We’ve been seeing trailers for a while now for Burka Avenger, a Pakistani children’s cartoon about a young female teacher named Jiya who turns a burka into a superhero costume, and for whom books and pens are both mental and literal weapons. Now, we finally get to see the first episode:
I wish the animation was a bit better — some of this is just a step up from Taiwanese animated recreations of the news. But even in a simplistic story, this is a nice little rethinking of how superheroism works, and how superheroes need to work together with ordinary citizens to achieve the results they want.
The problems in this first episode are both systemic and episodic. There are a couple of country villains who are out stealing a goat from Jiya’s students, who need to be dispatched with a solid book to the jaw. And then there’s a corrupt local businessman who brags about appropriating money from a charity that was earmarked for a girls’ school. “I am not going to waste money on those worthless girls,” he boasts. “Whether they study or not, they are going to end up making rotis int he kitchen.”
What Jiya’s students need in the forest is a hero, a one-time intervention that allows them to escape with their physical safety and their goat. But day-to-day, they need Jiya’s example as a teacher. Her willingness to teach in a hostile environment inspires her female student to speak up, begging the corrupt local officials to keep the school open if only so today’s girls will be able to educate their children. They both get support from a local news anchor who calls the school closing a travesty. And a male pop star who’s performing in the region tells the students to “Keep hope alive, do not despair” in a public display of support for women’s education. Superheroes can remove immediate threats, but ordinary citizens need to do the day-to-day work of creating the conditions under which institutions can grow and thrive, which is one of the reasons Bruce Wayne’s dereliction of duty in The Dark Knight Rises is even more of a tragedy than Batman’s retirement.
Jiya, like Bruce Wayne, fills both roles in Halwapur. And she’s not an accommodating figure in any way. The burqa that might be meant to make her less tempting to men gives her wider freedom of action than she’d have as a teacher. Like Batman, she uses “no guns but she’s got ammo regardless,” per the show’s theme song. Her mentor encourages her to strive for “complete command over your mind and body”: self-control, rather than blind rage, are what give her strength. And she doesn’t just give her students intellectual ammunition in the form of education: her tools of instruction are actually weaponized, whether she’s hurling explosive pens or using books as ballast on a lasso. American superhero stories could stand to think more about Jiya’s dual role, and how she turns perceived disadvantages or the tools of her trade into strengths — not to mention what the actual needs of American cities are in between alien invasions of New York.