Is a superhero dressed in a burka sending the wrong message?

Illustration for article titled Is a superhero dressed in a burka sending the wrong message?

Meet Pakistan's first caped crusader, The Burka Avenger — a new superhero who's promoting girl power in that country. But the new animated character is dressed in a burka, and that's causing no small amount of controversy in Pakistan and abroad.

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The animated action-comedy features Jiya, a teacher with secret martial arts skills who uses a ninja-like black burka to hide her identity as she fights the local bad guys who are trying to shut down the girl's school where she works. Armed with only books and pencils, the character sends a moral message to children about the importance of education and not discriminating against others.

Indeed, these messages are much needed in a country that's experiencing tremendous social and sectarian unrest — and in which 88% of girls cannot read.

The show is certainly timely given recent events. Back on October 9th, 2012, 16 year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck in a failed assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen. Yousafzai, who is known for her outspoken views on education and women's rights, is now a hugely important figure as girls and women struggle to overcome repression in Pakistan.

When asked about the choice of clothing for Jiya, Haroon, the show's creator (and a Pakistani pop star), said that "It's not a sign of oppression. She is using the burka to hide her identity like other superheroes. 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."

But not everyone agrees with the choice of apparel. Despite the fact that Jaya defies many stereotypes, some critics are complaining that the head-to-toe veil is re-enforcing existing religious and conservative values. The burka, they argue, is a symbol of women's oppression.

Human rights activist Marvi Sirmed explained it to the BBC this way:

How can you get power from a symbol that humiliates and demeans women's power? Walking around in a burka is like a walking prison — projecting a symbol that is so closely associated with the submission of women. And you are now re-imagining the burka — the symbol of suppression — as a symbol of resistance. I don't agree with it.

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It's important to note that not all women — or feminists for that mattersee the burka or hijab in this light.

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The first of 13 episodes aired this past July 28th on Geo Tez.

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DISCUSSION

esprit-follet

Always.

First off, the hijab and the burqa are ultimately two different pieces. You can look at it in several different ways- although the first thing should be is that westerners need to stop trying to save Muslim women. Second, not all women are forced into wearing a burqa, and most definitely not a hijab. In any case, different women don different pieces for different reasons. Sometimes preference. Comfort. Laziness. Liberation. Sometimes for protection. Not just from predators, but you know, from sand and things. Neither here nor there.

I'd also add that these sort of garments are required in many different Orthodox religions. Yes the burqa has been used by Wahhabi psychos to manipulate women and reinforce patriarchy in a more brutal and disgusting way; it's an abuse of human rights. But let's not pretend that this is the only garment that is subject somehow to the male gaze. Hmm, why was the bikini invented again?

This is a complicated dilemma that I'm pretty sure it's one that only Muslim women should rightly be able to comment on. At the end of the day, people need to stop policing what people wear, and that includes the right to wear a burqa if one so chooses. This avenger looks fairly badass, and kudos for them for making her relatable. And in some ways, it's a kick in the face to those that are totalitarian because an ass-kicking woman in a burqa is exactly what they would not want.