The Burka Avenger: Can She Save Western Entertainment as Well?

Mild-mannered teacher by day, masked superhero by night, the Burka Avenger fights corruption and oppression, and aims to empower the girls of Pakistan. (Picture: Unicorn Black Studios, via npr.org)

Watch out evildoers, there’s a new superhero in Pakistan. The Burka Avenger made its recent debut on Pakistani TV, and she’s not your average superhero.  An intelligent schoolteacher by day, an enemy of injustice by night, the Burka Avenger stands for peace, education, and women’s rights.

Haroon Rashid, a Pakistani pop star, invented the Burka Avenger to offer children a role model that counteracts the religious and political injustice in Pakistani society.  As Rashid tells NPR in a recent interview, “I thought of an idea of sort of, like, a protagonist protecting a girls’ school. And that’s how the idea for the Burka Avenger developed.”

The superhero’s name is Jiya, who conceals her identity in a burka costume and arms herself with school supplies for weapons. “I wanted a nonviolent message,” Rashid says, “Her message is, ‘Justice, Peace and Education for All.’ ”

NPR reported that feminists are critical. What kind of role model for young girls hides her features in an oppressive burka? Rashid protests, “she chooses to wear the burka, she’s not oppressed … and on the other end of the spectrum, a lot of female superheroes in the West are objectified, and sort of sexualized in their costumes, like Catwoman and Wonder Woman, and that certainly would not work here.” Major props to Rashid for providing children with a superhero to emulate rather than for grown-ups to ogle.

His agenda should teach us Westerners a thing or two about role models.

“A lot of the entertainment [in Pakistan] is imported from the West; it’s not relevant, socially relevant or culturally relevant, and most of it’s just entertaining junk,” Rashid says in an interview. “They don’t have any social messages, and I think it’s important to have positive social messages and themes and morals.”

Rashid is redeeming superheroes from mindless violence, shallow plotlines, and gratuitous sexuality, showing that entertainment can be harnessed as a force for positive social good for children. My daughter will be born any day now (momma’s 38 weeks!), and when she comes of age, I will be reaching for resources that will profit her education and character. The Burka Avenger offers girls an example of modesty, intelligence, and social concern.

You better believe that she (and probably her mother and I) will be huddled around my computer streaming The Burka Avenger.

Check out the English trailer here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pdbshf4iPE

About Ryan Hoselton

Ryan Hoselton is working on a Master of Theology in Louisville, KY. He’s married to Jaclyn, his latina co-explorer in learning, travel, and exotic culinary research. He contributes blogs on church history at Historia Ecclesiastica. Twitter: @ryanhoselton

  • http://www.fromnothingcomics.com/ Steve Crespo

    The creator, Rashid, answers the criticism that the burka is a symbol of female oppression by saying “she chooses to wear the burka, she’s not oppressed”. …Yeah, and the threat of violence or death isn’t a factor in actual (not cartoon) women “choosing” to wear a burka, right?

    I wonder, will The Burka Avenger fight against force female circumcisions as well?

  • Ryan Patrick Hoselton

    Thanks Steve, I was waiting for this comment. I certainly do not endorse the symbol of oppression that the burka represents. My intention was to state the positive things about the cartoon. Nonetheless, many women do in fact choose to wear a burka without violence as a motivation, and it’s not up to western standards to judge their preferences. The main point that struck me is that before we want to attack The Burka Avenger’s costume, we should consider that our Western superhero costumes don’t exactly provide a better alternative.

  • http://www.fromnothingcomics.com/ Steve Crespo

    “Nonetheless, many women do in fact choose to wear a burka without violence as a motivation, and it’s not up to western standards to judge their preferences.”

    …Read the writings of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. While there may be those who “choose” to wear the burka without the threat of violence, this in no way wipes out the millions upon millions of women who wear it because they are not up to the task of risking their lives.

