An exciting new show from Pakistan has caught the world’s attention, which was great for the five minutes before it was hijacked by a debate notable for its levels of misplaced angst. Burka Avenger, an animated show for children airing on Geo TV, opens in an idyllic green valley of happy, frolicking villagers reminiscent of the Swat region where Malala Yousafzai was shot. Soon their world changes with the arrival of a Taliban-like villain with a flowing beard and a corrupt politician based on Pakistani feudal lords. The local girls’ school is shut down, and all hope seems lost, until a shadowy figure emerges, a heroine draped in black, felling baddies under the cover of night. Turns out, she’s the village teacher, Jiya—a mild-mannered educationalist by day and a superheroine by night, using pens, books, and a considerable expertise in martial arts to bring peace back to her people. All this, and it boasts a really catchy theme song, “Don’t Mess With the Lady in Black.” With its focus on education and its strong female lead, the show seemed sure to win accolades for such a positive message directed at Pakistan’s youth.
But the lady in black is being messed with—and not, as one would assume, by the local Taliban. Instead, Burka Avenger has taken a beating at the hands of the Western, and more recently the Indian, media, along with a handful of privileged Pakistanis. For while she teaches in a shalwar kameez with her head bare, the disguise she wears at night to pulverize those people threatening girls’ education is indeed a burka. So what the show’s really doing, it’s argued, is glorifying an instrument of oppression. Because the burka is evil, and so is anything that makes contact with it, it must follow, as day follows night ... Only it doesn’t follow, really.
Last week an Indian news show asked whether Burka Avenger was “cool or conformist,” a question you’d think would have already been answered by a scene where the heroine knocks out a Talibanesque figure. We’ve heard the show’s creator explain, repeatedly, that the main character actually doesn’t wear a burka in the day—he simply thought that, since a burka covers your face, it would make a good disguise and give the show a local flavor. Among the panelists on the show, we heard a Pakistani blogger talking about her concerns over women being forced into burkas and the problematic question of choice in a country where there’s nothing resembling a level playing field between the sexes. As well meaning as the debate was, it also missed the point. It goes without saying that forcing women to wear anything is entirely unacceptable. The woman in question, however, is adopting the veil of her own free will, for the express purpose of obscuring her identity. When we ignore the character’s intentions behind willingly adopting a burka (as a disguise), it brings us back to good old-fashioned patriarchy, whereby a woman’s decisions are dwarfed by whatever message her clothing is putting out.
A working woman is seen deciding to put on a burka to hide her face to go beat up bad people without getting caught, and we’re stuck on “Why a burka?” God help feminism, for that day has arrived when feminists are more concerned with what’s on a woman’s head than with what’s in it. It is, after all, possible that Burka Avenger may provide some inspiration, some hope to young girls made to cover themselves up against their will that women’s lives in similarly constrained situations have potentially more to offer. The debate about what the burka signifies has always been surprisingly low on concern for and resistant to knowledge about the women who actually wear them.
Leaving aside for one moment the fact that no one, as far as I know, applies a similar level of scrutiny to Pakistani children watching Wile E. Coyote to extrapolate that they’re being inspired to plant explosives, much of the writing on Burka Avenger reeks of cloying paternalism—“the poor are dense”—and the enormous fear that Pakistani children, unlike their counterparts elsewhere, are so simple that they won’t be able to understand a painstakingly simple scenario presented to them on TV. That girls who have previously shown no inclination toward walking around dressed like a campsite will set fire to their wardrobes and demand burkas from their parents for their sweet 16.
I personally find the use of the burka incredibly smart as a superhero creation myth. The show, far from glorifying the veil, shows it for what it is—an instrument intended to make women invisible. What a masterstroke to turn this on its head and have a woman use that invisibility to her benefit for a change. Far from normalizing it, it makes the burka into a costume, an outfit. Frankly, if it inspires little girls to wear what they wish during the day and slip out at night in a garbage bag, a burka, their pajamas, or their underwear worn over spandex to beat the living daylights out of the Taliban at night, I’ll take it.
Faiza S. Khan is a columnist, critic, and editor-at-large at Random House, India.