Do you know a cartoon or show for kids that tackles racial and ethnic discrimination, child labour, religious extremism, terrorism, wildlife protection and gender equality all in one season? And it does so in a way that is not only educative but also extremely entertaining? I’m talking catchy songs, hilarious dialogue, slick action scenes and state-of-the-art animations! And no matter the complexity of its storylines, it somehow manages to get a thumbs-up from both the left and right political spectrum?
I happen to know one animated cartoon series that does all this brilliantly! Created by a British-Pakistani musician Aaron Haroon Rashid, the popular series Burka Avenger was conceptualised and fully produced in Pakistan. While the adults in my country quarrel away about saints and sinners, heroes and villains, the kids have found a unified hero in the series’ school teacher Jiya who dons a traditional Burka to hide her identity and fight the bad guys who are trying to close down her school. Using pens and school books as her weaponry, the heroine uses a localised martial arts technique called Takht Kabaddi to save her town of Halwapur.
Pakistan is often in the news for its unending divisions and strife. Take for instance, Pakistani humanitarian and philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi who is globally referred to as “Father Teresa” for building hundreds of shelters, hospitals, schools and ambulance networks in Pakistan. But within Pakistan, there’s still a group that discredits his contributions as he never “prayed” nor refused help to anyone on the basis of religion or ethnicities. For many conspiracy theorists, Edhi was a ‘western agent’.
For them, a person like Mumtaz Qadri is a hero, martyr or “Shaheed”. Qadri gained national prominence when he shot his employer, a senior politician/businessman Salman Taseer, on the basis on blasphemy. Taseer had dared to openly criticize Pakistan's blasphemy laws and tried to get a pardon for a Christian woman wrongly accused of blasphemy. Qadri, who was hired as Taseer’s guard, decided to take matters of religion in his own hands and riddled his employer’s body with bullets.
In a country that is slowly losing its empathy and tolerance, there is a desperate need for developing and showcasing positive role models. But even more so, female role models. The world is not unaware of the existing gender inequality in Pakistan. In the Global Gender Gap Index 2017 by World Economic Forum, Pakistan has been rated 143rd out of 144 countries.
The question is - how do we change this - and how do we do it early on? How do we change the minds of little boys who are growing up to a culture of toxic masculinity and religious extremism? How do we get Pakistani girls and women to rise up against increasing number of early marriages, forcible religious conversions, domestic abuse, acid crime, honour killings, financial exclusion and a lack of reproductive rights?
One creative way has been through animations such as Burka Avenger. While a few have criticised the series for glamorizing the burka, the majority have appreciated how culturally sensitive and politically aware this series is. Not only has the four-season animated show been released in Urdu on a popular TV channel Nickelodeon Pakistan but it has also been translated into various languages for kids around the world. This also isn’t a series that only young girls in Pakistan like to watch, boys and parents are just as interested and excited about this show.
It seems Burka Avenger takes a lot of its inspiration from Pakistani activist Malala Yousufzai who was shot in 2012 for fighting for girls’ education in the Northwest of Pakistan. Ironically, Malala may be a global superhero but to a majority of people in Pakistan, she remains a controversial and severely despised personality. The same has been the case with Academy Award winner Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and human rights activist Asma Jehangir. While the world bestows them with honours and appreciation, they continue to be despised in their own country.
For me as a journalist, the series has been a huge inspiration in creating a series of my own, featuring the main character called Raaji. She is a survivor of an honour killing who empowers girls with information about taboo topics such as child abuse, child marriages, menstrual hygiene and female cycling. While our budgets don’t allow for slick animation, fancy action scenes or a release on Nicklodeon yet, there are currently shown through portable projectors in remote areas like Tharparker that are rife with racial tensions and gender discrimination.
Finding inspiration for storylines and characters for my series is never a problem. Everywhere I look, amongst strangers and friends, there is always a person fighting against injustice in Pakistan. From lawyer Nighat Daad who helps Pakistani girls suffering from online harassment, to activist Sheema Kirmani who dances at places where a bomb has just exploded to remind the terrorist that art and culture will go on. To a leftist musical band Laal that visits schools in rural and urban areas in order to sing anthems to kids against terrorism. A transgender activist Kami Sid in Pakistan advocates the rights of LGBTQ in Pakistan through her fashion modelling and acting.
I’m fortunate to know these real life heroes and be able to create their animated counterparts. And when I see Pakistan’s fictional heroes and real life ones in battle every day, it’s impossible not to be optimistic about the future of Pakistan.