From early August, children across Pakistan will be glued to their television sets to watch an unlikely female superhero clad not in spandex, but a head-to-toe, flowing black burka. Her name is apt: Burka Avenger.
The heroine of the Urdu language series, set to air on Pakistan’s Geo TV, fights a menace more dangerous than physical weapons. She is primarily fighting against a local gang’s nefarious efforts to close a girls’ school.
The series will trace the adventures of the book-wielding superhero and three young sidekicks – Ashu, her twin brother Immu, and their friend Mooli (who has a pet goat, Golu) – as they battle villain Baba Badook and his team of thugs in the imaginary hamlet of Halwapur.
The town comes complete with a corrupt mayor, Vadero Pajero, in cahoots with Bandook and company. In the very first episode, Pajero agrees to shut down the local girls’ school in exchange for kickbacks from Bandook, a wicked magician with a thick black beard.
The dialog gets right to the point. Babook says: “What business do women have with education? They should stay at home, washing, scrubbing and cleaning, toiling in the kitchen.”
Young Ashu shoots back: “The girls of today are the mothers of tomorrow. If the mothers are not educated, then future generations will also remain illiterate.”
The time is ripe in Pakistan for the series’ debut. Thanks to the courageous real-life story of education crusader Malala Yousafzai, a 16-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban in northern Pakistan’s Swat valley last October, girls’ education in the country has received urgent global attention in recent months. With the arrival of Burka Avenger, Malala will no longer fight her battle alone. And in this battle those fighting on the side of education need all of the recruits they can get.
Last year alone, some 3,600 attacks were carried out against educational institutions. And in conflict-afflicted countries, the number of primary school-aged children who are not enrolled in school surged from 42 to 50 percent since 2008. In Pakistan, nearly half of all children and three-quarters of young girls do not attend primary school.
Despite the bad news, there are signs that things are starting to change. For one, Malala has the world’s attention. But more importantly, her message seems to be reaching ears in Pakistan. While the Taliban has attacked 750 schools since 2008 in Malala’s home province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 611 of them have been rebuilt. Further, education spending is on the rise, having grown by 27 percent to $660 million.
Riding this wave of positive momentum, it seems appropriate to introduce a cartoon character who can play a soft role in this fight in living rooms across the nation. The official website for the Burka Avenger states: “The main goals of the Burka Avenger TV series are to make people laugh, to entertain and to send out strong social messages to the youth that educate, enlighten and reinforce positive social behavior.”
Pakistani pop star Aaron Haroon Rashid (aka Haroon) conceived the idea for the show, with the intent of instilling a sense of the importance of girls’ education as well as teaching lessons about respecting the environment and embracing diversity.
“Each one of our episodes is centred around a moral, which sends out strong social messages to kids,” Rashid told AP. “But it is cloaked in pure entertainment, laughter, action and adventure.”
The plotline will unfold in 13 installments of 22 minutes each and will feature guest appearances and original tunes penned by major music acts, including Ali Zafar, the show’s creator Haroon, Ali Azmat and Josh.
The real name of the mysterious heroine who dons the burka is Jiya. A twist: she is in fact a teacher at the academy she seeks to save. After being separated from her parents at a young age, Jiya was taken under the wing of Kabaddi Jan, a wise old Kabaddi Master.
Further lightening the touch of the show, under Kabaddi Jan’s tutelage, Jiya masters a fighting technique called Takht Kabaddi in which books and pens are combined with karate moves to devastating effect.
Given the progressive tone of the series and its slick production quality, some have taken issue with the fact that Jiya wears a burka, seen as a symbol of the Taliban’s repression of women.
Rashid dismissed the claim, saying, “It’s not a sign of oppression. She is using the burka to hide her identity like other superheroes.” He added, “Since she is a woman, we could have dressed her up like Catwoman or Wonder Woman, but that probably wouldn’t have worked in Pakistan.”
In other words: Wonder Woman with Pakistani characteristics.
In a parallel development, Pakistani comic book publisher Kachee Goliyan has also recently gained a significant following in a market that has struggled to find its groove. The stories and motifs in these comics – compared favorably with works by Marvel and DC – likewise take on a strong local flavor and are created by a young, progressive minded local team.
The first Pakistani comics company and now the first Pakistani-produced animated series – both with local characteristics and a progressive bent: could this be a sign of greater things to come?
A video report showing clips of the show can be seen here.
The text in this article was updated from the original version.