The Burka Avenger cartoon series wants to introduce a positive role-model for Pakistani girls and superhero fans alike.
Superhero stories are a pretty big market these days, to the point that they're not always based on Western comic books anymore. The genre is so large, especially at an international level, that creators can experiment with original characters that reflect unique cultural origins. Take Burka Avenger, a new Pakistan-developed cartoon about a teacher-turned-superhero that dons a burqa when fighting terrorists and corrupt politicians. Although the concept sounds like something from a sketch comedy routine, series creator Aaron Haroon Rashid appears to have a fairly noble goal: giving young Pakistani girls a role-model to look up to.
"So as an artist, you're always inspired by what's happening around you and all these issues are constantly staring you in the face in Pakistan," Rashid told NPR. "So I thought of an idea of a protagonist protecting a girls' school. And that's how the idea for the Burka Avenger developed."
Unlike certain other portrayals of middle eastern characters we know of, Rashid doesn't seem interested in reinforcing Islamic stereotypes. Its main character is Jiya, a modern and educated schoolteacher with close ties to the fictional community of Halwapur. When her school and students are threatened by radical extremists, Jiya takes to wearing a burqa by night while fighting for her city. "It's a really cool, sleek burqa, and she can leap off buildings and glide from, almost like a flying squirrel," Rashid says. "And she only fights with pens and books, because I wanted a nonviolent message. Her message is, 'Justice, Peace and Education for All.'"
Even though Burka Avenger is a children's cartoon, Rashid doesn't intend to shy away from serious issues. "Each episode is centered around a theme, moral, social message and we touch upon various issues," he continues, "like child labor, discrimination in Pakistan, sectarian violence is a huge problem, many issues like that. And one thinks these are really hard-hitting issues for a kids' show, but we've presented it in a very entertaining manner and kids have been absolutely loving the show and it's full family entertainment, you know, even adults are loving it, too."
Burka Avenger's first episode launched on July 28th, and its reception has largely been positive. The show does have detractors however; feminist speakers have criticized Jiya's costume, arguing that Rashid is making the controversial garb into a trendy symbol. To Rashid however, the burqa is simply an Eastern alternative to costumes that protect a superhero's identity. "We chose the burqa because, of course, we wanted to hide her identity the way superheroes do," Rashid explained. "She doesn't wear the burqa during the day. She doesn't even wear a headscarf, or a hijab or anything like that. She goes about her business as a normal teacher would. And so she chooses to wear the burqa, she's not oppressed. She chooses it to hide her identity the way a superhero would."
While Burka Avenger doesn't seem to be available in North America for now, I have to admit that the design and concept looks intriguing. The idea of socially relevant superhero cartoons isn't new (Captain Planet had a similar goal), but it's rare to see a superhero series that's so culturally focused. The show has a planned run of thirteen episodes, at which point we'll find out if Burka Avenger has enough of an audience to get even bigger.