Pakistan’s new superhero makes the hoop-skirted, Prince Charming-obssessed Disney princesses look downright antiquated.
She was not born into royalty. She does not obsess about her beauty. And she definitely does not want or need to be whisked off on some white horse or magic carpet.
No, Jiya, or the Burka Avenger, is too busy defending women’s rights and education for all. Her weapon of choice against corrupt politicians and Taliban fundamentalists who try to stop her (note: not gnarled witches or giant sea urchins)? Books and pens.
Now that’s what I call a role model for girls.
The feedback – from the United States and Europe, as well as Pakistan — has been largely positive. Some, though, have criticized Pakistan’s first animated television series for something they say undercuts its message of feminism: the cover-all burka Jiya wears to fight evil.
In a phone interview, the Pakistani pop star Haroon, who created “Burka Avenger,” pushed back against that criticism: “That we are trying to subjugate women is completely incorrect. ’The Burka Avenger’ is all about women’s empowerment,” Haroon told me. “All superheroes have disguises. The burka simply is hers. But neither Jiya nor the Burka Avenger is invisible.”
In an interview this week with Haroon on Monocole’s Globalist program, Pakistani novelist Bina Shah praised the team behind “Burka Avenger” for its innovation and dedication to delivering overt social messages in an environment where children’s programming is nearly nonexistent. But Shah is concerned about another, not-so-obvious message.
“The woman, Jiya, is shown as only being able to fight her battles when she dons the burqa. And I think that sends the message, especially to little girls that might be watching the program, that a woman can only make a difference in society when she is invisible,” she said.
But Haroon points to the three strong female leads, two of whom are not veiled, in his show.
There is Ashu, a “very smart, courageous” girl who delivers a powerful monologue about the right to education when the girls’ school is shut down in the first episode. Another is a female news reporter whose response to the closure of the school is just as impassioned: “What will they do next? Stop women from eating?” Jiya, teacher by day and burka-donning social justice ninja by night, comes to the rescue, conking all of the bad guys on their heads with books.
Haroon admits that he considered the burka to be a sign of suppression when he was younger.
“I thought it was terrible. I’d actually ask women wearing burkas if their fathers had made them do so. I was surprised when women would respond, ‘What do you mean? My father hates me wearing this. The burka is my personal choice,’” he explains. “I realized I was wrong.”
Interweaving Pakistani culture into his show is important to Haroon. The burka is part of that.
“What should I do instead? Have her wear a cat costume?” he says. “Women in American media are portrayed in a horrible light. Even in Disney, women are no more than damsels in distress. Jiya doesn’t need that. She can save herself.”
The popular British-Pakistani pop star’s message is refreshing, especially as we in the United States debate whether or not Robin Thicke’s amusement with degrading women is sexist (or is it super feminist?).
“I’ve done a number of music videos, and I’ve never done that sort of thing,” Haroon says, referring to the objectification of women in Thicke’s videos as well as in Justin Timberlake’s “Tunnel Vision.” “Celebrities like Timberlake should stand up and be role models,” he says. “I’m very popular in Pakistan, and I know that platform comes with great responsibility.”
As a small boy, Haroon recalls his mother reading him stories every night before he fell asleep. Each ended with a lesson.
The pop star knows he is one of the fortunate few. Nearly three-quarters of the world’s 775 million illiterate adults are found in 10 countries. Pakistan (54.9% literacy) is one of them. The literacy rate for women in Pakistan unsurprisingly is much worse: 40.3%.
Cue Haroon’s motivation behind the “Burka Avenger”: to reach, educate and inspire children in one of the most illiterate nations on earth. Each episode focuses on a social issue, though Haroon says the importance of education is a reoccurring theme.
Afiya Shehrbano Zia, a feminist researcher and activist based in Karachi who echoes Shah’s concerns, tells me she is wary of most ‘cultural’ programs and efforts like “Burka Avenger” aimed at bringing about social change.
“No one is suggesting all kids entertainment should be didactic,” she says. “In fact, I wish Pakistani media would stop pretending to be the savior of our morals and values, but then so should all others including donors and the urban elite who like to be seen as moral angels.”
Haroon says he already was working on the TV series when Malala, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who advocates for girls’ access to education, was shot by the Taliban last year.
“We were stunned. The issue of girls’ access to education and the importance of bringing it to light really hit home.”
Alyson Neel recently returned to the United States after working for a newspaper in Istanbul for the last 2 1/2 years. In the fall, she plans to begin graduate studies in public affairs at Princeton University. Follow her on Twitter @AlysonNeel.