Hina Hafeezullah Ishaq
Is the Burka Avenger conveying that her identity would remain secret, albeit by fighting the villains? Is violence the way to promote education?
Mostly black and long, plain and drab, or glittery and heavily embellished, or shaped like a shuttlecock with a net for vision, or flowing and shapeless, or tight-fitted and figure-hugging, it can simply be a part of a cultural dress code, or as many view it, a symbol of oppression or as some claim, one of empowerment. It is the ‘burqa’.
On April 26, 2007, a call-attention notice was moved by the female members of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in the National Assembly, through which they raised a hue and cry claiming that the play was against the injunctions of Islam, prompting the ministry of culture to impose a verbal ban on a satirical musical comedy Burqavaganza. It was being staged by Ajoka Theatre, a socially committed group, which staged plays on contemporary social issues relevant to Pakistani society, and strove to promote the government’s policy of ‘enlightened moderation’ at the time. In his panicked response to their protest, the minister for culture announced that the Punjab government had been told “not to allow any more shows (of the drama) until we have examined it” and to decide whether its contents were objectionable on religious and cultural grounds, making it difficult for Ajoka Theatre to get both federal and provincial venues for the showing of its production.
Prior to the ban, Burqavaganza was staged at the Alhamra Arts Council and in the Panjpani Festival; it was appreciated by audiences and received great reviews. The play, whilst addressing an extremely relevant social issue that exposed double standards of moral and ethical values, especially in the backdrop of the Jamia Hafza incident that was ongoing at the time, used the ‘burqa’ as a metaphor for a certain mindset and value system. It touched social issues such as gender discrimination, political corruption, moral policing by vigilantes and US atrocities against Muslims. At the time when Burqavaganza was being staged, the ‘burqa-brigade’, aka female students of Jamia Hifza in Islamabad, had taken up moral policing. It got to the stage where houses and establishments were being raided by them, going so far as the abduction of Chinese citizens who were running a salon. As the government slept, the burqa-brigade got out of hand and started wielding not only the danda (stick) but also weapons. Finally, the state was prompted into action when the ‘maulana brothers’ announced a rebellion, an act that falls squarely within the domain of Article 6 of the Constitution. Burqavaganza was vindicated by the subsequent unfolding of events broadcast to the whole world, even to the extent of putting the fleeing ‘burqa’ clad cleric on state television. Currently, it seems that the ‘rebel maulana’ who was killed while engaging in an act of treason is a ‘martyr’ and cases will be registered against soldiers for doing their duty! Simply amazing!
A new aspirant in the ‘burqa’ world is apparently a new cartoon, Pakistan’s very own first superhero: the ‘Burka Avenger’! From whatever material is available on the internet including the ‘trailer’ on its Facebook page, I have so far gathered that the Burka Avenger is a mild-mannered teacher who fights villains who try to shut down girls’ schools. The trailer begins with how life was before the Talibanisation of our country and what it has come to. So far, so good. But why clad a female superhero in a burqa, especially when in her ordinary life as a teacher she does not even cover her head with a dupatta or a hijab? What is the message being sent out? The Guardian reported the makers of Burka Avenger as saying: “It’s not a sign of oppression. She is using the burqa to hide her identity like other superheroes…Since she is a woman, we could have dressed her up like Cat Woman or Wonder Woman, but that probably wouldn’t have worked in Pakistan.”
I totally agree that the burqa is not a sign of oppression, not always and not if donned by free will. In an open letter written to Angelina Jolie when she came to help the flood victims in Pakistan, an enraged writer chided her for covering her head, for undermining the struggle of Pakistani women for ‘the right to dress’! I thought the accusation was hilarious. Nigella Lawson, the English food goddess, created waves a couple of years ago when she dumped the bikini and the tankini in favour of a ‘burkini’ at a beach in Australia. I think to equate values with a dress code is nothing short of absurd. But in the case of the Burka Avenger, if the sole question was to hide identity, why could she not have worn a costume other than a black burqa? How about traditional clothes, maybe the national flag, and had her face masked? Is the message being sent here that you can be an educated woman, dress as you please in your daily pursuits, but should the need arise where you have to take a stand against evil and atrocities, you had better hide your identity?
Superheroes are not real, at least not Batman and Cat Woman and the like, but real life superheroes do not hide their identities. People who have struggled and fought atrocities and stood up to bring change did not mask their faces or hide their identities. If we teach our children that evil can be fought only if they hide their identities, we are sending the wrong message. We should teach them to be resolute, to stand up for what they believe in, and stand firm, with their heads held high. By introducing superheroes into the realm of real life, are we suggesting that we as individuals have failed and salvation now lies only in the hands of another individual, read ‘hero’ with super powers? So, should the children of Pakistan be waiting just for that? Could the cartoon not have been modelled on the lines of Captain Planet and the Planeteers? Children need to be taught that they are the only superheroes who can bring a change. The concept of superheroes works just fine in fiction; we grew up mimicking the Bionic Man and jumping off stairs like Superman, but a lot has changed since then. Our children have grown up in a different Pakistan — a much harsher one. They do not have the luxury of waiting for saviours. They are the saviours and the power is theirs.
The burqa-brigade took the law into their own hands, violated the rights of the people, masked and secure in the knowledge that their identity would remain a secret. Is the Burka Avenger conveying the same, albeit by fighting the villains? Is violence the way to promote education? Are books and pens meant to be thrown as weapons, physically, or should our children be helped to absorb the knowledge contained within, to break the shackles of rigidity and oppression, to bring a lasting change, to be truly empowered? I guess we have misconstrued the old adage of the pen being mightier than the sword! And how does hiding one’s identity under a black, drab garment, with only the eyes and hands showing, foster or promote women’s empowerment and education? Are properly educated teachers, especially those brave enough to be teaching in conflict areas, not symbols enough of empowerment? Where is the moderation in all this? Burqavaganza, brigade and avenger are not all three portrayals of one mindset, which promotes violence and blurs the lines of right and wrong, all using the burqa, a mandatory requirement for women by the Taliban!
The writer is an advocate of the High Court