Burka Avenger is a Pakistani cartoon about an ass-kicking superheroine who fights bad guys and wears a ninja-style burka to conceal her identity. The show has been making its rounds through the media echo chamber, sparking discussions on the appropriateness of using the burqa as a tool for female empowerment. For the blowhards, either the Burka Avenger is exactly what the Pakistani youth need for social reform, or it's corrupting the youth by trying to normalize burkas for children.
Halfway through watching the first episode, which aired at the end of July, it was clear to me that beyond the novelty of having a burqa replace the standard superhero cape and tights, Burka Avenger was like any other cartoon. Besides a few references to Pakistani pop culture—like name-dropping Pakistani actress Veena Malik—the show follows the same template as Captain Planet. The show features three good Samaritan children who get in trouble for taking on corrupt politicians, industrialists, and religious authorities, and the Burka Avenger is summoned at the end to beat them up and deliver some moral guidance.
The most surprising thing about the cartoon is that its central theme—promoting girl’s education in Pakistan’s tribal belt—wasn’t based on the story of Malala Yousefzai, the teenage female education activist who was shot in the head by religious extremists. Six episodes of the cartoon were completed before Malala was even attacked. To find out more about the show and the direction it is headed, I had a chat with the new show's creator, Haroon—who is best known for being an international pop star.
VICE: You’re best known in Pakistan for being in a mid-90s boy band. How did you end up creating something so controversial?
Haroon: I’ve been doing my own video production for so many years. Often times I’d watch local movies and think, This is crap. My experience with making music videos in Pakistan for 20 or 25 years has given me more experience than a lot of people currently doing video production. So I thought, Why not try doing a movie?
We started with an iPhone game, and it worked well, so I began storyboarding her backstory. I’m antigun, so when it came to tools to repel the enemy, we came up with the idea to use books and pens and school bags. I worked with my animator, Yousaf Ejaz, on some images and the programmers began animating them. I did the music and voiceovers separately in my home studio.
The video was about the bad guys trying to shut down a girl school. The Burka Avenger appears and fights back with pens and books. When I saw the final product in the fall of 2010, I said, "Wow, we have all the resources to do animation here in Islamabad." Ejaz introduced me to some more animators. We initially thought we’d do something very basic, with maybe ten or 20 people, but we kept getting more ambitious as we went along.
The first episode's plot, which is about girls’ education, almost predicted the Malala incident. How did that story come together?
Living in Pakistan, all these social issues are constantly staring you in your face. It’s very difficult to ignore them. When I sat down to create ideas for a movie, one was about a protagonist who protects a girls' school from shutting down. In 2010, I was reading about a lot of girls’ schools being shut down by extremists.
In 2011, I decided to act on the idea. I thought a movie might take a year to do, so I started with the iPhone game and then moved into the show. When we started it was me, one artist, one animator, and a couple programmers. The team today is 22 animators, 30 to 32 people total. The first episode was done in May 2012. That was the school episode, where a little girl confronts the bad guys about shutting down her school. By October 2012, we had about six episodes done. That was the month when the Malala incident occurred. We were stunned. I hadn’t heard of Malala. It seemed like life imitating art. It hit home that this is a very important topic. A lot of people urged us to launch the show right then.
But you didn’t.
No. I felt like that would be trying to cash in on a tragedy, and, secondly, I didn’t have all 13 episodes ready. I wanted them ready. We got them together by January 2013, and it has been released mid-Ramadan.
You know what they say: "Ramadan is for the children."
What are some of the other topics for later episodes?
We touch on child labor, discrimination, electricity theft, and things like that. When I was a child, I remember hearing my parents read me stories with morals at the end. Unfortunately, a lot of children are illiterate in Pakistan and won’t get to experience that. A lot of our stories were built from a moral or theme.
One of the episodes deals with discrimination. In it, Vadero Pajero, a corrupt politician, is trying to build a two-star hotel called Feroz Sentimental where one of the schoolchildren, Mooli, lives. All of Mooli’s family are designed to look like him, with a few strands of stringy hair, an oversized head, and thick glasses. Vadero Pajero starts to drum up hostility towards the Mooli family. He gives a speech to the city, saying, “These Mooli people are different to us. What business do they have here? Throw them out.”
The whole city turns on the Mooli family, and the main characters are torn up about it and crying, “I don’t want you to go Mooli.” Mooli goes, “I don’t want to leave. I love you guys. Halwapur is my home, but they don’t want us here.”
Then, animated versions of the Canadian band Josh [a famous Canadian Bhangra group] show up and ask the kids what’s wrong.
