Malala has inspired many people in the global campaign for girls’ education—a campaign that has partly provided inspiration for a new Pakistani female superhero, “Burka Avenger.” Created by entrepreneur and pop star Haroon Rashid, Burka Avenger is a cartoon series centered on the adventures of Jiya, a mild-mannered schoolteacher. Disguised as Burka Avenger, she fights for justice and education with her martial arts skills and her weapons of choice: books and pens. (Think Clark Kent in a sleek burqa.)
Much of the coverage in the West has touched on the feminist critique of Burka Avenger’s costume. The BBC quotes Marvi Sirmed, an Islamabad-based journalist and human rights activist, who observed the following problem with the show’s message: “you can only get power when you don a symbol of oppression.” Karachi-based writer Bina Shaw asked the following on her blog:
Is it right to take the burka and make it look ‘cool’ for children, to brainwash girls into thinking that a burka gives you power instead of taking it away from you?
In defense of his character’s burqa, creator Rashid said the following on NPR:
We chose the burqa because of course we wanted to hide her identity the way superheroes do. 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… and on the other end of the spectrum, a lot of female superheroes in the West are objectified, and sort of sexualized in their costumes, like Catwoman and Wonder Woman, and that certainly would not work here.
What remains to be seen is what kids in Pakistan will make of the show—arguably what matters the most. As an English professor, I think about this all the time. As a parent, I think about this every time I talk with my kids about what they read and watch. It’s really quite remarkable, the way we all can create such different meanings out of the stories and images that surround us.
I’m reminded of a review written earlier this year by Lori Rotskoff, one of the editors of When We Were Free to Be: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference It Made, about her experience watching “Charlie’s Angels” as a young girl in the 1970s. She observes that
In hindsight, I see that my nine-year-old mindset didn’t jibe with second-wave feminists’, who viewed the Angels as braless bimbos or, worse, as promiscuous pawns in a misogynist enterprise. While the Angels were hardly poster girls for radical feminism, many of us young female spectators regarded them as tough and talented, not titillating.
How will Pakistani children view Burka Avenger, and what messages will they take from her and her superhero costume? Only time will tell.