Pakistan's new hero, the Burka Avenger
Meet Burka Avenger: a mild-mannered teacher with secret martial arts skills who uses a flowing black burka to hide her identity as she fights local thugs seeking to shut down the girls' school where she works.
Sadly, it's a battle Pakistanis are all too familiar with in the real world.
The Taliban have blown up hundreds of schools and attacked activists in Pakistan's northwest because they oppose girls' education. The militants sparked worldwide condemnation last fall when they shot Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old schoolgirl activist, in the head in an unsuccessful attempt to kill her.
Action in the "Burka Avenger" cartoon series, which is scheduled to start running on Geo TV in early August, is much more lighthearted. The bungling bad guys evoke more laughter than fear and are no match for the Burka Avenger, undoubtedly the first South Asian ninja who wields books and pens as weapons.
The Urdu language show is the brainchild of one of Pakistan's biggest pop stars, Aaron Haroon Rashid -- known to many as simply Haroon -- who conceived of it as a way to emphasize the importance of girls' education and teach children other lessons, such as protecting the environment and not discriminating against others. This last point is critical in a country where Islamist militants wage repeated attacks on religious minorities.
"Each one of our episodes is centered around a moral, which sends out strong social messages to kids," Rashid told The Associated Press in his first interview about the show. "But it is cloaked in pure entertainment, laughter, action and adventure."
The decision to clothe the superhero in a black burka -- also often spelled burqa, a full-length robe commonly worn by conservative Islamic women in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- could raise eyebrows because some people view the outfit as a sign of oppression. The Taliban forced women to wear burkas when they took control of Afghanistan in the 1990s.
The version worn by the Burka Avenger shows only her eyes and fingers -- though it has a sleeker, more ninja-like look than the bulky robes of an actual burka.
Rashid, who is certainly no radical Islamist, said he used a burka to give a local feel to the show, which is billed as the first animated series ever produced in Pakistan.
"It's not a sign of oppression. She is using the burka to hide her identity like other superheroes," said Rashid. "Since she is a woman, we could have dressed her up like Catwoman or Wonder Woman, but that probably wouldn't have worked in Pakistan."
The series is set in Halwapur, a fictional town nestled in the soaring mountains and verdant valleys of northern Pakistan. The Burka Avenger's true identity is Jiya, whose adopted father, Kabbadi Jan, taught her the karate moves she uses to defeat her enemies. When not garbed as her alter ego, Jiya does not wear a burka, or even a less conservative headscarf over her hair.
The main bad guys are Vadero Pajero, a balding, corrupt politician who wears a dollar sign-shaped gold medallion around his neck, and Baba Bandook, an evil magician with a bushy black beard and mustache who is meant to resemble a Taliban commander.
Caught in the middle are the show's main child characters: Ashu and her twin brother Immu and their best friend Mooli, who loves nothing more than munching on radishes in the company of his pet goat, Golu.
In the first episode, Pajero wants to shut down the girls' school in Halwapur so he can pocket the money a charity gave him to run it. He finds a willing accomplice in Bandook, whose beliefs echo those of the Taliban and many other men in conservative, Islamic Pakistan.
"What business do women have with education?" says Bandook. "They should stay at home, washing, scrubbing and cleaning, toiling in the kitchen."
Bandook padlocks the gate of the school and orders the crowd of young girls outside to leave. Ashu steps forward to resist and delivers a defiant speech about the importance of girls' education -- perhaps marking her as a future activist.
"The girls of today are the mothers of tomorrow," says Ashu. "If the mothers are not educated, then future generations will also remain illiterate."
Bandook is unmoved, but the Burka Avenger appears and fights off the magician's henchmen with martial arts moves reminiscent of the movie The Matrix. Using his magical powers, Bandook disappears in a puff of smoke. The Burka Avenger hurls a flying pen that breaks open the padlock on the school's gate as the children cheer.
The show, which is slickly animated using high-powered computer graphics, does a good job of mixing scenes that will entertain children with those that even adults will find laugh-out-loud funny.
In one episode, Bandook builds a robot to take over the world's major cities, including London, New York and Paris. As he outlines his dastardly plan with a deep, evil laugh, one of his minions butts in and says, "But how will we get visas to go to all those places?" -- a reference to how difficult it can be for Pakistanis to travel, given their country's reputation.
A group of orphans who were provided an early screening of the first episode at an orphanage on the outskirts of Islamabad laughed and cheered as the Burka Avenger vanquished her enemies.
Ten year-old Samia Naeem said she liked the crusading heroine "because she saved kids' lives, she motivated them for education and school."
Rashid, the pop star, funded much of the program himself, but also had help from an outside donor who preferred not to be credited.
He leveraged his musical background in the process. Each of the 13 episodes completed so far contains songs written and performed by him and other major Pakistani rock stars, such as Ali Azmat and Ali Zafar. Rashid is producing an album of 10 songs and music videos that will be broadcast alongside the show. He has also created a Burka Avenger iPhone game and a fully interactive website that will accompany the show's launch.
In one of the music videos, Rashid and local rap star Adil Omar sing in praise of the Burka Avenger, while standing in front of a pair of colorfully decorated Pakistani trucks festooned with bright lights.
"Don't mess with the lady in black, when she's on the attack," they sing.
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