The band talks about how their duo consists of one Pakistani and one Indian—one Muslim and one Sikh. They talk about touring the world together, and then they sing a song about brotherhood and peace. And all the people of the city sing along with them, very embarrassed for being intolerant.
How do you start writing the episodes?
I think of a theme, and build an episode around that theme, like electricity theft. Superstition is also a theme we wanted to tackle in Pakistan because people in Pakistan are very superstitious. In that episode, a man in a mosque kidnaps children and takes them to a bhoot bungala [haunted house], which is actually a child-labor factory. That episode was split into two parts: the first part tackles superstition, where everyone's scared of the haunted house, and the second part addresses the child-labor issue.
What do you think people need to know about the Burka Avenger?
This is about women empowerment. It's about girl power. We have three prominent female characters. One is Jiya, the school teacher and Burka Avenger. Another is Ashu, a confident and intelligent little girl who cares deeply about things. She stands up to Baba Bandook when he tries to shut down the school. The third character is [a] television reporter. When the school is shut down, she is outraged. "How dare they shut down the school?" she says. "What are they going to do, stop us from living and breathing next?"
Some women in the West have written me to say that they don’t like how female superheros are hypersexualized, and how most Disney characters seem antiquated. Our female leads are strong and not submissive.
It’s good to see these issues being unpackaged and addressed with entertainment. Why do you think Pakistan produces a lack of visible entertainment that tackles these issues?
I think it has something to do with the influence of Indian media. In Pakistan, especially now, channels find it easier to play mostly Indian content, and much less Pakistani content. A lot of the Indian content feels more “packaged.” They’ll hire a famous vocalist like Sonal Nigum to do the vocals, a big Bollywood industry film director to direct, and a famous actress all dressed up. It's very difficult for Pakistani artists on shoe-string budgets to compete with that. A lot of Indian budgets for a single music video are more than what we’d spend on a whole project and promotion.
This is kind of the elephant in the room, but why do you think Pakistan is so fucked up?
The 80s under the [American-supported] dictator Zia ul Haq. He kind of brought Wahabi [Saudi Arabian] Islam into Pakistan. In the 60s and 70s, Pakistan was a lot more liberal. If you look at photographs, you can really see the difference in how everyone is dressed. During the 80s, Zia used Wahabi Islam as a political tool to shore up support amongst a new right wing.
They stopped all the music programming. When I was a young teenager, the only way I’d get to see music or hear music was listening to BBC’s Top 20 on short-wave radio. It used to run on Tuesday. Any time a friend or relative went to England, I’d beg them to record Top of the Pops, and I’d watch that Top of the Pops again and again. They didn’t have music programing on television again until the 90s. What I remember from the 80s was the lack of freedom of press. I remember times as a kid getting the newspaper and seeing a story on the front page all blotted out. They didn’t have time to change the story, so one whole article on the front page would be blanked out.
Is there a story from the 80s you’d recreate with the Burka Avenger?
I remember getting clobbered with a laathi charge [police baton] in the 80s. It's actually a funny story. Back then in Pakistan, breakdancing was huge. We formed a little breakdance crew when we were teenagers and had a face-off with another crew in Jinnah Market.
We put our little boom box down, and we did our thing and they did theirs. While this is happening, a huge crowd gathered. At that time, public gatherings were against the law, because Zia was so paranoid about a public uprising. Suddenly, 20 minutes into our face-off, we hear a loud whistle and policemen with huge dandas [sticks] began laathi-charging the crowd. I remember turning to my little brother, Benny, who was only ten years old, grabbing his hand, and running for our lives. I was 15 at the time and it was the craziest thing I had been through up until that point. We were running and the police were chasing us. The crowd ran in all directions. That was what it was like growing up under Zia ul Haq in the 80s.
Wow. How has the response been to the Burka Avenger?
The first episode's feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The only negative feedback is from ultra-liberal feminist bloggers. They hadn't watched the show, just maybe heard the name, or watched the trailer. They don't know that the Burka Avenger is the alter ego of Jiya the schoolteacher, who teaches them ethics. She doesn’t wear a veil or a head scarf. Most people in Pakistan and in the West are getting it, but the .0001% of Pakistani feminist bloggers don’t.
These women haven’t seen the show, it’s just a knee-jerk reaction. Even conservatives who watch the show and think it may be trivializing Islam, see the show and how it upholds the ethics in true Islam. They actually love it. The GEO network has been getting very high ratings, and it’s only growing. On GEO Taiz, so many people were tuning in. Since the premiere it has become popular not just in Pakistan, but worldwide. People are loving it.
Learn more about Burka Avenger here.
More on Pakistan: