Monday, July 29, 2013

The Burqa Avenger - A failed attempt at female empowerment.

Dear readers,

after a whirlwind of twitter conversations I feel I am obligated to put my two cents in on the topic of Pakistan's new 'empowered' female superhero: The Burqa Avenger. Yep, you heard me...we are now officially using the face covering niqab as propaganda for female empowerment. And apparently its not even the fundamentalists that created this wonderful body of work. It was made by a Pakistani pop-star... who is apparently pretty open minded and not a supporter of niqab at all. Just imagine what a more conservative member of our society would have made... sigh..

This is why I love twitter, it really elevates the conversation, gets a bunch of perspectives in.

Look, I'm all for Pakistanis taking the reign on their creativity, shaping it, moulding it and re-imagining popular culture to make it our own. That would be awesome. There are some incredible artists in Pakistan that the world needs to know about.

I get that we want to make it our own and give it a 'local feel' (as Haroon Rashid mentioned in one online article);

"Rashid, who is certainly no radical Islamist, said he used a burka to give a local feel to the show, which is billed as the first animated series ever produced in Pakistan.

"It's not a sign of oppression. She is using the burka to hide her identity like other superheroes," Rashid said.

"Since she is a woman, we could have dressed her up like Cat-woman or Wonder Woman, but that probably wouldn't have worked in Pakistan." 

Yes, yes Haroon, a spandex suit would probably not have been well recieved... but is there no middle ground? Could she not have been called the Dupatta Avenger? (dupatta is a scarf pakistani women wear sometimes on their head, or around their neck -much more versatile, inclusive and non-extremist as well as local -  than a fucking niqab) Why must we always make news with something religion-related or terror-related, or both? Do we not have anything else to offer? Give us some fuckin credit here....

On the plus side, I will say the animation is spectacular, the production quality looks great.... Good job on that. Even the logo/wordmark is well done and reflects the niqab subject-matter well :) 

The major issue here is that they felt a ninja-niqabi hybrid would give Pakistani women a sense of empowerment, while giving Pakistani men a watered-down version of a 'strong female character' that they could accept. Because really.... they couldn't handle it if she was really empowered? FFS.

So she's a 'mild' mannered teacher by day (every good Pakistani woman should be 'mild' mannered of course, otherwise shes just a fuckin' whore) and a burqa-clad pro education, taliban fighting woman by night? Yep, THAT makes a lot of sense... no inconsistencies or plot holes here at all. 

Since she chose a burqa to hide her identity, and not something more neutral... say... umm a FUCKING mask.... or a duppatta... I'm forced to believe she is religiously inclined. And that is fine for a country that was founded upon religion.... but could we have maybe made her a hijabi (baby steps)? A hijab's cultural place I get, even though I disagree with its problematic roots. Its more than a religious symbol, its a cultural one now.

We could've left it there... but noooo.... The niqab is where its at. An 'empowered niqabi' is a fucking oxymoron, don't kid yourselves. 

You can make her burqa as sleek and stylish as you want, but look at her real life counterparts:

I think I see a little ankle there... woah!

yep, she looks like she's at par with her man. Not. She looks like a bag of potatoes. That can NOT be comfortable. And what is the point of this picture? 

THIS is what you're endorsing. I don't think enough thought was put into the socio-political aspects of the message you're sending here, Haroon. Of course everyone is inspired by Malala and girls getting education, etc.... but remember that Malala does NOT cover her face.... 

People will argue that face covering hardcore burqas are not a tool of oppression, they are cultural, and that some people 'choose' this. Yeah...I will write you a separate essay on why that's bs. I am all about respecting peoples religious beliefs, as long as they are kept to themselves not harmful to others (which includes humiliation/oppression of women).

Supposedly, burqa's are not even Islamic. They are not mentioned as a requirement anywhere as far as my limited knowledge goes.... why do you think its done then? To control women and their bodies. No self-respecting person would want to walk around in insane heat with limited air flow and skewed vision. No one would choose that for themselves. 

Oh but but her 'weapon' of choice (aside from the perpetuation of extremism) is a book and a pen attached to a whip, give me a freakin' break, she *chose* a burqa to fight people in.... that book in her hand, is not a neutral educational book... its a freakin' religious book. What else would it be? 

Oh but she fights the taliban - ok so shes not a bloodthirsty violent extremist and recognizes that the taliban are the spawn of satan (does she deserve a pat on the back for this recognition?)... i mean they did fucking shoot a child for wanting an education.

Fighting taliban doesn't exactly make her neutral and non-extremist...maybe just 'less' extremist.

So we've established that she's mild mannered and religious, right? So here are some potential issues she might have; 

she can't touch the male bad guys she's 'fighting' because thats not Islamically acceptable. Hows she going to fight them then? Oh right the book.... ermm ... is she going to preach them to death then? I know forced religious preaching would make me want to run away...

