Television
6:05 pm
Wed July 31, 2013

Lady In Black: 'Burka Avenger' Fights For Pakistan's Girls

A caped crusader is on the loose in the mountains of Pakistan, but she's not your traditional superhero. The Burka Avenger wears a flowing black veil — only her brown eyes are visible — as she fights corrupt politicians and religious zealots. Her weapons of choice: pens and books.

Burka Avenger, which made its debut on Pakistani TV this week, aims to empower young women in a country where attacks on girls' schools and repression of women remain enduring problems. It's the brainchild of Pakistani entrepreneur and pop star Haroon Rashid, who tells NPR's Audie Cornish that he was inspired by current events in Pakistan. "I thought of an idea of sort of, like, a protagonist protecting a girls' school. And that's how the idea for the Burka Avenger developed."


Interview Highlights

On the Avenger's secret identity

"She is a schoolteacher named Jiya. She is a warm, bubbly, intelligent young woman who's concerned about education, and concerned about the city and the people of Halwapur [the fictional city where the show is set]. ... And then of course, to fight the bad guys, and to hide her identity the way superheroes do, she puts on the burqa. And it's a really cool, sleek burqa, and she can leap off buildings and glide from, almost like a flying squirrel ... and she only fights with pens and books, because I wanted a nonviolent message. Her message is, 'Justice, Peace and Education for All.' "

On feminist criticism of the Avenger's costume

"We chose the burqa because of course we wanted to hide her identity the way superheroes do. She doesn't wear the burqa during the day — she doesn't even wear a headscarf, or a hijab or anything like that; she goes about her business as a normal teacher would. And so she chooses to wear the burqa, she's not oppressed ... and on the other end of the spectrum, a lot of female superheroes in the West are objectified, and sort of sexualized in their costumes, like Catwoman and Wonder Woman, and that certainly would not work here.

"Nobody is compelled to wear the burqa in Pakistan; nobody is compelled to wear the headscarf or hijab, like they are in other parts of Muslim countries. But some women who do choose to wear the burqa or do choose to wear the hijab, the majority of them do it out of choice, and I've learnt this over the years.

"People know about superheroes. People know that Bruce Wayne wears the cloak and the mask and his utility belts to fight crime, but he's not going to walk around like that all day. And kids know that she is a great, strong role model."

On his hopes for the show

"There's a huge space for children's entertainment in Pakistan. There's practically no local entertainment; ... a lot of the entertainment is imported from the West; it's not relevant, socially relevant or culturally relevant, and most of it's just entertaining junk, like, let's say, Ben 10. ... They don't have any social messages, and I think it's important to have positive social messages and themes and morals. And a lot of young children who don't get the opportunity to get a great education need programming which is entertaining and yet also educational."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A caped crusader is on the loose in the mountains of Pakistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) 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.

CORNISH: The lady in black is the Burka Avenger. She's the new superhero and star of her very own cartoon series in Pakistan. When this avenger strikes, she wears a flowing black veil, only her brown eyes visible as she fights corrupt politicians and religious zealots. Her weapons of choice - pens and books.

(SOUNDBITE FROM CARTOON, "BURKA AVENGER")

CORNISH: "Burka Avenger" aims to empower young women in a country where attacks on girls' schools and repression of women remain enduring problems. It's the brainchild of Pakistani entrepreneur and pop star Aaron Haroon Rashid, and he joins us now from Islamabad. Welcome to the program.

AARON HAROON RASHID: Thank you so much.

CORNISH: So, first, tell me how you came up with the idea of a burka-wearing super heroine.

RASHID: Well, you know, I've produced a lot of my own music videos over the years and I realized music videos are sort of like mini movies. And I decided that I'm gonna do a movie and I shortlisted several ideas and one of them was the Burka Avenger 'cause at that time, there was a lot in the press in 2010 about girls' schools shut down by extremist elements.

So as an artist, you're always inspired by what's happening around you and all these issues are constantly staring you in the face in Pakistan. So I thought of an idea of a protagonist protecting a girls' school. And that's how the idea for the Burka Avenger developed.

CORNISH: So tell me a little about her, her name and her friends, because she has this Clark Kent kind of alter-ego, you know, like what does she do during the day?

RASHID: So is a schoolteacher named Jiya. She is a warm, bubbly, intelligent young woman who's concerned about education and concerned about the city and the people of Halwapur, which is the name of the city. And then, of course, to fight the bad guys and to hide her identity the way superheroes do, she puts on the burka. And it's a really cool, sleek burka, and she can leap off buildings and glide from, you know, almost like a flying squirrel.

CORNISH: And the idea is to convey some kind of social messages as well over the course of the program?

RASHID: Absolutely. Each episode is centered around a theme, moral, social message and we touch upon various issues, like child labor, discrimination in Pakistan; sectarian violence is a huge problem, many issues like that. And one thinks these are really hard-hitting issues for a kids' show, but we've presented it in a very entertaining manner and kids have been absolutely loving the show and it's full family entertainment, you know, even adults are loving it, too.

(SOUNDBITE FROM CARTOON, "THE BURKA AVENGER")

CORNISH: So the show premiered this past Sunday evening and you talked about the reaction from younger Pakistanis but there's also been this criticism, particularly from feminist quarters, who actually argue that the costume itself is a problem. That essentially you have a superhero who fights oppression but she's wearing an article of clothing that's seen by many as a source of oppression.

RASHID: Yeah, but you know, I'll tell you that we chose a burka because, of course, we wanted to hide her identity the way superheroes do. She doesn't wear the burka during the day. She doesn't even wear a headscarf or a hijab or anything like that. She goes about her business as a normal teacher would. And so she chooses to wear the burka, she's not oppressed. She chooses it to hide her identity the way a superhero would.

And on the other end of the spectrum, a lot of female superheroes in the West are objectified and sort of sexualized in their costumes, like Catwoman and Wonder Woman, and that certainly would not work here. And that's not something I want to do the way people are using sex to sell their shows and movies.

CORNISH: Yeah, female Western superheroes, their costumes are not exactly defendable, right? I mean, they're usually pretty sexed up. But at the same time, the argument is that she becomes empowered by putting on the burka, which is the opposite for some who perceive it as a symbol of oppression.

RASHID: You know, I have to tell you something, that in Pakistan, nobody is compelled to wear the burka in Pakistan, like they are in other parts of Muslim countries. So it's not like we're giving out a wrong message. It doesn't make sense at all because people know about superheroes. People know that Bruce Wayne wears the cloak and the mask and his utility belt to fight crime, but he's not going to walk around like that all day. And kids know that she is a great, strong role model as a teacher as well.

There's a lot of - most of her interaction in the show is as the schoolteacher.

CORNISH: Haroon, what's your ultimate hope that the show will accomplish or inspire in its audience?

RASHID: I think there's a huge space for children's entertainment in Pakistan. There's practically no local entertainment. It's practically zero. And a lot of the entertainment is imported from the West. It's not relevant, socially relevant, and most of it's just entertaining junk.

And I think it's important to have positive social messages and themes and morals. And a lot of young children who don't get the opportunity to get a great education need programming which is entertaining and also educational.

CORNISH: Well, Haroon, thank you so much for talking to us about the show. Best of luck.

RASHID: Thank you so much. My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE FROM CARTOON, "THE BURKA AVENGER")

CORNISH: Aaron Haroon Rashid is the creator of the Pakistani cartoon "Burka Avenger." You can watch a trailer for the show at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.