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OP-ED: A Veiled Threat

First Published in Economic Affairs (Pakistan) / Sep 2013 issue

The ‘Avenger’ phenomena hit Pakistan sometime in late July 2013. The choice of the name had an instant effect - loud cheers, inaudible gasps, startled looks and a few boos were reported. A musician, composer and most recently Campaign Ambassador for ‘Save the Children's Everyone Campaign’, who reigned in the 1990’s as the front man for ‘Awaz’, and nowadays goes by the name of Aaron Haroon (redundancy alert!) is responsible for these seismic changes in the national topography.

Back then the band made history when ‘Janeman’ became the first Pakistani song to air on MTV; now another precedent has been set as Pakistan’s first animated, female super hero takes the stage.

It is different because the secret identity goes undercover in a burka. It is controversial for the same reason.

A school teacher by day, Jiya dons the invisibility cloak before setting out to conquer the world. A burka has been used here as a symbol of empowerment - more on that later. A Young Jiya aka the ‘Burka Avenger’ who happens to be faster than a speeding Tez-gam, leaps over short buildings or telephone poles, defies gravity and could well be Pakistan’s newest ally on the frontline of terror.

That she is a firm believer in the ‘pen is mightier than the sword’ adage gives her an advantage. ‘Stationary’ makes for handy weapons in B.A universe and her costume allows her to wander the countryside undetected, like most women in that region and maybe a few ‘Most Wanteds’ from across its borders. In reality, this would not be functional as a uniform and is likely to put an end to those flying squirrel moves. Fantasy has rushed to the aid and an invincibility clause has been quietly added to the conservative mix. Regardless of the snazzy makeover, using the b - word as a centerpiece has drawn focus away from the shows noble cause and bold agenda.

The 22 minute segment uses a slick mix of humor, music and martial arts to sound the alarm and alter perceptions. The upbeat tone is padded by an endearing line up of characters including heroic young ‘uns and baddies with imaginative names like ‘Baba Bandook’ (a mean magician), ‘Vadero Pajero’ (a mean feudal). Haroon, along with other well known singers will make an appearance during the course of the show. As far as super heroes go, this is pretty standard fare but for the lady’s choice of attire and real life implications of her work.

There are plenty of monsters to choose from and territory to reclaim and the storylines are set against a somber backdrop. A few basic strokes have been used to render the life of an orphaned little girl raised by an adopted father figure/ resident Obi One Kenobi who trains her in the art of Takht Kabaddi, used to restore balance in a topsy-turvy world. Go Avenger. That she reaches for the most logical item to conceal her identity is understandable in many ways. Where super heroes stand out in their mitts, hoodies, capes and /or bunny/ bat/ cat ears, Jiya can melt into the crowd, and would be impossible to trace - a covert operators dream. Being outsmarted by someone in medieval gear is an added insult.

It enters a contentious zone when tools of oppression are shown to be interchangeable with power. Some might argue that fighting extremism in the one thing used to subjugate women would be considered poetic justice. Others would continue to glare at the offending burka and be reminded of tales where women in parts of Pakistan have been enslaved by invading bands of good/ bad/ evil Taliban running amok.

Ordinarily, this would be a stroke of genius that helps its character maintain a low profile but in a bid to steer away from one stereotype – the super hero in the ill-fitting body armour – the creators have inadvertently opted for another - that of the invisible woman associated with this part of the world. Interestingly enough, there will be no burkas in Jiya - the school marm’s closet. She is a free spirit with moxie aplenty, not inclined to cover her head or conform to that standard issue image on conservative brochures – which is a refreshing sight in this era of creeping radicalization and holier-than-thou mugs plastered across the media.

The super hero community typically does not rummage through attics or go shopping for that perfect off-the-rack number and while they may trade looks for comfort, their iconic suits stay in view through-out the journey. There is Batman, in the reboot seen ordering those customized ‘Made in China’ masks that would not survive a ‘POW’ to the head; or the ‘Man of Steel’ known for re-using his ‘baby blankie’ for its invincibility but not his design sense. The creative should have considered the fall-out when rolling out the recycled collection.

Perhaps Jiya had a similar epiphany when she was raking her brains for a suitable dress to wear at the coming out party for her alter-ego and saw a chance to remake the cumbersome burka into a fetching guise. Her creators would have been within their rights to let her put her own spin on the name and saved themselves a lot of grief and time spent in explanations. The girl behind the mask, who casually bonks her foes with books, uses pens to impale and cut through the haze of mixed messages, propaganda and murky morality.

But Jiya, the courageous educator who refuses to conform and holds on to her ideals deserves to be lauded and is someone to look up to. ‘The lady in black’ as she has been referred to in the theme song is on a worthy mission. Instead of her formidable abilities, and an unambiguous stance on crucial issues – which is more than most politicians can say, the spotlight continues to remain on her fashion choices. In hindsight it might have been wiser not making the crusaders cape the lynchpin - a protagonist forced to navigate a hostile terrain while trying to talk her country-men down from the ledge, makes for a far better headline.

The show offers fun-sized doses of kid friendly entertainment wrapped in layers of comedy topped with a public service message, and will tackle other issues along the way. Taliban are never named directly and are not the only threat out there; a dangerous void that allowed extremism to take root needs to be countered and thus far the media has been unable to stir up support for an environmental cleanup. When the burial of a martyred Ahmedi soldier who receives full military honor becomes news as if his religious beliefs are in any way relevant to his sacrifice, it is time to rally around. But the call to arms often gets lost in the din and stories about the persecution of Christians, the murder of liberal crusaders, or ethnic cleansing resurface with depressing regularity.

Sending the invisible woman behind enemy lines marks the beginning of the resistance. Since she is an educationist, female literacy remains at the forefront. The ‘Burka Avenger’ was reportedly conceived before Malala (Pakistan’s real life superhero) became the spokeswoman for literacy and girls rights and a universal symbol of resistance. Our heroine is up against the same horrors with bigotry at its peak and justice in short supply but unlike real life, here she can get away unscathed and live to fight another day.

The show is broadcast in Urdu, available in English and there is a global audience breathlessly awaiting the Avenger’s debut. According to one report, Haroon is in talks with European broadcasters to have the series translated into 18 languages and broadcast in 60 countries. 13 episodes are set to air on ‘Geo Tez’ every Sunday though it is unclear if these airwaves can reach remote regions that need it most. It may be time to place an order for a stronger sounding board to avoid setting off multi-cultural minefields in the future.

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