    It is not a Western standard that I judge as much as a human standard. If there is any right more natural, and more essential to humanity aside from a basic right to life, it is the right to show your face. For a culture to criminalize a woman showing her face is to dehumanize women on a most basic level. This goes far beyond East and West.

    Do our Western super hero costumes provide a better alternative? Let’s see… within female Western superhero costumes we have everything from the risque to the practical. Do you know what I see in that? The freedom to choose- mask or no mask, covered body or revealing costume. Freedom.

    So, yes. It does seem that Western costumes provide better alternatives, because each hero- and their creators- can do whatever they like with no fear of reprisals.

  • Noah Smith

    The choose of costume worn by Western superheroines isn’t the result of freedom, its the result of male creators catering to mostly male readers. That’s why they run around half naked and have enormous breasts and ass.

  • http://www.fromnothingcomics.com/ Steve Crespo

    Yes, it is born of freedom.

    No fatwa has been issued for their lives, right? No one has been arrested for drawing overly buxom women, right?Freedom. Yes, many of our characters are sexualized- some are not- but I would rather have the FREEDOM to choose, than to live with the threat of violence (or even death) hanging over my head.

    What happens to a woman who dares to take off her burka in a culture that demands that she she wears one? Even more, what happens to a woman if she dares leave the house without a man in that culture? Look it up. It’s not pretty.

    The burka is dehumanizing and born of an oppressive culture. There’s no way around it.

  • Malala

    I heard the cartoon creators are being approached by Africa to do just that.

  • http://www.fromnothingcomics.com/ Steve Crespo

    Insults and mockery in lieu of an intelligent comeback. Typical.

    …I’m not talking about making “fools” of themselves, I’m talking about human oppression.

    A woman who forfeits her life if she doesn’t hide her face is not making a fool of herself. She is living the only way she can in a culture that will allow that taking of her life for any number of offenses.

  • Noah Smith

    I thought it was intelligent mockery but humour is subjective. Yes some women face death for not conforming but other women don’t. Some women who wear the burqa are oppressed, others are freely expressing their religious inner life. Freedom includes going against your own interests.

  • http://www.fromnothingcomics.com/ Steve Crespo

    “Freedom includes going against your own interests.”

    Absolutely, but millions upon millions of women do not have that choice.

  • http://www.fromnothingcomics.com/ Steve Crespo

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jan/13/burqa-women-afghanistan-taliban-return

    “A 28-year-old teacher in a boys’ high school in Mazar-i-Sharif, Shekiba Azizi also has three children of her own. She feels that uncertainty is allowing a creeping conservatism to dominate women’s lives once again in Afghanistan. “Most of the other teachers now wear a burqa. But I hate it. I cannot see out and it’s very claustrophobic. To walk to the bus stop I have to pass some warlords’ houses, and they have armed guards who shout at me and harass me, so now I have to take a taxi to work, which is expensive. I even have to carry a burqa in my handbag now – just in case,” she says, showing me the blue swathe of nylon fabric in her bag.”

  • Noah Smith

    Sure, it’s terrible but that’s the world we live in. Getting upset about a cartoon character is not going to change that.

  • http://www.fromnothingcomics.com/ Steve Crespo

    Part of the reason why the world is in the condition it’s in is because of too many people saying: “it’s terrible but that’s the world we live in”.

    Perhaps more people ought to get upset at the mindset that tries to obscure and minimize the oppressive nature of the burka, and sell it to young, impressionable minds.

  • Noah Smith

    Doesn’t matter what we think. You seem to be ignoring the fact that women do wear the burqa through their own free choice. It’s religion that’s the problem not a garment (and I mean all religion not just Islam). And religion isn’t going away anytime soon.

  • http://www.fromnothingcomics.com/ Steve Crespo

    “It’s religion that’s the problem not a garment (and I mean all religion not just Islam).”

    How is all religion the problem? And do you not recognize the mind-blowing amount of oppression and blood laid at the feet of atheism, as well?

    It seems to me totalitarian impulses are a HUMAN problem. To blame “religion” is both scapegoating and misguided.