(click to enlarge pics)

Oh also, if she's really hardcore, and wants to follow shariah... then she can't really leave her place without a male relative... so umm.... maybe her son, father or brother could escort her while she's jumping around trying to fight evil? Cuz there isn't anything more empowering for a woman than a male chaperone. 

And let's face it, fighting crime in a head to toe burqa is a bit of a choking hazard isn't it? I thought capes were impractical for fighting crime, but this takes it to a whole other level. While she's soaring through the skies with her version of Burqa-parkour, it may also lift and reveal skin, or her identity maybe... its far too flowy to stay on while she's doing flips n' shit.  

I understand that some of you more partial to religiosity may have been upset by this critique of mine....but you have to understand that in a country already so torn apart by religious extremism - this is NOT a healthy thing to put out there. Little girls should NOT look upto her and want to be like her... seriously are they just openly steering them towards full facial covering now? 

And what about Pakistani non-muslim little girls? Who are they supposed to look up to? Certainly not this exclusively muslim superhero. Screw 'em. We hate minorities anyway. 

burqas and nailpolish are not compatible, we all know that. The few times my mom managed to convince me to go to a mosque as a teen I got told off for my nails. You supposedly can't pray with nailpolish on. 
Seem ridiculous? Yeah thats how ridiculous it is to bring religion into superheroes. (Wudhu is the cleansing ablution ritual that happens pre-prayer. You break the seal of cleanliness if you fart, and will have to repeat wudhu before next prayer).

I understand the need for a local empowered female superhero.... but I think they totally missed the mark here. Pakistani ladies; stick with dupattas if you must, stay the hell away from evil woman-hating niqabs. 


  1. This is specifically regarding the pictures of the burqa clad women in your post and not The Burqa Avenger Cartoon.
    If liberals expect freedom to practice whatever they want, they should also be willing to give conservatives the same freedom. If you want the liberty to walk naked and talk sex, then why can't she be allowed to wear what she wants? Bag of potatoes? Who made you the universal fashion police anyway? Live and let live.
    And please don't start with her father/husband/brother/son forced her to wear it...I hope you know that not EVERY women covers herself 'case she is forced.
    I'm a non-Muslim btw; I refuse to be that ignorant person who judges people based on their choice of clothing. Maybe you should give it a shot too.

    1. Oh Sarah Baker, if you are indeed a non-muslim and have never been raised in that culture... then you have absolutely no right telling me what 'I' (a person raised in Islam) should or should not find oppressive. That in itself is very imperialist of you. If I choose to critique my culture and the religion of my family from the inside... i don't think you could possibly understand where I'm coming from.... because as you say... you are not a muslim and never were. You could not possibly have seen the horrilbe truths I have seen... and you could not have experienced the ongoing sexism, misogyny and oppression that women face from such attitudes where they have to cover everything...even their bloody face. When you speak of 'universal fashion police' your ignorance of the culture comes through... because, dear Sarah, the burqa is not a fucking fashion statement. Its a tool to control women. No one wears it because they think it looks 'cool' ... so in answer to your question... no one made me the universal fashion police...but that is irrelevant because her look that resembles a bag of potatoes is the result of some man somewhere telling her she needs to cover the fuck up... because men will be tempted to molest her. And since we cannot ask men to control their desires... we must ask women to cover every inch of their bodies. This is not a choice a sane person would make if they weren't under some kind of pressure. ITs not always as obvious or overt as being 'forced' to do so...but if you take it out of a religious context for a second.... imagine asking a woman that she can only leave the house if she put a paper bag over her head... would that be socially acceptable? No.... but because this particular vehicle of oppression, the burqa/niqaab, hides itself under the untouchable umbrella of 'religion' most of us are too afraid to give it an honest critique.

      As for live and let live.... this includes giving everyone equal freedom to live their lives as they please as long as no one is being harmed. Its not "Live and Let oppress" excuse me because I can't stand Idly by and watch women being mistreated. I will at least raise my voice. This does not make me a hypocrite... because i am all for live and let live....just so long as no ones harmed.

      And Sarah Baker, careful ... cuz you're ignorance is about you try to learn a bit about cultures that you mean to defend. As i explained earlier, a burqa is not a choice of clothing... its not like u stand in front of ur closet in the morning and wonder if ur going to wear your red dress, your jeans or your burqa.... if you subscribe to that mentality... you have to cover up whatever you're wearing... no questions asked... because god forbid a man be tempted by your flesh. You have to suffer in the heat in an unforgiving black enclosure.... your vision is not as great as it could be... you are breathing hot air and condensation into your own face... but yet you soldier on... because god forbid.... a man be tempted by your flesh..... because that would be your fucking fault.... you asked for it... thats right. A little more research before you speak next time ok? Toodles. -E

    2. Well said, I cudn't agree with you more.

    3. Sarah Im a Christian Indian, who has Muslim/Ex-Muslim friends in both India and Middle East.

      In general the majority of women are born (as are males) into their religions or culture. Often there is no REAL choice in the matter of the traditions one is to follow particularly among conservative or orthodox communities.

