Burka Avenger: Fighting Islamist Evildoers, One TV Cartoon At a Time

Demure girls’-school teacher by day, super-powered destroyer of villains by night.

That’s the Burka Avenger, a female Pakistani superhero who helps children fight corruption, child labor, discrimination, and, most of all, the Talibanesque oppression of girls who are just trying to get an education. She can fly, and she immobilizes enemies by shooting pens at them and clonking them on the head with books.

The TV show, set to debut this month, was created by Aaron Haroon Rashid, a local pop star known as Haroon.

The execution is just a bit clunky (technically) and a tad cloying (cuteness overload!), but that’s from a white-male U.S.-centric point of view. For Pakistan, it promises to be a breakthrough show, and Haroon has already set tongues wagging thanks to what his young heroine is wearing:

Human rights activist Marvi Sirmed [said] she feels the cartoon wrongly glamorizes the burka, which she calls “a tool of oppression.” “[It is] a symbol of submission of women. It cannot be used as a tool of empowerment.”

That misses the point, I think. It’s a staple of the superhero genre that the protagonist wears a cape or cloak, and the Burka Avenger’s garb is more of a sleek ninja-style outfit than an oppressive black tent. Plus, when the Avenger is a school teacher, she dresses modestly but not conservatively. As Haroon points out, western female superheroes have sex-kitten attributes (Cat Woman, Wonder Woman) that probably don’t sit well with the likes of Sirmed either. What’s a creative pop star/aspiring animator to do?

Haroon hit the right note — the one in the middle — it seems to me. Here’s hoping he has enough superhero powers himself — or at least enough blind luck — to stay safe from Taliban assassins’ bullets.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • http://quinesqueue.blogspot.com/ Q. Quine

    Alright, who put the LSD in my cornflakes this morning?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Joe Klein sometimes shoots pens at people, figuratively, but funny how you never see him in Pakistan helping girls get an education.

    • Michael

      But how would you know it was him under the burka?

      • Hat Stealer

        Probably from the stench.

        (I kid, I kid.)

  • observer

    I like to think that the use of the burka as her costume is a form of irony – just the way she uses “a tool of oppression” against the oppressors.
    Just to further spite the bad guys, the burka’s unintentional ability (for lack of a better word) to give the women hidden identities works well for her as a super hero.

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

      Well, yeah, the burka makes sense in this context.

  • Sam Kay

    Well, that guy’s getting death threats for sure. Hope he doesn’t live in Pakistan. Though from what I know (and I’m sure I am far from having the whole picture), Pakistan is heavily influenced by India, so hopefully they are a little less oppressive (I mean, he was able to get this on TV there, right?).

    Good luck, hope this is a drop of water toward changing the cultural climate toward more gender equality.

    • Ewan

      “from what I know [...] Pakistan is heavily influenced by India”

      In much the same way that the cold-war era US was heavily influenced by the Soviet Union. There’s certainly an influence, but it’s a strongly antagonistic one.

      • Sam Kay

        I’ve met a few Muslim women from Pakistan and they wore Saris, not Burkas. Again, maybe that was just them and it’s not a typical thing.

  • LesterBallard

    I’m afraid someone is going to be murdered over this.

    • Mario Strada

      I share the same bad feeling.
      I also don;t mind the use of the burka. It wouldn’t be the first time that the tools of the oppressors have been used to symbolize the oppressed.

      In context the burka is probably the only costume that even makes sense. What would you have her wear? A school uniform? Or a book on her face with eyeholes?

      Now, if you really wanted to screw with the censors, and abide by superherous standards, I could see a slit in the burka showing her legs, but I really don’t think it would have been appropriate on many levels.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    I need to watch this, it actually sounds pretty awesome.

  • indorri

    The phrase “what is this I don’t even” was practically made for this.

  • jdm8

    I understand the complaints, but when we’re talking about Pakistan, it’s a fantastic step forward, and sometimes it’s either a step forward or nothing at all. This is, after all, the country whose religious zealots have tried to murder Malala Yousafzai just for wanting to continue her education.

  • Sven2547

    Cheesy though it may be, no Pakistani kid who watches this show will grow up thinking it’s okay to attack girls’ education. It might take 15-20 years for the difference to be made, but it’s a positive difference all the same.

  • Tel

    I must say, that’s the most impressive Magic Skirt I’ve ever seen.

    • Randay

      I imagine that all those magic skirts are better looking than Mitt Romney’s magic underwear, which thankfully I have not seen. Come to think about it, the Mormon’s could make a superhero who flies around in his white(do they allow colors?)underwear which protects him from bullets and spells.

  • Ward

    I was initially wary of this too when I heard about it, but I think Mr. Firma is right–this is about the overall good a show like this can accomplish. If young girls in Pakistan watch this program it will encourage them to value education and question those who tell them they shouldn’t. Conversations about the burqa and what it means for women’s rights are still important, but they can take place in other contexts. One battle at a time, etc. Some others have already commented on this; changes in culture take time. We may not see the fruits of this for another decade or more, but it has to start somewhere.

  • Michael

    Thinking about it, I can’t help wondering if Haroon has been reading anything by Stetson Kennedy to come up with this. It certainly has echoes of Superman Versus The Clan Of The Fiery Cross, that aired across America around the time of the KKK revival and is widely credited with preventing it from running its course.

  • Guest

    I think this is awesome. I’m not an expert on the struggle against women’s oppression in Pakistan, so Ms. Sirmed might be right, but it seems to me like if a woman is choosing to put a burka on, that’s not oppression. The freedom to dress yourself should include things that other people might not approve of, like burkas. That’s why I was against the French ban. It seemed like another way of forcing women to dress in a certain way, instead of protecting their right to choose for themselves. Some women might want to wear a burka, just like some women might want to have 10 kids and be a stay-at-home mom. The point is that they can choose themselves.
    Of course, in the cartoon she’s wearing the burka for disguise and not because her family pressured her into it, so I can’t see how that promotes oppression.

  • Gus Snarp

    I heard about this on NPR, and I think it’s a good start, but I’m still troubled by the fact that she exhibits her power when she puts on the burka, and I found Haroon’s justifications for it a bit hollow. Sure, Western comic heroines tend to be horribly sexist caricatures, but using that as an excuse for why your heroine wears a burka is just derailing the conversation, and I don’t see it as much different from when Islamists who promote burkas or head coverings for women claim that the West is more oppressive of women for expecting them to be sexy and reveal themselves. It’s really a form of tu quoque. So I’m not fond of that. I’d like it better if he were just honest and said, “I’m doing what I can. She’s a teacher and goes uncovered in her daily life, but I’ve got to make this acceptable to a Muslim audience, I can’t break every barrier at once.” instead of sort of making the same excuses for her burka that Islamists make for burkas in general, and he makes some of those too: women in Pakistan choose the burka or headscarf if they wear it, it’s not forced on them – bullshit, it’s forced on them by the mosques, by the men in their life, by religious commandment. It won’t really be a choice until the powerful influence of conservative Islam is stripped away.

    • Michael

      As I read it, the point is to make extremists hate the burka as a symbol of rebellion against islam. Hopefully their heads might explode.

    • Malala

      She actually does a lot of amazing good things when not wearing burka as well. She only wears it to hide her identity, literally – that is all. I think there is way too much focus on her handy and logical choice of disguise than her amazing deeds – both in burka and not in burka.

  • Dan Weeks

    Love it!