By Saima Mohsin, CNN
(CNN) – Most, if not all, super heroes wear cloaks and masks to hide their identity. But how about a burqa?
A new cartoon series in Pakistan is turning stereotypes on their head. It’s centered around a woman who doesn’t wear a burqa in the daytime but puts one on to transform into the “Burka Avenger” – and what’s more, she’s fighting for female education.
The cartoon is already the talk of the country and it hasn’t even launched yet. “Burka Avenger” is a passion project of Pakistani pop star, Haroon.
“It was in 2010 and I was reading a lot of articles about girls’ schools being shut down by extremists so that was in my mind,” he told CNN after I met him at his studio.
“Living in Pakistan, all theses issues are staring you in the face constantly. So when you’re creating art, whether it be music or anything else like a cartoon TV series — you want to incorporate social messages. I feel it’s my duty to try and make a positive difference.”
School teacher by day, by night the Burka Avenger (spelled with a ‘k’) dons a special burqa to protect girls’ schools, fighting the bad guys trying to shut them down..
“The Burka Avenger is a character called Jiya, orphaned as a child, adopted by a Kabbadi master, who is a master of this mystic martial art that I created, called Takht Kabbadi — the art of fighting with books and pens. It gives the message of the importance of education and that the pen is mightier than the sword,” Haroon says.
The burqa can be a controversial item of clothing. For some, the burqa is a symbol of oppression. For others, it’s a symbol of freedom from sexism and being viewed as merely a sexual object — ie. the burqa hides a woman’s body so that a person addresses her as a human being not an object of desire.
I ask Haroon why he decided to dress her in one and he has an emphatic explanation.
“She doesn’t use the burqa because she’s oppressed. She uses it, she chooses to wear it to hide her identity the way superheroes wear their costumes to hide an identity. Like Batman or Catwoman,” he says.
The Taliban have hijacked religion, Haroon tells me, and use it for their own agenda.
When they rode into Swat in 2007 they burned down and bombed girls’ and boys’ schools, he continues. Their brutal campaign was stopped through a military operation in 2008 and 2009 but years later in 2012 they carried out an attack that shocked the world. They shot Malala Yousafzai.
Haroon says he also chose the burqa as a way of addressing any argument of the fight for girls’ education in the cartoon being anti-Islamic.
“By wearing a burqa she is showing she is a Muslim woman and superhero. And that she stands for all the good things of Islam and the real Islamic values — which are equality, woman’s rights, education and peace — rather than the way Islam has been hijacked by radical elements,” he says.
Haroon’s also teamed up with his celebrity friends to be the voices of the characters. Some of South Asia’s most famous musical talent also sing tracks to go with the cartoon. Rapper Adil Omar has written “Lady in Black.” Rock star Ali Azmat sings a head-banging “Baba Bandook,” translated as ‘Old Man Gun,’ about one of the main characters who is trying to shut down girls’ schools.
There are 13 episodes and aside from the ongoing battle for girls’ education, each covers a different issue affecting Pakistan, including discrimination, child labor, sectarian violence, electricity shortages and protecting the environment.
“These are really hard hitting issues and you think how can you talk about these issues in a kids’ show? But it’s being presented in a very entertaining manner, full of adventure, comedy and fun,” Haroon says.
Haroon says he hopes the cartoon will have an impact on Pakistani children who are unable to read or write either themselves or whose parents can’t read them bedtime stories. And just like in fairytales, each episode has a moral at the end of the story.
“I remember when I was a child, my mother used to read me stories and at the end it would say, ‘Ok, the moral of the story is this.’ I used to also read those stories as I learned to read as well. That really resonated with me and helped me figure out what my own morals and ethics are.”
“Unfortunately, with the literacy rate so low in Pakistan, a lot of children don’t have that opportunity with parents reading to them or reading themselves. In this show, I brought that in as well. At the end of each show. The Burka Avenger comes up and says ‘Ok kids, the moral of this story or this episode was such and such.’”
The cartoon launches in mid-August, shortly after the Muslim festival of Eid ul Fitr.