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December 17, 2017
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Jiya, the Burka Avenger. Source: burkaavenger.com.

She's the new superhero who has sparked debate across the globe. By day, she's a mild mannered schoolteacher, but at night, Jiya (aka The Burka Avenger) fights oppressive elements in her village using her martial arts skills while dressed in a black burka. To the Washington Post, she makes Disney princesses look "downright antiquated," while The Huffington Post notes that, "Disney could learn a thing or two about what a female protagonist should look like from the fearless Burka Avenger."

Children during a preview of Burka Avenger
at an orphanage in Islamabad.
Source: indiatimes.com.

The Burka Avenger is a 13-episode animated series that airs Sundays on Pakistan's Geo Tez network. The show has attracted international attention, mostly centered upon the show's title and the protagonist's costume. "It's a sort of Pakistani feminist shaking her fist at the sky," opined Lahore-based lawyer and columnist Ahmad Rafay Alam, "the 'debate' exists only on Pakistani social media and the Western press."

So what's with the hoopla over the burka? For one thing, burkas are quick to inspire sensational news reports and influence pop culture. Michael Jackson allegedly wore one to remain incognito in Bahrain. The leader of the Red Mosque fiasco in Islamabad tried to escape in one. Watching a woman in a niqab attempting to eat fries in Abu Dhabi, Carrie Bradshaw commented in Sex and the City 2, "Well, I could get into the head wrap, but the veil across the mouth, it freaks me out. It's like they don't want them to have a voice." 

Related: Lifting the veil on today's modern hijab.

Jiya could have worn an array of conservative garb from across the Muslim world: a designer abaya, Burkini swimwear, an Iranian hijab, a blue Afghan 'shuttlecock' burqa, a black niqab, or a Pakistani dupatta. She also could have dressed like Lara Croft, a Bond girl, or a buxom warrior from kitschy 'Lollywood' cinema, based on the trend in Pashtu film. Instead, the Burka Avenger wears a costume similar to a scuba diver's unitard accompanied by a ski mask and billowing cloak.

Islamabad-based rapper Adil Omar describes her as a "silent ninja" and a "vigilante" in his lyrics for the catchy "Lady In Black" video. Omar explains, "Hip-hop is also generally full of misogynistic bullshit, so it felt good to write something about a strong female character who kicks ass." About her burka, he adds, "It is an invisibility cloak in the context of the series."

Izza Farrakh Satti, an adviser for the DFID's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Education Sector Programme, says, "The title 'Burka Avenger' trivialises and possibly even mocks the 'burka.' Had Jiya's…superhero costume just happened to be a burqa, the message would have been deeper and more subtle. Batman isn't the 'bat-eared' caped crusader, Superman isn't the 'flying machine in red underwear', and Catwoman isn't the 'tailed superwoman.'"

[Jiya is] an inspirational teacher and a role model in her own right. She only wears the burka to hide her identity and fight bad guys.

Huma Zafar, who chairs a charity school in the Punjab, isn't a fan of the title either: "My first reaction before I was introduced to it was, 'are they mocking someone who wears a burka?' But she grows on you and it is a bold, positive step towards education."

The show's creator, Haroon Aaron Rashid, has been a successful pop singer in Pakistan since the 1990s. His band, Awaz, aired the first Pakistani music video on MTV Asia, followed by world tours and a solo career in 2000. Rashid says the idea for the Burka Avenger was inspired by the incidents in Swat, where militants destroyed over 100 girls' schools, as well as by his mother and sister, who are both schoolteachers. With experience in producing and directing his own music videos, he came up with the storyboard, musical score and sound effects for an animation short to promote The Burka Avenger as a phone game. The results were "amazing" and prompted the idea to make it a full-fledged cartoon series in October of 2011.

Laaleen Sukhera Khan chatted with Rashid to find out more about his burka-clad heroine.

Laaleen Sukhera Khan: How did you flesh out Jiya's character and superhero alter-ego?

Haroon Aaron Rashid: I wanted her to be a schoolteacher. My mother [who's from New Zealand] and sister were teachers, so I have great respect for them. Jiya is clued in, aware, makes a difference, and cares about the world, education and Halwapur. She's an inspirational teacher and a role model in her own right. She only wears the burka to hide her identity and fight bad guys.

LSK: Has Malala (Yousafzai)'s courage and worldwide fame inspired the characters and/or storyline at all?

HAR: It hasn't affected this. We'd completed seven episodes [by the time] the Malala incident happened including the concept, storylines and characters.

LSK: Has your own upbringing in Islamabad ever echoed any of these storylines? How did you put yourself in the shoes of rural kids?

HAR: I've traveled extensively and have a broad view of things. I wanted [to incorporate] local cultural elements. Living in Pakistan [...] you come across wonderful people but also people with very narrow views. A lot of that goes into the show.

For me, it's about doing something new, creative and original and turning stereotypes on their head. In the West, they think that women only wear the hejab or burka because they're oppressed. We know that's not true.

LSK: What were the options when designing Jiya's costume?

HAR: The burka is a great way to hide your identity and it made sense. [I]t's worn by Muslim women, so it's not anti-Islam. It's not objectifying women like Wonder Woman or Catwoman[.] It's less about what she's wearing and more about her deeds.

LSK: Why call her the Burka Avenger? Why not the Ninja Avenger, for example?

HAR: Ninjas [have] a lot of negative connotations and associations with death. For me, it's about doing something new, creative and original and turning stereotypes on their head. In the West, they think that women only wear the hejab or burka because they're oppressed. We know that's not true.

LSK: Why do you think some people like former ambassador Sherry Rehman and Bina Shah are viewing her costume as symbolic of oppression? There was even a full-blown debate about it on NDTV in India. Do you think this whole burka controversy has been blown out of proportion?

HAR: This whole thing happened because people hadn't bothered to watch the show[.] They're assuming it's a woman who's oppressed and dressed in a burka day and night. I held focus groups before launching with feminist friends, they thought it was empowering women and that the burka is their choice[.] I don't mind that it's opened up a debate, that's good and healthy. But we shouldn't let it overshadow the broader positive message of our show[.] I think Bina Shah has changed her opinion dramatically since she watched the show. Sherry Rehman's [opinion] was a knee-jerk reaction [and activist] Marwi Sarmat is not exposed to the concept of the show. If Jiya's identity was discovered battling the bad guys, she'd get in trouble and won't be able to do her job.


The Burka Avenger's iPhone and android game is due to launch shortly. Rashid is currently discussing TV, graphic novel and merchandise rights with companies in Europe and Asia. He also hopes to develop the series as a feature film for future theatrical release.

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