In case you’re not up to date, Burka Avenger is a children’s television program, which made its debut in Pakistan a little over a week ago. In a country where most of its entertainment is Western entertainment, the show is taking everyone by storm. Its heroine, by day, is a mild mannered schoolteacher named Jiya.
By night, she dons a burqa and fights thugs, corrupt politicians, and religious extremists, who are trying to close down the local girls’ school where she works. She jumps from tree to tree, and glides around like a flying squirrel. Her fighting style is Takht Kabaddi, an invented martial art wherein she uses pens and books as her weapons of choice, and her slogan is “Justice, Peace & Education for All.” The show is set to go global, with plans to broadcast it in 60 other countries. It cannot be contested: this lady is a badass.
A recent episode of NPR’s All Things Considered addressed the feminist criticism in an interview with the show’s creator, Haroon Rashid: “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.” This critique is really popular. Former Pakistani Ambassador to the US Sherry Rehman commented that “a dupatta could have done the job” as opposed to a burqa, and Journalist Marvi Sirmed was quoted saying that the burqa “cannot be used as a tool for empowerment.” This viewpoint extends far into the West, where there are calls to burn the burqa, the same way some women burned their bras in the 60s, and even multiple efforts to enact bans.
Firstly, the burqa is not the cause of oppression, it is only a symptom of oppression. The same way Cat Woman’s skin-hugging, leather cat suit is a symptom of oppression in its effort to sexualize her for a largely male audience. If we got rid of the burqa, would we get rid of the oppression? Ask France, a country that has banned it for a little over a year now. The effect of the ban simply legitimizes Western xenophobia and victimizes women (but specifically women of color). It becomes yet another way to control what women do with themselves. No, erasing burqas doesn’t end oppression. Neither does subbing it out for a dupatta, which, I should point out, has complex origins as a modesty garment, but is now often used as a protest symbol. Which leads me to my second point:
Out of the many horrendous aspects of subjugation, there is one feature that emerges. This is the reappropriation of oppressive symbols and language. A lot of this shows up in the form of reclaiming words that used to be slurs, but like the dupatta, this type of reappropriation can apply to a lot of things.
If you want me to take a definitive stance on the burqa, I can’t. There, I said it. It’s not as simple as YES BURQA / NO BURQA. The burqa is a symbol of oppression. It has oppressive origins, which still affect women in negative ways. But it gets more complicated than that. Because along with the many women who feel societal or familial pressures to wear the burqa, or who are facing violence and discrimination for not wearing it, there are a number of women who wear the burqua in spite of pressures not to, or women who face discrimination for wanting to wear it. Here’s a western example, that maybe we can all get behind: I can feel beautiful and put-together, and intimidating, and powerful with my eyebrows filled in. I’ve received comments from boys who are befuddled as to why I would bother, at which point I roll my eyes and explain that I’m not doing it to make them like me better. I’m doing it to make them FEAR ME. And yet, my makeup routine—whether I do it for myself, or for others, or both—still comes from a longstanding tradition where women are pressured to conform to societal beauty standards.
We have already created a society where people are wearing the burqa, whether it’s by their choice, or not. There is no denying it. Burqas exist and we can’t make them un-exist, or that would be a new form of policing women. The attempts to ban burqas by Femen and France are a self-fulfilling prophecy that turns the wearers of it into victims, and erases any kind of autonomy they might have in wearing it. What, then, can we do?
This is where the Burka Avenger comes in. It’s worth noting that Jiya, the main character of Burka Avenger, doesn’t wear the burqa for modesty, or even religious reasons. In fact, she goes about her public life as a woman who chooses not to wear it. Instead she wears it as a disguise, using it as a way to fight sectarian violence and subvert the efforts of conservatives who are undoing her hard work. Rather than making her less visible in society, it makes her more visible. It makes her a hero. She’s not using the burqa as originally intended, but wears it for all the reasons that hardcore enforcers of the burqa would hate.
By creating Burka Avenger, a popular children’s show enjoyed by adults and children, educated and uneducated, literate and illiterate (in a country whose female literacy rate is a shocking 40%), Haroon Rashid is creating a conversation in favor of female education. But he is also putting forth an argument against religious zealots who want to subjugate women, as well as an argument against westerners whose fixation on the burqa makes them in favor of oppressive bans. The Burka Avenger is powerful. Her disguise of choice augments her power, rather than diminishes it. This is reappropriation of oppression at its best: Rather than trying to erase the burqa through politicized control, or enforce it through politicized control, the show changes what the burqa means, undermines its origins, removes the power from the oppressors, and gives it to heroes like Jiya.