Any guesses as to the identity of this mysterious, black figure who's gliding from rooftop to rooftop, scanning the town for evil? No, it's not Batman. In fact, it's not a man at all. It is the one and only Burka Avenger, a Pakistani schoolteacher otherwise known as Jiya who fights evil with Takht Kabaddi, a slick form of martial arts that uses books and pens as weaponry. By day, Jiya is a quiet, reserved teacher in the fictional town of Halwapur, and by night, she is a fierce defender of social justice.
Burka Avenger is a groundbreaking superhero for a number of reasons: she is an empowered woman, her sidekicks are three children, her cause is social justice, and she's primarily focused on universal education. And Burka Avenger's enemies, corrupt politicians and Taliban-like militants, are very real. Yet, despite all the laudable ingenuity and boldness behind the character, discussion about Burka Avenger has somehow focused on debate over her attire.
Created by Pakistani pop star Haroon, Burka Avenger is the first animated series produced in Pakistan (there's also a Burka Avenger iPhone game, available through Apple's App Store). The TV series is expertly produced, with lively graphics and a soundtrack made up of songs by Pakistan’s top pop sensations, and it is broadcasted on one of Pakistan’s most viewed television networks, Geo TV.
Burka Avenger represents a triumph for Pakistan, where there is a deep disconnect between the city-dwelling elite and the rural poor. The show's potential to mobilize Pakistan is twofold. First, it has generated tactful and productive discussions about Pakistan’s social issues. Access to education is a serious problem in Pakistan, where the literacy rate is only 54.9% overall, and only 40.3% for women. In addition to addressing education and literacy, the show playfully reprimands Pakistan's corrupt political system, and overtly denounces the Taliban's militancy as evil.
Second, the show's animated format and superhero main character brilliantly target the youth of Pakistan. The show exposes young people to the idea of gender equality, and to the need to stand up against injustices. Even Burka Avenger’s name, Jiya, is a testament to this fact. Jiya translates to "life" or "heart." By giving her this name, the show suggests that standing up for social justice is at the heart of Pakistan’s survival and progress.
Unfortunately, instead of focusing on the many positive aspects of the show, discussion has turned to Jiya's attire as Burka Avenger. She wears a burqa, the Muslim covering that reveals only the eyes, but her outfit is not an inherent sign of oppression. In fact, her burqa represents a clever conversion of a culturally relevant and commonly worn garment into a superhero costume. Many women wear burqas as a personal choice, not because they are oppressed. And women who are forced to wear burqas can view the superhero’s costume as empowering. Furthermore, the burqa serves as a disguise when Jiya wants to protect her identity, just like Batman's mask and suit.
Former Ambassador Sherry Rehman’s tweet suggesting that a simple dupatta, or scarf, would do seems to miss the burqa's purpose. Burka Avenger's attire is not a religious symbol, so much as it is a tool that enables Jiya to keep her identity private; in contrast, a dupatta could serve only as a religious symbol.
Bina Shah, a Pakistani novelist, raised a concern about an implicit message of the show: “The woman, Jiya, is shown as only being able to fight her battles when she dons the burqa. And I think that sends the message, especially to little girls that might be watching the program, that a woman can only make a difference in society when she is invisible.” Yet, Jiya’s role as an admirable, kind schoolteacher is what prompts her sidekicks to join her. She is invaluable as both Jiya and Burka Avenger.
What's troubling about this debate is that, once again, a female superhero's costume has become the subject of discussion. However, it is not what Burka Avenger wears, but what she does, that is important. By restricting the conversation about Burka Avenger to an inane debate about the protagonist's wardrobe, we are degrading the show’s worth. A woman’s attire, whether she is fictional or real, should not be up for discussion. Her merit should be determined by her accomplishments.
Can Burka Avenger save Pakistan? Perhaps — but only if we can stop focusing on what she wears and instead applaud what she does.