Tuesday, September 10, 2013

It is Her Skills, Not the Burka, that Empower the Burka Avenger.

This was written over a month ago when the first episode of the show aired. Apologies for posting it so late.

For the last few weeks or so, Pakistan has been in the news for its latest good deed: the Burka Avenger, an animated children's series featuring a female savior of women's rights, peace, and justice in a village in Pakistan. Jiya, the protagonist, is a school teacher whose mission is to fight multiple  forms of evil facing Pakistan, including obstacles to women's education. She completes her mission through her skills in Takht Kabaddi, a fictitious form of martial art that requires the use of pens and books. Each of the show's thirteen episodes, Haroon, the show's pop-star producer, tells CNN, "covers a different issue affecting Pakistan, including discrimination, child labor, sectarian violence, electricity shortages and protecting the environment," besides the on-going battle for girls' education. While the show has so far received majority-positive feedback, its opponents' main issue is with the superhero's costume: a burka, which she wears strictly to conceal her identity when on a mission; opponents suggest that the show is sending the message that "you can only get power when you don a symbol of oppression [the burka]." What is missing in this sort of criticism is the reality that it is not the burka that empowers the Burka Avenger--it is her skills as a fighter for social justice that empower her. The burka's purpose has little to no religious meaning in this series and serves more as a disguise for the protagonist.

The show has been receiving criticism from Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis alike. (If this seems unlikely, read the comments on Josh Shahryar's article "The Burka Avenger versus liberal patriarchy." NPR also interviews Haroon, the Pakistani pop star who produced the show, about "feminist criticism" with regards to the superhero's costume.) Their argument appears to be that the burka is an inherently oppressive mark of clothing for women and the heroine is herself therefore automatically oppressed to begin with; they claim that by having a burka-clad female savior of education, peace, and justice, the show is sending the message to Pakistani girls that the only way to be empowered is to wear the burka--or that the burka would necessarily empower them.

Yet, I did not get that same message from the show when I watched its first episode with my recently-turned 4-year-old niece. We both thoroughly enjoyed the cartoon, watched it a couple of times, repeating certain scenes multiple times just to watch the superhero win again and again, and laughing every now and then. (My niece still hums the cartoon's theme song, pronouncing "avenger" as "fencher.") While watching it, I kept waiting for a moment or a scene in which the burka could send the patriarchal message that the only way a woman can be empowered is through the burka. In fact,
the character Jiya does not wear the burka during the day but only when she's out to fight the enemies of peace and prosperity and need to hide her identity. The burka becomes a perfectly relevant and appropriate costume for a Pakistani superhero as her disguise, an element she shares with all superheroes. If we do not expect Spiderman and Batman to show their identities boldly, why must the Burka Avenger? Why must we have different, unreal, and unfair expectations for women when they venture to do something that is generally a male's domain? Besides, the reasons that the Burka Avenger wears the burka are nowhere close to what Muslim women who wears it have; while a few might do it to hide their "identity," the majority who do it have religious or cultural reasons for wearing it. 

More importantly, however, it is not the burka that empowers Jiya: it is her skills in Takht Kabaddi, her skills as a fighter of evil, that empower her. The way I view the show is such that acknowledging this point is essential to appreciating and understanding its deeper message. Perhaps the critics' fear might be more valid were our woman superhero wore the burka for religious or cultural reasons, or because of her gender. But her gender has nothing to do with the costume; instead, the costume is entirely about

Nonetheless, even if the burka were to be a tool of empowerment for her, it must be acknowledged that it is so for many women who wear it, although not for all. Dismissing people as less empowered than we might be simply because of the way they dress often denies the importance of choice in understanding empowerment. An individual does not become more or less empowered just because we declare them so, but choice and self-perception are everything.

It is reductionism on our part to highlight the costume, worry that it will turn out daughters into burka-clad women when they grow up just because their favorite female superhero puts on the burka when out to destroy evil, instead of acknowledging the bigger message of the show. At last, we have a female superhero--one, at that, whose body, costume, and attitude are not sexualized to serve men's fantasies, but one whose struggles for justice and peace are emphasized. At a time when much of Pakistan is suffering from religious and social extremism that denies the full humanity of women as full members of society, Jiya the Burka Avenger is what our children need to be seeing to remember that women, too, are powerful, can stand up for themselves and others, can save us from evil, and can be superheroes.

The first episode can be watched here or below.

1 comment:

  1. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a female superhero who 'hidden' like Superman or Batman. Wonder Woman flies an invisible plane for goodness sake!!! As for the burka... There are women wearing the burka for the exact same reason as the fencher ;), that is working to educate girls and women. And furthermore, I know of women who wear burka as form of security or identity... I kind of view it as the same scenario as me folding my arms across my chest. Not wanting to draw attention because one feels unsafe. What's a SuperHero woman to do?!?


Dare to opine :)

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