When Malala Yousafzai was shot at by members of the Taliban in Swat Valley in 2012, a plethora of emotions surrounding women’s education and the right of girls to access education became the front page news. With that, I clearly recall the stereotypes that emerged surrounding the headscarf and how the veil was not associated with modern, educated women. Burka Avenger challenged exactly that with a veiled female protagonist doing awesome stunts across the city.
Created and directed by Pakistani Pop Star Haroon Rashid in 2013, the action-comedy superhero show featuring the story of Jiya, the school teacher who had learned the art of Takht Kabbadi, using books and pens with tact as weapons over force, from her adoptive father (Kabbadi Jaan) and beat crime in the idyllic fictional town of Halwa-pur. Shown teaching and training in the traditional shalwar kameez dupatta, she busts some killer moves while being fully cognizant of the strength of the enemy- Baba Bandook and Vadero Pajero. Along with his Ghunday (henchmen), Baba Bandook (Old Man Gun) is the misogynist terror of the city, with the aim to shut down the girl’s school, steal the money and are your go-to stereotypical villains- explicitly communicated to the young audience as such.
Her students are rebellious. Never afraid to put themselves in danger’s way- Immu, Munna and Mooli are the ultimate trio. Immu is the second female lead, shown as braver and smarter than her guy friends and completely enamored by Burka Avenger. A central theme of the show, ode to Malala, is girls’ education. When Baba Bandook tries to shut down the girl’s school, since “what do girls have to do with education?”. Immu strides tall in a high ponytail and shalwar kameez, and raises her voice for the girls’ fundamental right for their future.
“Taaleem ke bagher hum sab barbad hain”- Immu
Seeing cartoons made by Pakistanis, for Pakistani children is essential for a sound communication of self-identification, while raising concerns and issues faced by Pakistani youth. Media is a source of pedagogy, and with increasing amount of screen time at younger ages, shows with a moral of the story are much needed. Not only is it made in a context relatable to the youth, but Burka Avengers went out of the way to ensure they effectively conveyed a meaningful moral aligned with equality, women empowerment, and freedom of education. The thirteen episodes of the first season also talk about discrimination, child labor, sectarian violence, electricity, and the environment.
One episode that specifically stood out to me was when Jiya, in her role as a teacher, spreads awareness about the importance of Polio vaccinations. In her Burka, she fights the bad guys when they try to kidnap the polio workers and destroy the polio vaccines. Once again, the show touched upon a truly concerning issue that continues to this day.
Watch the first episode of Burka Avenger (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XahbqLdCVhE ), or at least the opening credits.
Note: While watching the credits, pay special attention to Jiya’s Burka Avenger outfit, the background music, the tone of her voice, and the animation's body posture and language during the fight scenes- don't mess with the lady in black.
The ninja Burka Avenger is completely credited to the creators. Haroon, the brains behind the show, spoke to CNN about how extremists shutting down girls’ schools around 2010 was in his mind while creating the show and wanting to incorporate social messages to make a positive difference. Pakistan’s new Wonder Woman was also nominated for an Emmy award and dubbed into several local languages to reach a larger audience.
"I have always felt very strongly about gender equality. There are villages in Pakistan where the literacy rate among women is actually zero... I pictured teachers actually standing up to protest against things like school bombings. Just like Batman puts on his 'bat outfit', she - the protagonist - puts on her burka to become a superhero. She fights violence with books and pens."
– Haroon Rashid
While critics of the show highlighted the use of a Burka as an identification veil as problematic for the younger crowds as it would send confusing messages about the Burka. Haroon clarified that the Burka was her disguise and was Jiya’s personal choice. Instead of focusing on the political message the Burka conveys, look at this show as an iconic example of a Pakistani mainstream animated show promoting education; it’s pretty good! I was too old for cartoons by the time Burka Avenger came out. However, I remember watching a few episodes cognizant of the political situation at the time and thinking how good it was for young kids.
For some comparison, here is what I found from a search of currently airing Pakistani-produced cartoons. I would love to hear some thoughts. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6X3DA0lVniQ&t=173s