      More often than not women are shamed and bullied for not following norms. Some of the instances when they can claim they have a choice is when the older men or women in the family are liberals themselves and offer that choice to their children.

      I suppose in your attempt to be politically correct, you have no real understanding of higher degree of misogyny that is prevalent among conservative/orthodox Muslims (this is also true of any conservative/orthodox communities) ~ Jerry

  2. Personally I'm neutral on the burqa/hijab. It's fine by me as long a muslim woman makes that decision consciously, out of her own sense of piety, and isn't forced to dress that way by her family or tradition.

    What I'm genuinely concerned about is the practicality of the thing. How anyone can wear multiple layers of clothing in this unrelenting heat is beyond me.

    1. The practical aspect is definitely one to consider...which is one that makes me question the element of 'choice' in the first place. Regardless.... the bottom line is that a childrens show is no place for a Burqa. And definitely not a place where it should be equated with 'empowerment' - and most certainly not in a country already suffering greatly from the effects of extremism.

  3. I saw the rections on twitter to your post. Horrifying that so many people in our country are willing to defend something as oppressive to women as a naqab... this is why it will never change ... because even the people who consider themselves liberal will back hateful shit like the burkha ... iguess we deserve where we are now in that case.

    Good post. At least someone spoke some sense...

    1. I think you are no one too tell a woman what she should wear and what she shouldn't. She is free to wear a Burqa or whatever. whats the problem. It is an repression o the other hand to forbid a woman of her choice. Makes sense?

    2. oh yeah....such air tight arguments...... u make perfect sense... i literally have nothing to combat your powerful words with :)

  4. Just my opinion here, but I believe you are jumping the gun. Do you have any empirical evidence to support your claim that The Burqa Avenger has failed at female empowerment? I will assume you don't, so I would refrain from making claims that you can't back up without any evidence.

    Secondly after hearing the creators interview on NPR he seems concerned with giving women a positive influence by showing them a powerful female lead character. By having her wear the Burka he does not take on the wrath of the conservatives in the nation and allows a wider audience to watch it. Like this author stated he could have called it something else, but I argue that by calling it the Burka Avenger he gets a larger audience, which leads to more exposure.

    Third, yes the burka in my view is oppressive, but a society does not change over night. It will take progress like this (no matter how small and unimpressive it seems) to change a society. So if you want to conduct a massive social science experiment where you measure the number of girls enrolled in school now and then go back and measure it 10 years after Burka avenger aired and compare the data then you can make a decision.

    1. I don't need to conduct a massive experiment to know that a Burqa sends a harmful message...ESPECIALLY when shoved into a childrens show in a country already suffering from extremism. Whatever the creators intent was... im not debating that... Im saying he should have put more thought into the long term socio-political effects of putting imagery like this out there for kids. Especially considering he isn't trying to promote the burqa at all... he should have used a more neutral and more 'pakistani' image. Dear friend, one doesnt need an experiment to see these basic things.. there is no issue with the content (yet) ... there is an issue with the premise.

  5. Liberal Fascists - the compulsive religion-bashers.

    1. its called logic... and the desire for equality...

  6. I don't know who invented the burqa, but it looks almost identical to the Catholic Ursuline nun's "habit" worn some 40-50 years ago. the only differences are the head veil didn't cover the nun's face. the veil had a molded cardboard piece that plowed a furrow in their forehead just above their already furrowed brow. they also had a lamp shade like cardboard thing around their neck. nuns also wore army boots that seemed 2 sizes to small and they were laced up to tight. i don't know if the nuns were oppressed, depressed or just pissed (off) they never seemed happy. the school girls all wore the exact same uniform, a black skirt, black vest and white short sleeved blouse. just the other day i heard in the news that the Catholic Pope said we must be more inclusive of the gay community, that it is OK to be gay, but it is NOT OK to have gay sex. (because it is icky?) that is what they have been saying about straight sex as far back as i can remember, it is OK to procreate, but DO NOT have sex for pleasure. (because it is icky and sinful) fornication and adultery are mortal sins and you will burn forever in hell. Oppression is oppression, it does not matter what brand name you put on it nor what garb you dress it up in.

  7. Nice article .... i personally myself have been sick of 'everybody's choice' argument that comes up as soon as you criticise burqa.... I am just 23 but for the last 15 years i have been observing this trend of increasing hardline point of view from typical average pakistani while more and more the dupatta has been replaced by the scarf, scarf/burqa variant and burqa ofcourse........This might sound bad, one thing i don't understand is burqa is there to protect women from male xray eyes but why do even 70,80 year old wear burqa with so much zeal and hardwork as though the next 20-30 year old walking by is going to molest the granny...more and more new inventions are sprouting forth to satisfy the local burqa fashion field ... goggles to even cover the eyes, giving more vision than afghan blue ones and more purity than tempting eyes slits design...
    Even my family is slowly slipping into this trend and while my sisters now wear occasional scarf while my mother most of the time now wears dupatta on head while outside, the shift grows.... Atleast i know IF i start a family where my priorities will lie...*sigh*