This Brilliant Cartoon Of A Badass Burka-Wearing Superhero Is Coming To London
Teacher by day. Defending girls by night.
This is Jiya, a teacher at a girls' school in Pakistan.
By night, however, she's a badass superhero known as the Burka Avenger.
Burka Avenger is the star of Pakistan's first ever animated TV series, currently being screened in London for the first time. The inspirational teacher uses her flowing black burka to disguise her identity as she confronts local thugs who scheme to shut down the girls' school where she works as well as other evil plots.
"It's a phenomenon in Pakistan," Aaron Haroon Rashid, a Pakistani pop star and creator of the show, told BuzzFeed News in between workshops he's hosting in London. "Children are now having Burka Avenger-themed birthday parties now. It's done really, really well."
"I did the soundtrack as well, so kids are singing ... the Burka Avenger song," he added.
The cartoon, which first aired in Pakistan in 2013 and is now in its fourth season, made headlines for tackling difficult subjects such as sex discrimination, controversy over the polio vaccine, and sectarian violence.
It debuted shortly after Malala Yousafzai, the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner, rose to global fame after surviving being shot by the Taliban in 2012 when she defied them by insisting on going to school.
"[The] cartoon came about as I was reading about how girls' schools had been shut down by extremists, and I was outraged because we need more girls going to school in Pakistan," Haroon said.
"I imagined a schoolteacher standing up and saying: 'Stay away, you evil man, these girls deserve education.' And that's how that idea began to develop – this strong female character, an inspirational schoolteacher [who] is still fighting for education even when she's not in disguise."
But even as her superhero alter-ego, Burka Avenger subscribes to the mantra that the pen is mightier than the sword. "I didn't want her to use any weapons, violence, or any punching, hitting, using guns, or blowing [anything] up," Haroon said. "Because violence is never the answer."
There is a not-so-subtle political message in the form of who Jiya is fighting against. The main villain, along with his three henchmen, is Baba Bandook, who Haroon said "sort of symbolises what's wrong with a lot of the extremist ideology".
"Each episode touches on different social issues, whether it's things like gender equality, education for girls, anti-discrimination messages, or sectarian violence," said Haroon, who sees himself as a social activist. "He is on the wrong side of those issues. So that's who he is. If he fails, of course, it's because he's on the wrong side."
In the very first episode, a local crook wants to shut down the girls' school in the city of Halwapur so he can pocket the money a charity gave him to run it. He finds a willing partner in crime in Bandook, whose beliefs echo those of the Taliban.
"What business do women have with education?" says Bandook. "They should stay at home, washing, scrubbing, and cleaning – toiling in the kitchen."
But his plans are thwarted when Burka Avenger enters the scene Matrix-style, busting out her martial arts skills as the theme tune plays.
Most of the reaction to the cartoon has been positive, although some have questioned why the protagonist wears a burka – a criticism Haroon responds to by saying she is simply taking elements of her identity to create her alter-ego.
He explained that growing up, the disguises of his favourite superheroes – including Batman, the Hulk, and Daredevil – were all informed by their personalities. Batman "worked very hard on his strengths and acrobatics and had various gadgets," Haroon said. "With Daredevil, he had a devil outfit that he reappropriated – but as a good guy."
"That's almost similar to what I did in the first Burka Avenger – she's wearing a burka and reappropriating it for her own empowerment [by using] it as a disguise," Haroon said.
What next for Haroon and his franchise? Burka Avenger, which now has its own merchandise including figurines and online games, is watched by 86% of children living in urban areas in Afghanistan, where it is translated into both main languages, Pashto and Dari, according to its creators. In India, it has been translated into Hindi and Tamil.
"I've worked on the 52 scripts and directed 52 episodes with my team and worked very, very hard," said Haroon. "We're done with that now and taking a break...so now I have to sit down and translate all these episodes into English."
An exhibition in London showcases how the series was made, and features figurines, stills of the cartoon, and a cardboard cut-out of the character at the entrance to the Southbank Centre.
Haroon said he hopes Burka Avenger will take off among Western audiences too: "The next step is to take it to other countries."
Burka Avenger is currently screening at the Royal Festival Hall in London until 30 May, as part of Alchemy, an annual festival at the Southbank Centre.