The Burka Avenger

The star of a new Pakistani cartoon fights crime in a decidedly modest getup.
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Some superheroes crusade in spandex briefs, but the star of a new Pakistani cartoon fights crime in a decidedly more modest getup. In the new kids’ TV show Burka Avenger, Jiya is a sweet schoolteacher who’s bareheaded by day. But at night, she dons a full-body black cloak, complete with a face veil, and battles the bad guys: an evil magician and a corrupt mayor who try to close classrooms and steal charity funds. In keeping with the show’s educational message, the Avenger attacks her nemeses with books and pens.

Her garb, however, has raised concerns among some who say a burka, long a symbol of female oppression, isn’t an optimal outfit for a superhero. Adding to the controversy, women covered in full-face black niqabs are sometimes pejoratively called “ninja turtles”—and Jiya, as she leaps and sneaks across the city’s rooftops, is all ninja.

“Burka Avenger is good but I don’t like the feudal stereotyping of the burqa,” tweeted Sherry Rehman, the former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., adding that a scarf would have sufficed.

“To really make a difference in society, a woman cannot remain invisible,” the writer Bina Shah said on an Indian TV show. But another guest on the show, the journalist Mahvesh Murad, disagreed, saying Jiya has turned a symbol of confinement into something spunky and adventurous: “When she takes back the power of the burka, she’s taking back the power … of every woman.”

For their part, Burka Avenger’s makers argue that the costume is an appropriate nod to their viewers’ culture. “We did not want her dressed half-naked like most Western superheroes,” the show’s Facebook page explains, “because she is a Muslim superhero.”

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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