By Salman Masood and Deccan Walsh
July 28, 2013
Cartoon fans in Pakistan have been excited by the arrival of the country’s first caped crusader, in the form of a female superhero who flies through the air, battling villains using pens and books.
The heroine, Burka Avenger, is certainly an unusual role model for female empowerment in Pakistan: a woman who uses martial arts to battle colorful villains such as Baba Bandooq, a Taliban-esque figure who tries to shut down her school, and Vadero Pajero, a corrupt politician.
But the cartoon, in which a demure schoolteacher, Jiya, transforms into the action heroine by donning a Burqa, or traditional cloak, has also triggered an awkward debate about her costume.
“Is it right to take the Burqa and make it look ‘cool’ for children, to brainwash girls into thinking that a Burqa gives you power instead of taking it away from you?” asked the novelist and commentator Bina Shah in a blog post.
The criticism has not overshadowed the broader welcome that Burka Avenger, which aired here for the first time on Sunday evening, has received. With slick computer animation, fast-paced action and flashes of humour that even adults can appreciate, the character could offer Pakistanis a new cultural icon akin to Wonder Woman in the United States.
The Burqa debate centres on whether her use of the all-covering cloak — albeit a more streamlined version of the one usually seen in Pakistani villages — is subverting a traditional symbol of segregation and oppression or reinforcing it.
Sherry Rehman, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, said she also disliked the use of the Burqa in a children’s show. “A Dupatta could have done the job,” she said on Twitter, referring to the head scarf that some women wear in Pakistan.
The show’s maker, Aaron Haroon Rashid, said the criticism was misplaced because the heroine uses a Burqa only when in disguise. (As Jiya, she does not wear a head scarf). “She wears it to hide her identity,” he said.
While most Pakistanis have little difficulty relating to Burqas, he said, he understood they were controversial in the West. “Sometimes there are extremes when the authorities ban Hijab in public or in schools,” he said, referring to efforts to restrict Islamic head scarves in some European countries. “That does not make sense to people in Pakistan.”
The Burka Avenger character has obvious resonances with Malala Yousafzai; the 16-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot by Taliban gunmen last year for advocating education for girls and who recently addressed a seminar at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Mr. Rashid, who is a pop star in Pakistan, said work on the show had already started when Ms. Yousafzai was shot. But the attack on her only highlighted the importance of protecting girls’ education, a major theme of the show.
Mr. Rashid, who studied business at George Washington University, said he first had an idea for an iPhone game. Then, after working with cartoon animators and musicians in Islamabad, he developed it into a cartoon series.
The story lines often centre on social issues with relevance to adults as well as children, such as access to education and corruption.
The use of cartoon characters to impart positive messages is not new. Last year, a Lahore puppet company produced a local version of “Sesame Street,” using American government financing.
Despite the criticism, some viewers said the images did not bother them. “It is a new take on Purdah and a strong message of womanhood,” said Kulsume Hai, 35, after watching the show on Sunday evening. Purdah is the tradition of veiling women to separate them from men who are not close relatives. “The Burqa is shown as a strength rather than weakness,” Ms. Hai added. “The idea is to show that a Burqa-clad woman can be tough, too.”
Each of the 13 episodes “ends with a positive message,” said Mr. Rashid. But, he admitted, given that the heroine is a schoolteacher; the message most often comes down to supporting education. “It says, ‘It is your right to be educated, whether you are a girl or a boy. Don’t let anybody take that right away from you.’ ”
Salman Masood reported from Islamabad and Declan Walsh from London.