by Sam Cahill
Don’t mess with the lady in black, the lady in black, the lady in black.
Don’t mess with the lady in black when she’s on the attack.
A spirit so quick to deliver a beating
To the enemies of peace, love, logic, and reason.
~ “Lady in Black,” Haroon and Adil Omar
In the theme song to the Pakistani, Urdu-language cartoon Burka Avenger the burqa—a traditional Muslim full-length face and body covering that Western media often portrays as a symbol of female oppression—becomes a “one-piece slick invisibility cloak.” By portraying the burqa this way, series creator Haroon (who also performs the theme song) challenges a long-standing obstacle to global intersectional feminist dialogue. As scholars like Lila Abu-Lughod and Leila Ahmed have pointed out, Western feminists have engaged in what Joyce Zonana has called “feminist orientalism,” or the displacement of patriarchal aggression onto a Muslim “Other” in order to reassert occidental superiority.
By identifying Muslim-majority cultures with the patriarchal oppression of women, mainstream feminism in the West has done a disservice to women who choose to practice Islam and who, further, may choose to wear the burqa. As Isobel Coleman has recently argued in her important book Paradise Beneath Her Feet, this monolithic rejection of Muslim piety exacerbates the hostility felt by Muslims who identify feminism with Western colonialist aggression. Identifying the burqa as necessarily a symbol of oppression effectively erases Muslim women’s choice and agency. Further, Muslim women may find that being able to interpret Islamic doctrine by reading the Qur’an and Hadiths for themselves (rather than relying on male religious authorities) can be liberating. The recent case-study based movie Making Waves: Expressions of Gender Equality in the Sacred Texts and Islamic Tradition emphasizes this point. And, as many have argued, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aishah is often seen as an empowering figure for Muslim women; her example is a way of getting away from the “dry” and “legalistic” version of Islam (Making Waves). In other words, Western feminism(s) must acknowledge Muslim piety, including the choice to wear the burqa, as a valid option for an educated, intelligent woman exercising her own agency.
Representing the burqa as the choice of just such a woman makes Burka Avenger powerful and timely. Feminism’s strained relationship with Islam extends back to at least the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792 (see my article in Assuming Gender), but it continues into the present with the Western rhetoric of “saving” Muslim women from their own culture (as Lila Abu-Lughod and others have pointed out). This is why accessible, pop culture representations of Muslim women who do not need saving are so important.
Burka Avenger first aired in Pakistan on 28 July 2013, and can be seen as a response to the ill-informed assumption that Muslim women are necessarily oppressed. With its appropriation of Star Wars motifs, its defense of female education, and its valorization of a traditionally pious Muslim woman whose burqa enhances her performance as a super-heroine, Burka Avenger augurs well for a new era of feminist dialogue. The series follows a young Muslim teacher, Jiya, as she combats abusive patriarchal forces in her home city of Halwa-Pur. Her adoptive father and mentor Kabbadi Jaan teaches her the “ancient art of Takht Kabbadi,” or “fighting with books, pen, and advanced acrobatics.” Jiya fights “for justice, peace and education for all” and she tackles villains who represent the “forces of tyranny and ignorance.” In the opening scene of the first episode Jiya and Kabbadi Jaan are on a Halwa-Pur rooftop practicing a training exercise reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s training under his mentors Obi Wan and Yoda in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Under Obi Wan’s tutelage, for instance, a sightless Luke, his vision obstructed by a visor, uses his light saber to combat air-born spheres that resemble miniature Death Stars. Similarly, Jiya closes her eyes and envisions her enemies while Kabbadi Jaan throws eggs for her to catch. And as Luke must practice feats of agility, dexterity, and balancing while under Yoda’s tutelage in the Dagobah swamp, Jiya also balances on wooden poles while catching the eggs.
Jiya is instantly recognizable as an accessible superhero, an orphan who must rise to greatness, conquering evil through a combination of destiny and personal industry. Yet Burka Avenger departs from Star Wars in important ways. Jiya is not training in a swamp on an alien planet; the rooftops of her home city are clearly in view. Nor is she battling holographic robots or swamp creatures. She protects the fragile, young, and vulnerable, represented by the eggs, the children she teaches, and their pet goat. Further, this training exercise is not simplistically gendered. Though she is handling eggs on the rooftop of her domestic space Jiya is not cast in the conventional roles of woman-as-kitchen-goddess or woman-as-keeper-of-the-hearth since she is using this domestic space as a base camp from which to combat systemicsocial injustice. Moreover, her male mentor advocates the conventionally feminine quality of gentleness. Kabbadi Jaan tells her, “keep your hands soft and your senses sharp.” And as he reminds her, “Takht Kabbadi doesn’t require the strength of your weapon but a complete command over your mind and body.” Kabbadi Jaan models the behavior he recommends: he is attentive to her responses, sensitive to her emotional state; he is encouraging when she is anxious or fearful, reassuring when she is insecure. But he never patronizes her and his mentorship is clearly intended to complement her independent functioning as a self-controlled, rational agent. He tells her that with Takht Kabbadi she can do anything and that if she keeps practicing her “inner peace exercise…there is no limit” to what she can achieve.
The resonances with Obi Wan’s discussion of the “force” in Star Wars are clear but unobtrusive. This is not a simple adaptation of Star Wars. Rather, it is a creative mash up of elements of a recognizable Western pop culture narrative and a cultural context (Pakistan) that Western media does not usually associate with liberation, freedom fighting, or the education of women. Burka Avenger is an excellent example of how splicing together conventionally disparate narratives can productively expand the representation of women and their capabilities for a variety of audiences. Jiya fighting the forces of tyranny while wearing a burqa intervenes in the stereotype that identifies veiled women as passive, oppressed, and intellectually stifled. Indeed, in the first episode Jiya prevents the villains Vadero Pajero and Baba Bandook from shutting down a school and denying girls an education.
Pop culture interventions such as Burka Avenger can underscore the constructedness of conventional models of feminine identity while keeping the category of “woman” always open. A truly intersectional global feminism will only be possible when destructive narratives—including the “prehistory” of feminism orientalism—have been acknowledged by those who don’t wear the veil. Perhaps this is why Muslima projects to reclaim the burqa (or other coverings) have proliferated recently. German-based artist Soufeina Hamed has created a range of cartoons that present traditional Muslim covering as a choice. And the new Ms. Marvel is a Muslim-American teenager, Kamala Khan, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. Given this trend, perhaps it is no wonder that Burka Avenger has drawn comparisons with real-life crusader for Pakistani girls’ education Malala Yousafzai.
Burka Avenger answers Lila Abu-Lughod’s question “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” with an accessible representation of an educated, independent young woman whose reasons for wearing the burqa are comprehensible to both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences. This is not to deny that the burqa can be used as a tool of oppression; rather, it is to insist that the expression of piety may also be a personal choice. Like several superheroes—Neo from The Matrix or Batman or even the Luke Skywalker of Return of the Jedi—Jiya dons flowing black garments not because she is oppressed or because she needs saving but because she is the savior.