Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Are we burka-ing up the wrong tree?


The Burka-Clad Crusader for Justice
Is the world burka-ing up the wrong tree by focusing on the Burka Avenger’s costume choice? The show’s creator, Haroon Aaron Rashid, seems to think so.
The creators of The Burka Avenger
Via http://www.thegenteel.com/articles/culture/a-burka-clad-heroine
She’s the new superhero that’s sparked debate across global media platforms. 
A mild mannered schoolteacher by day, Jiya fights oppressive elements in her village with her martial arts skills while dressed in a black burka.

Image via blogs.tribune.com
The Burka Avenger is a 13-episode, 22-minute animated Pakistani series (youtube.com/burkaavenger) that airs Sundays on Geo Tez, part of the network that also airs the controversial baby giveaway spectacle (http://pakistaniopinion.blogspot.com/2013/08/pakistans-disposable-baby-girls.html).

According to The Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/wp/2013/08/01/burka-avenger-pakistans-new-superhero/?wprss=rss_politics&clsrd she makes Disney princesses look “downright antiquated” while The Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/29/burka-avenger-vs-disney_n_3660387.html states, “Disney could learn a thing or two about what a female protagonist should look like from the fearless Burka Avenger.”

The Burka Avenger seems to have sparked more international (http://www.npr.org/2013/07/31/207288030/lady-in-black-burka-avenger-fights-for-pakistans-girls) frenzy
and social media trending (http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/27/burka-avenger-to-take-fight-to-extremists/) than local http://theladiesfinger.com/the-burqa-joins-the-league-of-cape-and-cowl/ concern, mostly centering on the show’s title and choice of superhero costume.


Image via blogs.tribune.com
“It's a sort of Pakistani feminist shaking her fist at the sky,” opines Lahore-based lawyer and columnist Ahmad Rafay Alam ‏(@rafay_alam). “…the ‘debate’ exists only on Pakistani social media and the Western press.”

So what’s with the hoopla over the burka?
Lady Gaga's burqa
For one thing, burkas are quick to inspire sensational news reports and influence pop culture (http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2013/08/lady-gaga-shows-cultural-appropriation-newold-way-sell-single/68055/). Michael Jackson allegedly wore one to remain incognito in Bahrain (http://sweetness-light.com/archive/michael-jackson-takes-the-burka#.UgIXJRxCpEM). The leader of the Red Mosque fiasco tried escaping in one (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6270626.stm. http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2007/07/abdul_aziz_red_mosqu.php).

An Emirati in Sex and the City 2

Watching a woman in niqab attempt to eat French fries in Abu Dhabi, Carrie Bradshaw comments, ‘Well, I could get into the head wrap, but the veil across the mouth, it freaks me out. It's like they don't want them to have a voice’—Sex & the City 2 (http://www.satctranscripts.com/2010/10/sex-and-city-2-transcript-part-b.html). Not to mention the commotion they’ve caused in France (http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2013/07/22/204506345/burka-ban-stirs-another-round-of-clashes-in-france).

Cult Lollywood classic, 'Haseena Atom Bum' (Bomb)
When it comes to objectifying women, Pakistan has its share of female (http://galaxylollywood.wordpress.com/2013/08/05/the-mahnoor-balochmathira-item-number-video-is-out-for-you-to-see/) objectification (http://www.pique.pk/culture/01-Aug-2012/sleazeristan).
A buxom, blood-soaked Lollywood warrior
So Jiya could just as easily have dressed like Lara Croft, a Bond girl, or a buxom warrior from kitschy ‘Lollywood’ cinema
Nigella created waves of consternation among British tabloids when she wore a burqini on the beach

Instead, the Burka Avenger’s wearing a costume similar to a scuba diver’s unitard accompanied by a ski mask and billowing cloak.
Adil Omar (left) and Haroon Aaron Rashid (right) in the music video for Lady In Black

Islamabad-based rapper Adil Omar describes her as a “silent ninja” and a “vigilante” in his lyrics for the catchy Lady In Black video (http://t.co/wmRLCZzSEH or https://www.facebook.com/adilomarmusic/posts/10151738234596445. Omar explains, “Hip-hop is also generally full of misogynistic bullshit, so it felt good to write something about a strong female character who kicks ass.” About her burka, he added, “It is an invisibility cloak in the context of the series.”

I asked two education development specialists their views on Jiya’s burka. Izza Farrakh Satti is an adviser for the DFID's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Education Sector Programme and thinks, “…The title ‘Burka Avenger’ trivializes and possibly even mocks the ‘burka.’ Had Jiya’s…superhero costume just happened to be a burqa, the message would have been deeper and more subtle. Batman isn’t the ‘bat-eared’ caped crusader, Superman isn’t the ‘flying machine in red underwear’, and Catwoman isn’t the ‘tailed superwoman.’”

Huma Zafar who chairs a charity school in the Punjab, isn’t a fan of the title either: “My first reaction before I was introduced to it was, ‘are they mocking someone who wears a burka?’ But she grows on you and it is a bold, positive step towards education.”

