This Burka-Clad Female Superhero Will Fight the Taliban With Books

09-10-2013
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Image via Burka Avenger‘s official Facebook pageIt sometimes feels like no one really knows how to write or illustrate female superheroes correctly. Take a look at
The Hawkeye Initiative for proof of that. But a team of animators in Pakistan is looking to make a dent in this hypersexualized and anatomically incorrect realm with their new animated series,
Burka AvengerThe name of the show is a little odd, but
Burka Avenger is being marketed as a feminist show for children. The protagonist, Jiya, is a schoolteacher whose superhero alter ego fights the more conservative forces in Pakistan. She uses a special imaginary branch of martial arts called “takht kabbadi,” in which ninja-stars and swords are tossed aside for books and pens, the only weapons that the Burka Avenger employs.
Her main cause is promoting girls’ education. According to the 
New York Times, the Pakistani Taliban see schools “as symbols of both Western decadence and government authority” and have consequently attacked over 800 schools in northwestern Pakistan over the last four years. The case of
Malala Yosafzai, the teenage education activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban last fall, is a prime example of how politically and physically dangerous this topic has become. But as a fictional character, Jiya can touch upon divisive issues like this without impunity.

Unsurprisingly, Jiya’s choice of disguise is ripe for controversy. The burqa is a symbol layered with significance, but for many in the United States, it reads mainly as a tool of women’s oppression.
The shows’ creators play the burqa off as both practical for Jiya and strategic for them. All superheroes need to cover their faces, don’t they? And the outfit speaks to local cultural attitudes. Haroon, the pop star creator of
Burka Avenger, remarked, “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.” He and his colleagues also point out that during the day, in her capacity as a schoolteacher, Jiya
wears whatever she wants, which in promotional material appears to be a pale pink tunic, white pants, and sandals.
However, critics worry that depicting the burqa as anything other than a manifestation of women’s subjection will be harmful to the cause of women’s rights more generally. Writing in the
Times of India, Rudroneel Ghosh argues that Burka Avenger is a “regressive cartoon” that “defeats the noble values it otherwise aims to portray.” He attacks the notion that the Jiya’s costume is a nod towards Pakistani culture, saying that a salwar-kameez, a traditional tunic and pants outfit worn by both men and women, with an added mask would’ve been in better taste.
It’s worth noting that the burqa in question doesn’t really even look like a burqa. As some have mentioned, Jiya’s outfit looks more
ninja-esque than veil-like. It’s perhaps not unreasonable to assume that many Westerners, when shown an image of the Avenger without any context whatsoever, simply wouldn’t take her outfit to be a burqa.
Yet despite the valid burqa debate, the Pakistani animation team behind
Burka Avenger is taking a commendable stab at a historically-troubled area of gender representation. Jiya may want to consider one of these 
drone-proof burqas, just to cover her bases, as the northwestern region of Pakistan where she is said to live is plagued by drone attacks. Even still, she is a bad ass crusader of girls’ education in a part of the world where the political unpopularity of standing up for women’s rights doesn’t come without the risk of getting killed.