Pakistan gets to add a few positive points to its reputation because Burka Avenger is widely applauded for its attempt to break stereotypes and empower disenfranchised children.
Sunday night marked the debut of Pakistan’s much talked about series Burka Avenger. The show, conceived by Pakistani singer Aaron Haroon Rashid, is Pakistan’s first original animated series and the first series with a female superhero. It stars Jiya, a mild-mannered schoolteacher, who dons a sleek burka to conceal her identity as the Burka Avenger. This champion of the right to education uses karate skills her adoptive father taught her along with weaponised books and pens to defeat local villains aiming to inflict various social harms.
Much of the initial controversy surrounding the show centred on the character’s choice of cloak, but critics of the use of the burka entirely missed the point. Oppression does not arise from covering the body or the face of a person, oppression is failing to give the person a choice. Jiya, chooses to don the burka and it becomes a tool of empowerment. Who are we to say that her attire marginalises the Burka Avenger if she wears it to feel strong and to conceal her identity? However, critics have suggested that a less negatively perceived attire or more traditional superhero garb would have sufficed. As they suggest, alternative clothing would remove the potential for negative traditional stereotypes that are often associated with the burka. However, those that would rather have the Burka Avenger wear less controversial or more modern attire are as oppressive as those that force women to wear the burka in the first place because they too impose their set of values upon another without offering even the semblance of a choice.
The burka controversy has also overshadowed other positive aspects of the cartoon, including its pure entertainment value. Jiya herself is also a role model for young children and females especially. She is both an adopted child and a schoolteacher by profession. While her attire as the Burka Avenger may be traditional, her background and choice to pursue a career are decidedly not. This show does not depict its hero as a typical Pakistani female character, simpering or conniving and eternally caught in a struggle to maintain her home or her marriage. She represents an alternative and equally important female avatar: the workingwoman.
It is also important to determine whether the show fulfils its purpose. To assess this, its purpose must be determined. If the purpose of Burka Avenger is to stave off further international criticism from the events surrounding the attempted assassination by the Taliban of Malala Yousafzai, then the show is successful. As soon as the trailer for the Burka Avenger was released, the international news media and social networks were abuzz with positive comments and appreciative reviews of this new superhero set to join the likes of Wonder Woman. Reputation is an important tool for determining the nature of international relations. The better a state’s reputation, the more it may be able to gain and the more it may stand to lose. Pakistan gets to add a few positive points to its reputation because Burka Avenger is widely applauded for its attempt to break stereotypes and empower disenfranchised children (especially girls) to fight for their right to an education.
If the purpose of this animated series is to prevent or reduce instances in which children in general and girls in particular are denied access to basic education, then the show is, at best, marginally successful. Though Article 25A of the Constitution of Pakistan mandates that the State is required to “provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years”, there is no Burka Avenger to signal when real life circumstances run afoul of this fundamental right. If political, social or religious forces attempt to deny access to education, we can perhaps awaken the Burka Avenger inside each of us, but to what end. Ensuring the proper enforcement of this right requires a multitude of actors, both state and non-state, to collaborate in securing access to education to all children. Thus, the awakening of that internal avenger is a part of but not the entirety of the solution. The Burka Avenger of the show may admirably fight local corrupt politicians, magicians and their henchmen, but how will she fight against the overwhelming poverty or local deeply entrenched social norms that often lead to the removal of children from the education system? In Pakistan, education is essentially a luxury. The show oversimplifies the nature of Pakistan’s complex problem, but only with the aim of identifying to viewers their fundamental right. It, therefore, succeeds at illustrating (figuratively and literally) the issue, but not at defining a comprehensive solution.
All in all, Burka Avenger is a wonderfully positive publicity tool internally and externally for Pakistan, but its success lies solely within the entertainment it provides as a cartoon, the positive role model it displays in both Jiya and the Avenger and the civic education it delivers as part of a movement to acquaint Pakistanis with their rights. Burka Avenger is not a mechanism for solving the greater issues because socially conscious messages delivered through entertainment mediums are not as intimidating as the books and pens that the Avenger throws to defeat the villain and save the day. This means that ultimately, enforcing fundamental rights, such as the right to have access to education, requires a concerted effort from all facets of society. This effort will ideally change the perception of education in Pakistan from its current stance as a luxury to a future where it is wholly considered a necessity. In that future Pakistan’s burka-clad superhero will be avenged.
The writer has earned her Juris Doctor from the University of Notre Dame Law School. She currently works as a researcher and writer in Lahore and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org