Sunday, July 28, 2013

Here Comes the Burka Avenger! (And she's going to kick your ass)

I've just watched the first episode of Burka Avenger GEO TV's new cartoon for children about a woman called Jiya, mild-mannered schoolteacher by day, superhero by night, who dons a burka in order to fight villains in her village. They're corrupt baddies who try to shut down the girls' school and wreak all sorts of havoc on the villagers because, well, they're villains. Accompanying Burka Avenger on her adventures are three children and a goat, who may well turn out to be the surprise star of the series because he's so darned cute.

Don't mess with the lady in black
The lady in black, the lady in black
Don't mess with the lady in black
When she's on the attack! (Theme song by Haroon and Adil Omer)

The animation is slick, the production values high (way too many commercials, though!), the motivation behind the series noble: pens and books are more powerful weapons than guns and bombs. It was funny, and quite cute, and spreads a good message, coming at a time when Malala Yousufzai and education activists and millions of school-going children are trying to prove that Pakistan is a more fertile ground for education than for terrorism.  It's a brilliant idea, too, because rather than lecturing children from a position of adult authority, it has the potential to get children excited about going to school, placing within the context of a fight between good and evil. This way, the show can teach them values they're easily primed to grasp because of their previous exposure to cartoons and superheroes.

I'm especially pleased that the superhero is a woman, not a man. Pakistani society is hypermasculinized: children are used to seeing men in positions of power and authority, as leaders, military men, policemen, et cetera. They absorb this as the natural order of things from such early ages that it's almost impossible to undo this conditioning later in life. Whereas the women of Pakistan are the silent heroes on the frontlines of the war we've got ourselves involved in today: schoolteachers, health workers and human rights activists are targeted by extremists and attacked and killed for going out and doing their ordinary jobs. It's wonderful to see a woman being feted for something so true to life, and also to see that when her job is threatened, she doesn't succumb to the aggression but instead fights back and triumphs. The children of Pakistan need this lesson as well.

The show has to be careful not to reinforce stereotypes: I was troubled by the idea of one of the villains, Vadero Pajero (although the name does make me laugh when I hear it out loud) - which may lead children to think that all rural authority figures are evil and want to stop children from going to school. In reality it's the Taliban who are closing down girls' schools, not the waderas, but while the show's producers shy away from naming the Taliban, they're happy to name a wadera as one of the main villains.  It also conflates waderas (literally, influential people in a rural community) with zamindars (landowners), which I find troubling in its inaccuracy.

Perhaps children in the city will swallow this easily as most urban-dwelling people think of rural landowners as the root of all evil in Pakistan, but rural children who watch the program will become confused about their parents' employers, who may or may not be the same as the evil landlord portrayed in the cartoon. I think the producers of the show could do some thinking about this for future episodes, and perhaps introduce a balancing character, a zamindar more sympathetic to Jiya's cause, for example. In our divided society, it's of utmost importance that we introduce harmony between the rural and urban populations, not sow more seeds of division and misunderstanding.

Some people in Pakistan have been questioning the celebration of the Burka in the cartoon, which is a tool of oppression for women in Pakistan.  I hold the same opinion about the burka - the burka is a cultural instrument, not a religious one, and has been used to hold women back. It use restricts you from doing any physical activity, keeps you shrouded in anonymity, and came into fashion when people wanted to look more like Arabs than South Asians. 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?

There's no simple answer to this question. First of all, the show's producers have made the burka a special outfit to be worn only when there's tough work to be done: Jiya doesn't wear a burka when she's teaching in the school or going about her daily life.

Also, they've done something rather tongue-in-cheek: women wearing burkas often get compared to ninjas. "Ninja Turtle" is a common epithet for burka-wearing women who behave aggressively in public, thinking that the burka gives them the religious superiority and moral authority to break every rule in sight, especially while driving. There are gangs of burka-clad women shoplifting and pickpocketing shoppers in Pakistani shopping malls. The head of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad wore a burka to escape being killed during the siege.

The producers decided to turn this on its head and make the burka wearing Jiya an actual ninja who uses a special kind of martial arts (pens and books instead of nun chucks and swords) against her enemies. She can leap up and levitate in the air, fly from tree to tree, has the moves of Neo from the Matrix combined with an Olympic gymnast. In real life you couldn't do any of that wearing a real burka, but Jiya's burka is magic (and also less voluminous - and she wears black nail polish to match, a cool touch). And a superhero needs her invisibility cloak. Haroon has said it's a step up from the tight costumes of Western superheroes, like Catwoman, Wonder Woman and Supergirl.

The superhero's costume is such an integral part of his or her identity that it's hard to escape from the question of whether or not the burka is an appropriate choice for Pakistan's first female superhero. Yes, the burka is oppressive, and not even religiously mandated. However, we also can't deny the fact that in super-conservative areas of Pakistan (not just rural and mountainous - many women who don't wear a burka in their own villages will wear one in Karachi or Lahore because it's a big city full of strangers), the burka provides women with a modicum of agency. Women who would be confined to their houses are allowed to go out if they are wearing a burka.



I wish it weren't so, but it is. Should we perpetuate the idea that women are strong when they put on the burka? Definitely not. Pakistani girls and women need to know that their natural state of being is not hidden away, shrouded by yards of black cloth to make their presence in society acceptable, safe, or halal. They need to learn that modesty can be interpreted in many different ways, and that a simple shalwar kameez and dupatta are good enough for us, because we're Pakistanis, not Arabs ("Why not Dupatta Dhamaka, which is more in keeping with who we are?" asks writer for the New York Times Huma Yusuf). It will horrify me if little girls start wearing burkas in imitation of their hero, because that would be indoctrination of the worst kind.

Afghanistan's first female street artist Shamsia Hussaini's work:
 "Art is Stronger Than War"
My perfect ending to the Burka Avenger series would be that after the villains are vanquished, Jiya hangs up her burka in the closet and never needs to wear it again.

Note:
You can read about Burka Avenger in the New York Times here. I'm quoted in the piece.

Bonus!
Here are Adil Omar's lyrics for the theme song, "Lady in Black", which I adore wholeheartedly.

Camouflage, shadows and darkness
No guns, but got ammo regardless
A backpack so she's coming prepared
To leave the opposition in submission, running in fear
Yeah - superhero got 'em kicking and screaming
In hysterics, these clerics had envisioned a demon 
A spirit so quick to deliver a beating
To the enemies of peace, love, logic and reason
Yeah - hit 'em with a logical reason
Kill extremism, corruption and just stop it from breathing
The way it was, she'll be taking it back
So tune in for the story of the lady in black

Don't mess with the lady in black
The lady in black, the lady in black
Don't mess with the lady in black
When she's on the attack

Don't mess with the lady in black
The lady in black, the lady in black
Don't mess with the lady in black
When she's on the attack

Lean, mean, covered from her head to her toes
In a one piece, slick invisibility cloak
She got her eyes visible so she can give you the look
And lay the smack down on all these dirty killers and crooks
Like a panther going in for the attack and the win
The lethal weapon in her hands is a book and a pen
The silent ninja, vigilante in the dark of the night
Would never roll over, cause she has to stand up and fight
Her fists banging harder than the drums in the song
Reminisce about the time before the guns and the bombs
The way it was, she'll be taking it back
so stay tuned for the story of the lady in black

Don't mess with the lady in black
The lady in black, the lady in black
Don't mess with the lady in black
When she's on the attack

Don't mess with the lady in black
The lady in black, the lady in black
Don't mess with the lady in black
When she's on the attack