The cartoon series, “Burka Avenger”, is the story of a teacher, Jiya, who wears a stylised burka costume when in her superhero form. Using her martial arts skills, the Burka Avenger fights evil, mainly to defend her students and the school she teaches at, from patriarchal goons who want to shut the school down.
Not only was I impressed by the message of education for boys and girls, I was also pleasantly surprised by the choice of her costume — a black burka that covers her face and incorporates a cape. So, not only does she kick ass, she kicks ass without conforming to the mainstream view that attributes physical strength to masculinity only.
But while she’s being lauded as just what kids in Pakistan need, her burka is bothering people; specifically some liberal men. They see this as a promotion of the hijab and find it detrimental to the message of empowerment the show supposedly carries. To these men, ‘saving’ women from patriarchy means that the burka or any other form of hijab should be banned altogether or discouraged at the very least.
Hijab or burka, or whatever you might want to call it, is simply a tool. In and of itself, it doesn’t do anything. It’s like any other article of clothing. Some women feel happy walking around in thigh high shorts, some like to wear jeans, some prefer miniskirts and others want to wrap themselves up in dark and baggy garments that cover their entire bodies, including their faces — in essence, burkas and the sort.
Patriarchy is wrong not because it forces women to wear only the dark baggy garments and rejects everything else. It’s wrong because it interferes with a woman’s choice at all. It’s wrong because whether a woman wants to wear a burka or a bikini, she has the right to decide for herself as a human being — equal in standing with men.
So, when men give themselves the right to tell Jiya that she shouldn’t wear the burka to become a superhero, they’re assigning themselves the same patriarchal privileges that they are supposedly working against. What she should or shouldn’t wear and how it affects other women’s decision to wear or not wear the burka is for her and for other women to decide for themselves. Our job, as men, is to respect those choices personally and work to get everyone to do the same.
Dismantling patriarchy isn’t going to be achieved by opposing the tools of patriarchy alone, but rather by figuring out what motivates those tools and then not just taking them away from the abusers, but thoroughly cleansing ourselves off it as well. This means relinquishing our privileges and giving up the right to tell women what they should or should not wear or do with their bodies or souls. Afterwards, when women have made those choices, we should respect them and their choices. Discarding patriarchy must begin with us discarding our unjust privilege of forcing our opinion on women.
We can’t defeat the villain — patriarchy — if we still have residual villainy left in us.
And if we fail at defeating our inner villains, then maybe the Burka Avenger should tackle us as well.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 4th, 2013.
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