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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

The new superhero cartoon series, Burka Avenger, has created quite a stir in Pakistan. At a time when the country is grappling with women’s rights in its troubled frontier provinces, this story of the “Lady in Black” depicts a shy school teacher fighting local henchman to save her school. It might sound like any other superhero fighting for justice, except this newly popular character, by her namesake, sports a burka and comes on the heels of Malala Yousufzai’s speech at the United Nations.

What is Burka Avenger all about? The brainchild of pop singer Adnan Haroon Rashid, the character is an action heroine, Jiya, who uses books and pens to battle ignorance and tyranny in her village, Halwapur. It is not too often that audiences in South Asia are treated to a local superhero, let alone a female one. The stark parallels to current realities of life in parts of Pakistan can hardly be missed either. Resembling the lush backdrop of Swat, Halwapur is set in a scenic green valley. The two villains who Jiya battles are cleverly named Vadero Pajero, a corrupt politician who sports a pretentious dollar-signed chain, and a turban clad Baba Bandook. Arguably, these two characters are symbolic of some of Pakistan’s politicians and Taliban leadership, and are a direct reference to the country’s chequered establishment.

It all starts when these two villains join hand to shut down Halwapur girls’ school. In response, Jiya, the schoolteacher, fights back against these evil characters under the cover of night using martial arts skills, and her books and pens. Originally developed as an app, the character has been built into a 13-part TV series which shows the Burka Avenger slaying a new evil every time — from child labour to discrimination and sectarian violence.

While the symbolism is deliberate, the timing of the show’s popularity is more of a coincidence. The planning behind the superhero’s adventures had been in the works for nearly two years. When Malala was shot on her way to school, the world media turned its attention to Pakistan. Designed for a local audience in mind, the Burka Avenger’s release at that same time seemed to be a direct response from sections of a country struggling with extremist ideologies. Yet with the attention of a global audience, the TV series has also given rise to several questions. One of the more repeated ones has been around the use of burka, admittedly a burning concern of the foreign press. Traditionally viewed in the west as a symbol of oppression on women, news outlets are questioning why a female role model like Jiya wears such a cloak when her own purpose is to liberate others in distress.

Much of this angst seems to be misplaced though. The show’s creator reiterates that Jiya only uses the burka at night when she is out to fight evil. The audience can see her without any veil during the day when she is teaching at the school. Importantly, Jiya is shown to be sporting the burka at her own will and uses it as a cloak much alike any other superhero. The image of a shy school teacher who can also rise to the occasion to protect her community, in any form or fashion literally, is sure to capture the audience’s imagination.

The cultural context of the Burka Avenger may also have been overlooked. The character skilfully blends the idea that one can practice ‘liberal’ values of education while respecting local tradition.  The burka closely reflects an accepted custom for an audience in Pakistan and brings home a character that most children – the series’ target audience – can recognise. In fact, Jiya comes off as an independent woman who uses her determination and skills to overcome adversity. Perhaps inadvertently, this Pakistani superheroine stands in contrast to popular female characters in the west such as Disney princesses who are often depicted to be the ones in need of help and rescued by a stronger male protagonist. By presenting a determined female character, the Burka Avenger’s creators do a good job of presenting a role model to many children who may be predisposed on gender issues otherwise.

To some, this new series may be reminiscent of another South Asian animated character, Meena. Like Jiya, Meena became a familiar face with many South Asian children, as she set out to help her family and community on issues of gender, health, and social inequality. However, unlike Meena, the Burka Avenger has the potential to put to use current social media and reach a wider audience. With a universal message that can appeal to girls – and all children in fact – in cities and villages across Pakistan, the Lady in Black may well constitute a significantly powerful example than its creators had imagined utilising the power of online media on hand.

Safwan Shabab is a Bangladeshi investor currently based in Chicago, USA.

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