Thursday, November 28, 2013

Burka Avenger Beyond the Burqa

by Salman Hameed


The super-hero animated series, Burka Avenger, was broadly covered in the press when its first episode aired in Pakistan back in August. The creators of the show argue that the burka superhero would empower young women by serving as a role model. Furthermore, one of the main goals of the show is to emphasize education for women - especially young girls. The first episode had the shades of Malala versus the Taliban.

So how successful has the show been in achieving its goals beyond publicity and the selling of show-related merchandize (while I haven't yet found any follow-up episodes, I know I can shell out $20 for aBurka Avenger t-shirt - something that I doubt most women in Pakistan would be wearing)?

I don't know the answer, but I think it would be an interesting project to see the show's impact, if any. Here are two articles that talk about two different aspects of the show: education and the use of burka as a costume.

Here is Hani Yusuf in Valerie magazine talking about Burka Avenger's goal of spreading education:
While Burka Avenger may be a valuable addition to local television entertainment, it is far from an effective education awareness program. With its lack of understanding of the nuances and complexities of regional politics, culture and economics, it falls short of reaching its target audience in Pakistan.

Burka Avenger aims to raise education awareness in a country where half the population is illiterate and over a quarter lives below the poverty line. According to the media brochure, the TV show offers “positive social messages and morals.”

But Urban Pakistanis who speak Urdu and English are often those who already have access to formal education. And, English is only really spoken by a small fraction of Pakistanis who can afford private schools.

Government schools in Pakistan suffer from various budgetary and infrastructural problems. The current government’s spending on education is an abysmal 2 percent of its total spending.

So any effective education awareness campaign must target parents and government officials as well and must be region-specific, as the country’s micro regions have very different economic, cultural and social concerns.

Instead, Burka Avenger targets its education awareness campaign at children, but it is only able to reach children in urban centers.
And here is Daniel Martin Varisco at Tabsir on the use of burka as a super heroine costume:
At first glance this seems like a sound idea, importing a Western theme and inserting a Muslim character. There are quite a few video games that do this for men. But does it really work? As I watched the online first episode, it seemed like the Burqa Avenger was more like a Halloween witch, flying without the broom but decked out in black, than anything else. It may work as comedy, but I doubt this really empowers women who choose to wear a burqa. If the point is to show that there are tough Muslim women, would it not make more sense to show some real life examples? The make-believe aspect of the Burqa Avenger suggests that it could not happen in real life, like the Kuwaiti women in the wake of Saddam’s invasion back in 1990. The veiled cartoon heroine works as fantasy, but this only serves to reinforce the stereotype that there is a disconnect between the Islamic rhetoric about the value of women and the cultural practices that sometimes do not allow women any choice. 
The commercial interest of the site is quite evident. The marketing is clearly for young people who like hip hop, as can be seen in the music videos, which are in English… So here is an in-your-face dj-type saying “Don’t mess with the lady in black, when she is on the attack.” I kind of doubt this will empower young Pakistani girls, but it may scare the hell out of young Pakistani males.
I think both Hani and Daniel have raised excellent issues with the show, and I share these concerns (and as mentioned above, find marketing campaign quite over-the-top). However, I do not want to dismiss its impact out of hand. Popular culture, after all, has a long reach and carries weight in both urban and rural areas of Pakistan. I think some of that will have to depend on the quality of story-telling as well - especially if the writers can move beyond "message" stories to tales that resonate with deeper human connections (I guess, I'm wishing for a more literary Burka Avenger…). Based on the one episode we've had, the prospects are not that great on this account - but then Marvel and DC Comics have also crossed many cultural boundaries to have become a global phenomena.

But the question of impact is an empirical one. I think it will be a neat (and useful) comparative project to do focus-groups and/or individual interviews with women and men of the intended target age-group across different areas of Pakistan (there is a huge variation within urban centers as well, and I would throw in diasporic Pakistani community as well) to see how they view Burka Avenger and its goal of empowering and educating women with this female superhero.

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