Malala Yousafzai & Burka Avenger

Superheroes have a tradition of mild-mannered alter egos, including librarians (Bat Girl), physicists (Hulk) and florists (Black Canary).  But Burka Avenger, the first animated TV series to be produced in Pakistan, is the story of a demure, unassuming school teacher who takes on the persona of Burka Avenger to fight to save a girls’ school using book and pens as weapons (very literally!).

School teacher, Jiya, spends her days teaching at a girls’ school, but when the bad guys try to shut the school, she fights back as the Burka Avenger. The Urdu language series is due to air on Pakistani television in August. Here’s an English trailer where you can see her in action:

The lack of opportunities for girls to attend school in Pakistani was highlighted by teenager Malala Yousafzai’s recent speech at the UN when she called for free compulsory schooling for every child arguing books and pens “are our most powerful weapons”.  Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban in October 2012 for speaking publicly about the need for girls’ education.

The Global Gender Gap Index 2012 placed Pakistan 134th out of 135 countries for the level of equality between men and women and according to UNESCO figures (2006), 30% of 7 to 16 year old girls in Pakistan have never spent time in school, rising to nearly half in rural areas. 46% of young women aged 15 to 24 did not complete primary education.  More recent figures (2012) estimate that there are over 3 million girls out of school in Pakistan.  North West Pakistan has experienced particular problems in recent years as girls’ schools have been attacked by Taliban activists.

Unfortunately, rather than focusing on the issue of girls’ education, much of the discussion about the Burka Avenger series has centred around the choice of a burka as a superhero disguise. Aaron Haroon Rashid, the Pakistani pop star who came up with the idea for the series, claims it is simply a disguise which gives the animation a local feel.  It is worth pointing on that, when performing her day job, Jiya is shown with her head uncovered and the sleek ninja-like design of

Burka Avenger’s costume bears only a limited resemblance to the traditional shapeless burka. But the concern expressed is understandable; the burka is such a potent symbol of female oppression as a garment which many women in the region are compelled to wear. However, there are other ways of viewing the burka, and many women make an active choice to wear it. Alternatively, the burka can be a symbol of militancy or aggression due to its connection with several suicide bombers in the region. Maybe the Burka Avenger can add to these images that of a strong female character who is non-violent, but ‘kicks ass’ in the fight for equality?

Whether a children’s animation series can help to change attitudes in the long term remains to be seen, but in a patriarchal society like Pakistan, launching the country’s first animation with a female superhero in the lead role might seem like a tough job, even for a superhero, and the cartoon’s creators surely deserve credit for achieving this alone. Regardless of her choice of costume, the Burka Avenger’s mission to ensure equality of educational opportunities for girls in Pakistan is a courageous and  inspiring one, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that it is also a cause which many non-superhero women, like Malala, are fighting for in real life.

Sarah McNicol 


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