  • Noah Smith

    Of course I recognize atheist oppression/bloodshed. But no religion and no burqa, no male/female circumcision, no stoning for rape victims, denial of gay rights, denial of scientific facts etc, etc.

  • Noah Smith

    or to be more precise, less of it

  • http://www.fromnothingcomics.com/ Steve Crespo

    Sounds like you’ve got quite the cartoonish opinion of what religion is, so I won’t bother trying to debate it. Why bother dealing with the actual doctrines of the various religions, and the positions held within them by educated and non-educated alike? Or why bother considering the role religion’s adherents have played in trying to serve mankind- (at times at the cost of their own lives), righting the wrongs in society, and reaching out to the discarded, the sick, and the needy. (Ever see a hospital named after an atheist?)

    Nope, it’s so much easier to think yourself better than others, condescend, generalize, and demonize. It saves time, and thought.

    Peace.

  • http://www.fromnothingcomics.com/ Steve Crespo

    Not really.

    Peace.

  • Ryan Patrick Hoselton

    do just what? sorry this thread went several directions.

  • Maria

    “What happens to a woman who dares to take off her burka in a culture that demands that she she wears one?”

    But as a teacher in the daytime she’s not wearing a burka apparently, out of her own free will choice, and this is being broadcasted on Pakistani TV. It’s their nation, their TV, their customs, their interpretation of modesty and what’s criminal. They could move if they wanted to, to a place that interprets “hijab” differently. “Fatwa” is a scholarly opinion or ruling, in matters of interpretation of the text; I don’t think you’re using it correctly.

  • http://www.fromnothingcomics.com/ Steve Crespo

    Well… here’s an article on the ridiculousness of fatwas issued, including one against women touching cucumber and bananas. (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/12/10/the-fatwa-against-women-touching-bananas-and-other-stupid-islamic-orders.html) …As well as one ordering the death of Salman Rushdie. “Scholarly opinions”?

    We can try to rationalize oppression away in the name of multiculturalism all we like, but it is still oppression. Should we turn a blind eye to female circumcision as well? After all it is their culture and custom. The mantra of women wearing burkas from their “own free will choice” is meaningless in the face of the millions upon millions of women who are forced to risk their lives simply by wanting God’s sun to shine on their faces.

    The title of “culture” does not make evil any less evil.

  • InMyOpinion

    Alas Steve. So little time and so much to learn. Opression of women is very much current in all walks of life in every part of the world. Each part of the world opresses women the way they can within that society. The fact that you have paid so much attention simply to a garb of a character and not the story or the morel of that story or basically anything else in this production besides “what the girl is wearning” goes to prove the intensity and obsession of the western world with women having to show more skin. Hence they do have to “sell way more than double the show of their skin” to make half as much money as the man for the similar role.

  • InMyOpinion

    steve – the “fatwa” in this case is a big fat bundle of $$$$$$$

  • InMyOpinion

    One thing I am really liking here Steve. You remind me of a kid who reads up and does his entire homework simply because someone did a “dare” to him – so at least you are reading up on something that you are completely alien to. Hopefully if along with reading the light of knowledge is meant to pass through you, you will some day be able to understand as well. Happy reading and good luck.

  • InMyOpinion

    Oh by the way Steve has it even occured to you that by your definition maybe the men are the oppressed ones in the Western culture mostly face covered and often not even representing being a human (eg – bat, spider, etc…) since
    1. batman is a savy business man by day and a “face covering” oppressed object by night.
    2. Spiderman is simple sort of clumsy shy youngster by day and a “face covering” oppressed object by night.

    This can go on for a long list but u get the point.

  • David Daisy May Boldock

    The veil deliberately marks women as private and restricted property, none persons. The veil sets women apart from men and apart from the world; it restrains them, confines them, grooms them for docility. A mind can be cramped just as a body may be, and a Muslim veil blinkers both your vision and your destiny. It is the mark of a kind of apartheid, not the domination of a race but of a sex.


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