The past week has brought tremendous global attention to Pakistan, for an unlikely new cartoon character that is about to launch in mid-August: the Burka Avenger. Yes that’s right. A lady in a black burka will quite literally kick some evil butt in her fight for the education and independence of girls.
To quote The Washington Post: “Pakistan’s new superhero makes the hoop-skirted, Prince Charming-obsessed Disney princesses look downright antiquated.”
By day, Burka Avenger is a schoolteacher named Gia who was orphaned as a child. The heroine was adopted by a master of a mystical martial art popular in South Asia, called Kapaddi. With her training, she has developed into a bold, robust fighter who is not afraid to take on the bad guys.
Pakistani pop star Aaron Haroon, the passionate creator of the animated series, told The Diplomat that his creation is meant to “spread the message that education and independence are mightier than the sword.”
Haroon believes his cartoon breaks many levels of stereotypes about the women who don burkas, not just in Pakistan but across the Muslim world, and hopes the Burka Avenger will set a new role model, one that empowers women physically, mentally and supports the cause of education and freedom for young girls.
Looking back on his motivation to launch the project in 2010, Haroon says, “When you live in a country like Pakistan where there is so much going on, you see there are so many problems to solve. I felt it was my duty to incorporate a social message into this project.”
The burka is a sensitive subject and a controversial piece of attire well beyond Pakistan’s borders. The garment has attracted global attention, especially after the Hijab ban in France and the debate that ensued. But Haroon is trying to take a very different approach.
“Clearly Haroon made a conscious choice to de-debilitate women with something that has long and hard been attacked by liberal critics,” Sobia Chaudry, a schoolteacher in Swat, told The Diplomat. “And with this power tool of an Urdu-language animated series, showing the adventures of a mild-mannered teacher, Haroon uses her particular image to fight the general public image. This is just fantastic.”
Since the Taliban shot Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai last October, Chaudry has closely and bitterly watched the reaction of the fight to save a school for young girls. She understands very well the intricacies and difficulties of education for girls and women in Pakistan and has high hopes from this project.
“I very much think this project will challenge a lot of stereotypes because it will be in the mainstream media,” Chaudry continued. “People will start accepting the idea of education for young girls along with something the society finds extremely dear to them: the burka. Well, I hope!”
In the initial episodes the Burka Avenger uses her superpowers to fight local gangsters trying to close down the girls' school where she works. The action-comedy series has struck a chord in a country where Taliban militants have prevented thousands of girls from going to school in the northwest and attacked activists campaigning for their education.
Nearly half of all children in Pakistan and almost three-quarters of young girls are not enrolled in primary school, according to UN and government statistics published late last year.
The project is set to launch shortly after the Muslim festival of Eid in mid-August, but the hype and excitement is already building. According to Haroon, Burka Avenger will go global, as there are plans to broadcast the show in 60 countries. A television distribution company in Europe has been in touch with Haroon and is planning to translate the show into 18 languages, including English and French.
Haroon said, “The response is so incredible we had never imagined. We are overwhelmed.”
Hold onto your seats. A Pakistani heroine in a burka is gearing up to fight the good fight.
Kiran Nazish is a Pakistani-based columnist for The Pulse and a correspondent for LaStampa. Follow her on twitter @kirannazish.