’ll be princesses when they grow up – to which, of course, I always wonder, princesses living off whose coffers? Here is a young woman with a day job. An honest to goodness, making ends meet day job.
With all this talk of burqas, I am been reminded of a conversation I was witness to about decade ago, between a friend and highly sought after Pakistani model who, usually found in jeans and a tank top, confessed to loving the burqa. She found that the only way she could shop unhindered, unrecognised in Karachi’s busy bazaars was to don a standard black burqa. It let her blend in, and for someone whose face was often on billboards scattered across the country and on posters plastered on walls of tailoring shops, this anonymity was novel. The burqa has probably helped a great many women move in spaces where they feel safer if they were invisible. If this is why the increase in burqa clad women has happened then it is worrying on a much deeper level. Of course the need to develop towards a society where public space is safe for women is needed. Women shouldn’t have to shroud themselves to feel safe — they shouldn’t want to feel invisible at all and the existence of unsafe public spaces or of a society that makes women feel threatened or ill at ease and doesn’t allow them complete control over their bodies is a problem in and of itself.
All sorts of women have probably used the burqa to their advantage as best as they could in such an environment. My housekeeper, who cannot read or write, has worn a burqa for years when she commutes. As a single mother from a very low income background, she can’t challenge her surroundings much, but in her burqa she is able to go out and work. Her daughter is now a 21-year-old college graduate who works in a clothing store in an upscale Karachi mall. She wears trousers and a kurti to work, with a scarf. She only covers herself in a large chaddar if she has to take a public bus. She may or may not choose to wear a burqa later in life, and her future husband may or may not demand it of her. Either way, I don’t believe it will hold her back. I think it would take more to break a woman who wants more.
A great many people around me who have been worried about the aspect of a superhero in a burqa seem to be from my very small part of the privileged upper class of Pakistani society. I wonder what a woman who actually wears a burqa and goes about her daily life just fine thinks of this show, so I call one up. This is a woman who has chosen to wear a burqa in public (albeit one without a niqab or face covering), who is the only one in her family to wear any sort of hijab, and whose daughter goes to one of the city’s most prestigious English-medium schools. She’s open minded enough to say her daughter can choose to do what she pleases when she is older, and laughed at the idea that her kids may think their mother goes around knocking out bad guys in her spare time. She knows her choice isn’t liked in her little segment of society, but she is glad for some representation of a burqa wearing woman other than as a symbol of patriarchal or extremist tyranny against women. Did she think the burqa was being glorified, I asked? It’s a piece of cloth, she told me, it means different things to different people – how can that be glorified? I didn’t have an answer for her.
Creator Haroon Rashid has said that Burka Avenger, the TV show, is to have a clear message at the end of each episode and while the messages may vary, the overreaching focus of the show is the need for and importance of education, and given the current political climate, particularly for girls. In the first episode, a little girl called Ashu and her friends are excited about a concert at school. Ashu is thrilled to run into Miss Jiya, her favourite school teacher. We know, from an earlier introductory voice over and a hilarious training montage featuring raw eggs and Takht Karate with a desi Mr. Miyagi, Kabbadi Jan (who reminds his protege to always have ‘inner peace’), that Miss Jiya is Burka Avenger. Ashu is horrified and heartbroken to find her school locked up by Baba Bandook (a sort of fraudulent faith healer) and Pajero Vadero (a sort of greedy feudal landlord). Whether the villains are cliches or archetypes doesn’t matter to me – they are evil but funny and bumbling and not threatening enough to give kids actual nightmares. Burka Avenger comes to the rescue, snapping the padlock on the school gate open with a flick of her pen. The message is delivered with zero ambiguity, the jokes are funny, the animation is slick and the episode even passes the Bechdel test. Burka Avenger is not just well produced, it is also being marketed well with a website, social media presence and an upcoming smartphone game. Haroon’s previous experience as a pop star has clearly taught him a lot about reaching out to the public. He’s broken fresh ground before too — his band Awaz’s single Jaaneman was the first ever Urdu song to air on MTV Asia in 1992.
I do not believe that a cartoon could change our complex society’s understanding of, or need for a burqa. I do believe that if young girls are educated, helped to develop imaginations and allowed agency over their minds and bodies, they will raise sons and daughters who will think beyond veils and drapes and dress codes and cultural confines. I do believe that while brave young Malala Yousefzai may be a great role model for young women’s education in Pakistan, the fact still remains that she isn’t being beamed into the hearts of millions of 5 and 6 year olds each week. Every child may not be able to relate to Malala’s incredible story, but every child can probably relate to the fantasy that maybe their mild mannered school teacher is secretly a niqabi ninja. For me, it would be enough if even just a dozen young girls are convinced by Burka Avenger that if they’re educated, if they’re imaginative and strong, they can be total badasses even if their society does not expect them to be.
Finally, how’s this for a little perspective: The last (and first) Pakistani superhero with an animated series was 2005’s Commander Safeguard. He was named after the antiseptic soap that paid for his existence, and he fought germs in situations with names like ‘Mission: Clean Sweep’. He was popular and maybe kids remembered to wash their hands more, but that was all he had going for him. There were no discussions about him and while he was clearly based on hyper-masculine male super heroes from the west, no one questioned if his skin hugging body suit would be a bad influence or not.
Whether you enjoy the Burka Avenger or not and whether you have ideological issues with its existence or not, you have to admit we’ve traded up.
Burka Avenger OST — Lady in Black