x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

A cartoon in Pakistan empowers young girls

The Burqa Avenger has captured imaginations inside the country and around the world. But what does it say that this heroine wears a veil?

There's a new superheroine in town: a veiled Muslim woman who takes on Taliban-esque villains. The Burqa Avenger is a cartoon character who has recently appeared on TV screens in Pakistan and has captured imaginations globally. It is now likely to be sold to 60 countries worldwide.

The character is a teacher who uses her superpowers to fight gangsters trying to shut the girls' school where she works. The cartoon is clearly about fighting Taliban ideas, but it also provides positive imagery for girls in a place where gender oppression can be an obstacle both psychologically and physically.

I like the cartoon and I like the idea behind it. A female superhero is always welcome, and one rooted in a culture outside of the traditional American underpants-wearing saviour pleases me. But most of all to see a Muslim woman as the protagonist rather than the object of discussion is a refreshing change.

The fact that the heroine wears a headscarf and veil has sparked conversations about whether veiling can be seen as something empowering, a force for change and an inspiration to girls in societies with limited opportunities for females.

It's worth noting that the modesty agenda of this female hero stands in contrast to the fact that most female heroes, like Wonderwoman, Catwoman or even Lara Croft, are highly sexualised,

Criticisms of the Burqa Avenger focus on the exoticisation of the veil. Some are even calling it an Orientalist view of the veil that "others" Muslim women.

Whenever the subject of Muslim women and veiling comes up, there is certainly a huge hang-up about the fact women cover their hair and sometimes their faces. The subtext is that they can't possibly be like "us"; they are "other". They must be brainwashed or forced.

Look at France, where niqabs are already banned despite the French government admitting that barely 2,000 women wear it in the country of 65 million. The focus is now turning in the country to tightening controls on the wearing of headscarves. Public sector employment is denied to women who cover their heads, as is entry to schools for pupils. Reports are even coming through of women who have been banned from accompanying their children on school trips unless they remove their headscarves.

This small piece of cloth is again invested with disproportionate power, as though the scrap of fabric can undermine secularism and freedom by being plopped on a woman's head.

But a headscarf is just a small addition to a woman's wardrobe, an exercise in personal modesty rather than, as its opponents allege, an inflammatory political statement. Certainly that is why I wear it.

But there is indeed something empowering about wearing it in solidarity with the women's movement. It challenges the prevailing culture of sexualisation and body obsession that feminists are fighting in the West.

The veil of the Burqa Avenger shows you that everything is possible, that all stagnant status quos can be subverted, and that a woman has the utmost ability to define herself according to her situation and her choice. To be confident in who you are, against the prevailing oppressions of your culture, whatever culture that is, truly is a superpower. For many Muslim women, the power to exercise their own choice, and define themselves and their actions on their own terms is exactly what the veil brings.


Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk