A poster for Burka Avenger.
As the world ponders and titters about Pakistan’s newly minted super heroine, Burka Avenger, it’s easy to forget that she’s not the first veiled super heroine. She is, arguably, the first solo-mission super heroine with a clear purpose. The story unequivocally preaches the importance of educating girls in a country where it’s not considered a priority, if even a right.
Set in a fictional village in Pakistan, Burka Avenger takes on the Taliban bad guys one school at a time. Her weapons? Pens and schoolbooks, which she hurls with a deadly accuracy.
Burka Avenger is too unusual, too quirky not to grab attention. While it’s tempting to write it off as a simplistic take on a serious message, if look beyond its eccentric facade you can see a more important message.
Pakistani orphans reacts while watching an early screening of the first episode of the animates Burka Avenger series, at an orphanage on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan. Photo: AP
And super heroes are certainly an effective method to reach the general populace. Grant Morrison introduced the Afghanistani superhero ‘Dust’ to the X-Men. Batman took the young Parisian Muslim ‘Nightrunner’ as a close ally. The ancient protector Captain Britain became Dr Faiza Hussain, as Christian Read, writer of graphic novels Eldritch Kid and Unmasked, points out.
“In the 80s, when the American media was bombarded with images of sinister clerics, supervillain terrorists were in. By the Bush years, superheroes served as a tonic to the Fox News story under a wave of proud lefty writers,” says Read.
While some of the handling of characters can be a little problematic, even tokenistic, there's been a definite attempt by the cape publishers, “tin-eared as it is, to be inclusive”, he adds.
Pakistani schoolgirls, who were displaced with their families from Pakistan's tribal areas due to fighting between militants and the army. Photo: AP
The refreshing aspect to this is that Burka Avenger is not inclusive, but a localised, savvy approach to a major issue. Unlike other veiled superheroes, this isn’t about tokenistic acceptance in a mainstream graphic novel/comic book universe, nor is it steeped in rich mythology and metaphor.
It’s pretty transparent in its desire to rebut the idea that females shouldn’t be educated lest it leads to societal decay. Burka Avenger meets the local challenges of a nation that struggles with female education and, subsequently, empowerment.
Importantly, this is coming from within. The real-life backdrop to this is the well-documented shooting of young Pakistani education advocate Malala Yousafzai, but the Urdu-language cartoon, scheduled to air on GEO TV in August, is much lighter fare.
There’s no doubt those bankrolling it are taking the issue seriously – behind it are some of Pakistan’s most successful pop stars, including Aaron Haroon Rashid, which not only explains the contemporary approach, but also injects it with some serious street cred. With 13 episodes, an album and music videos, an interactive website and iPhone game this has some serious marketing pull behind it.
If the English language trailer and marketing are anything to go by, it’s a slightly audacious, irreverent and humorous series. As Rashid told AP, “Each one of our episodes is centred around a moral, which sends out strong social messages to kids. But it is cloaked in pure entertainment, laughter, action and adventure.”
Like its cartoon counterparts, the show delivers humour that appeals not only to younger viewers, but also adults. The Guardian reports that in one episode, one of the Bad Guys attempts to colonise major world cities, but a minion interjects with a concern about getting visas to gain entry.
But of course, the emphasis is firmly on the heroine’s clothing. It’s understandable, given the title of the show, but also a misplaced focus. In the trailer, we see the avenger by day – dressed in “Western” clothing, a teacher with long glossy locks and a cheeky smile. But then she transforms into Burka Avenger, she of long black robe a la ninja, head and face covered.
It’s a sleeker, comic-eqsue type of burka, and it looks pretty spectacular as the avenger leaps buildings and attacks the enemy Matrix style. Like a scene out of your standard action film. she throws pens like spears at the Bad Guys, and rises, suspended in mid-air, oozing strength and purpose.
If I were a young girl watching Burka Avenger, I’d want to be her.
The burka element is instructive, not central to the story. While it’s meeting the cultural and religious expectations within Pakistani society, it’s also repurposing the idea of a secret identity, and the use of the burka. After all, Western superheroes almost always hide their identity by wearing masks.
The avenger is using her modesty to protect her identity to fight for justice and education. It’s very cleverly using an imposed value as a strength, and that’s empowering. The fact that she’s wearing the burka means that young girls are going to be able relate to the character and draw strength from the fact that she is one of them.
Pop culture is a highly attuned method of shifting mindsets. As with any campaign, it can takes years for something to become the norm -- but cartoons like this plant a seed. It’s also an exercise in shifting the perception of education in Pakistan, a sign that those most affected by it can be engaged from within and instigate long-term change.