Burka Avenger: the Pakistani feminist superhero
"Don't mess with the lady in black."
Burka Avenger is Pakistan’s first animated female superhero.
The cartoon show “Burka Avenger” chronicles the adventures of Jiya, a passionate school teacher by day, a burka-clad superhero by night. Each episode, she fights the thugs and politicians who want to shut down the girl's school where she teaches.
The show, whose tagline is “Don’t mess with the lady in black,” follows the escapades of three Pakistani children who find themselves in trouble for regularly locking horns with Islamic extremists, corrupt Pakistani politicians, and business tycoons. Burka Avenger sweeps in to save the day, beating up the villains with articles of learning, and ending each episode with social messages of female empowerment and education, and against religious extremism.
Haroon, the creator of the show, has stated that the cartoon was inspired by numerous reports that he read in 2010 of girls’ schools being shut down due to Islamic extremism. The award-winning show has been successfully launched in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. In 2013, Time magazine named Burka Avenger one of the most Influential Fictional Characters.
The cartoon character has become controversial for donning a burka, part of the system of Islamic veiling that is often perceived as sexist. However, Jiya wears her burka to protect her identity, just like popular western superheroes like Batman wear masks to protect theirs.
The burka thus becomes a tool for empowerment, proving that religious identities and girls’ education are not exclusive of each other.
“If you want to be successful, make books and pens your best friends,” she says in the first episode of the series.
The show has been lauded for its strong message of using education, not guns, to overcome obstacles. Jiya uses books, pens, and schoolbags as weapons to beat corrupt politicians and hardlining religious authorities. The show also acts as resistance to the Pakistani Taliban’s regressive and repressive stand on education for women.
The female literacy rate in Pakistan stands at 47%, compared to 70% for men.
Burka Avenger is part of a larger series of campaigns aimed at improving Pakistan’s literacy rate--especially for women. In 2015, Malala Yousafzai, the 18-year-old Pakistani activist who was shot in 2012 by the Taliban while she was on her way to school, started her campaign #BooksNotBullets. The campaign aims to empower the youth, especially girls, with books and education rather than guns and weapons.
Studies indicate that child marriage would fall by 64 per cent if every girl received an education, making it less likely for child birth to take place at dangerously young ages.
Narrowing the gender inequality in literacy rates can also be the key to eliminating extreme poverty.
If a girl receives an extra year of secondary school, her lifetime earnings can increase by 15 to 25 per cent. She is also then less likely to contract diseases such as HIV and AIDS.
Moreover, women who receive an education are more likely to become entrepreneurs, and in turn, empower other women by investing in their communities.
Burka Avenger speaks to children, students and parents. Malala’s campaign is addressed at governments, urging them to spend more on funding education than on funding the military.
Burka Avenger and Malala serve as inspiring role models that the Pakistani youth can look up to. Their popularity in Pakistan indicates that many among Pakistan’s citizens do not agree with the extremist ideas that the Taliban propagates.