The show’s creator, Haroon Aaron Rashid (www.haroon.com), has been a successful pop singer in Pakistan since the 90s. His band, Awaaz, aired the first Pakistani music video on MTV Asia, followed by world tours and a solo career in 2000. Rashid says the idea for the Burka Avenger was inspired by incidents in Swat (http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2008%5C08%5C21%5Cstory_21-8-2008_pg7_39) as well as by his mother and sister, who are both schoolteachers. With field experience producing and directing his own music videos, he came up with the storyboard, musical score and sound effects for an animation short to promote the Burka Avenger as a phone game. The results were “amazing” and prompted the idea to make it a full-fledged cartoon series in October of 2011.

Here's the interview:

Laaleen Sukhera Khan: How did you flesh out Jiya's character and superhero alterego?
Haroon Aaron Rashid: I wanted her to be a schoolteacher. My mother (who’s from New Zealand) and sister were teachers so I have great respect for them…Jiya is clued in, aware, makes a difference, and cares about the world, education and Halwapur. She’s an inspirational teacher and a role model in her own right. She only wears the burka to hide her identity and fight bad guys.

LSK: Has Malala's courage and worldwide fame inspired the characters and/or storyline at all?
HAR: It hasn’t affected this. We’d completed 7 episodes (by the time) the Malala incident happened including the concept, storylines and characters.

LSK: Has your own multicultural urban upbringing in Islamabad ever echoed any of these storylines? How did you put yourself in the shoes of rural kids?
HAR: I’ve traveled extensively and have a broad view of things. I wanted (to incorporate) local cultural elements. Living in Pakistan…you come across wonderful people but also people with very narrow views. A lot of that goes into the show. For instance, (experiencing) discriminatory attitudes firsthand. In the West, people are a little more PC.

LSK: Can you tell me about your upcoming episode that discusses discrimination?
HAR: In this episode (to be aired in the coming months), one of the central character’s family is kicked off their farm…for economic reasons…and for being different. Josh (a Canadian band with members of Indian and Pakistani origin http://www.planetjosh.com/) appear showing we’re brothers. The message is about (going beyond) race, colour and creed. It’s about unity.

LSK: What were the options when designing Jiya's costume?
HAR: The burka is a great way to hide your identity and it made sense. It has a local relatable flavor and it’s worn by Muslim women so it’s not anti-Islam. It’s not objectifying women like Wonder Woman or Catwoman…It’s less about what she’s wearing and more about her deeds.

LSK: She’s wearing black nailpolish too. So she’d have to remove it quickly when she’s back in Jiya mode? 
HAR: (Laughs) She’s a superhero so she can do that fast.

LSK: So your merchandise won’t include a burka?
HAR: At this stage its t-shirts. People have been asking for posters and dolls (figurines). It’s only been 10-12 days since the story broke and we’re still trying to catch up.

LSK: Why call her the Burka Avenger? Why not the Ninja Avenger, for example?
HAR: Ninjas (have) a lot of negative connotations and associations with death. For me, it’s about doing something new, creative and original and turning stereotypes on their head. In the West, they think that women only wear the hejab or burka because they’re oppressed. We know that’s not true.

LSK: Why do you think some people like (former ambassador) Sherry Rehman  (@sherryrehman) and (author) Bina Shah (http://binashah.blogspot.ca/2013/07/a-pakistani-feminists-thoughts-on-burka.html) are viewing her costume as symbolic of oppression? There was even a full-blown debate about it on NDTV in India  (http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/the-buck-stops-here/burka-avenger-cool-or-conformist/285144 ). Do you think this whole burka controversy has been blown out of proportion?
HAR: This whole thing happened because people hadn’t bothered to watch the show…They’re assuming it’s a woman who’s oppressed and (dressed) in a burka day and night. I held focus groups before launching with feminist friends, they thought it was empowering women and that the burka is their choice. If someone wants to make judgements based on a name, it isn’t fair. I don’t mind that it’s opened up a debate, that’s good and healthy. But we shouldn’t let it overshadow the broader positive message of our show. Highlighting that too much in the press is taking too much away form it…I think Bina Shah has changed her opinion dramatically since she watched the show. Sherry Rehman’s was a knee-jerk reaction…(Activist) Marwi Sarmat (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57596696/pakistans-burka-avenger-cartoon-stirs-outfit-controversy/) is not exposed to the concept of the show. If Jiya’s identity was discovered battling the bad guys, she’d get in trouble and wont be able to do her job.


LSK: Has Mitsubishi protested yet for naming one of your villains 'Vadero Pajero?' What would you say to them?
HAR: In some sense a rich vadera (feudal landlord in the Sindh province) is the only person who can afford to buy one in these in rural areas. He’s the big sahib while everyone else is on foot or bicycle. It’s nothing negative, it’s a status symbol whether you’re wealthy and evil or wealthy and good. 
Note: The Burka Avenger’s iphone and android game is due to launch shortly. Rashid is currently discussing TV, graphic novel and merchandise rights with companies in Europe and Asia. He also hopes to develop the series as a feature film for future theatrical release.



Links:
Adil Omar featuring Haroon - Lady In Black (Music Video):










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