Cartoon heroine stirs burqa debate in Pakistan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 July, 2013, 2:43am


Cartoon fans in Pakistan are excited by the arrival of the country's first caped crusader, in the form of a female superhero who flies through the air, battling villains using pens and books.

The heroine, Burka Avenger, is certainly an unusual role model for female empowerment in Pakistan: a woman who uses martial arts to battle colourful villains such as Baba Bandooq, a Taliban-esque figure who tries to shut down her school, and Vadero Pajero, a corrupt politician.

But the cartoon, in which a demure schoolteacher, Jiya, transforms into the action heroine by donning a burqa, or traditional cloak, has also triggered a debate about her costume.

"Is it right to take the burqa and make it look 'cool' for children, to brainwash girls into thinking that a burqa gives you power instead of taking it away from you?" asked commentator Bina Shah in a blog post.

The criticism has not overshadowed the broader welcome that Burka Avenger, which aired for the first time on Sunday evening, has received. With slick computer animation, fast-paced action and humour that even adults can appreciate, the character could offer Pakistanis a new cultural icon akin to America's Wonder Woman.

The burqa debate centres on whether her use of the all-covering cloak is subverting a traditional symbol of segregation and oppression or reinforcing it.

Sherry Rehman, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, said she disliked the use of the burqa in a children's show. "A dupatta could have done the job," she said on Twitter, referring to the head scarf that some women wear in Pakistan.

The show's maker, Aaron Haroon Rashid, said the criticism was misplaced because it was a disguise. "She wears [the burqa] to hide her identity," he said.

While most Pakistanis have little difficulty relating to burqas, he said, he understood they were controversial in the West. "Sometimes there are extremes when authorities ban the hijab in public or in schools," he said, referring to efforts to restrict Islamic head scarves in some European countries. "That does not make sense to people in Pakistan."

Some viewers said the images did not bother them. "It is a new take on purdah and a strong message of womanhood," said Kulsume Hai, 35. Purdah is the tradition of veiling women to separate them from men who are not close relatives. "The burqa is shown as a strength rather than weakness."