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Animating Pakistan

Burka Avenger HD Official Trailer from Cybo Tainment on Vimeo.

In the aftermath of the Malala Yousufzai assassination attempt, nationalist discourse in Pakistan has zeroed in on the primacy of protecting and educating women as part of the fight against terrorism. The animated television series Burka Avenger is widely proclaimed as a timely cultural production committed to ‘the cause.’ Based on the exploits of a schoolteacher cum Burka-clad ninja vigilante, the show attempts to represent the struggle to provide basic education for girls in the villages of Pakistan.

The scene: an idyllic hamlet named “Halwapur” which is part Aladdin-themed Disney dreamscape and part feudal/Taliban dominated ‘typical’ Pakistani horror story – minus the constant hum of drones, of course. The female superhero takes on a motley crew of villains including Pakistan’s more maligned ethnic groups (Pashtun, Baloch). The latter are simultaneously represented as moronic goons and masterminds behind a corrupt pseudo-religious scheme to shut down girls’ schools and put a halt to liberal progress. The struggle to educate girls is thus represented as a struggle against extremism and corruption, and a confrontation between a feudal/Taliban alliance and moderate modern Muslims.

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The message: if only all Pakistanis could be more moderate and western, development projects could take their course unabated by corrupt feudals and girls education (and the nation) would thrive!

Burka Avenger may just be a light-hearted children’s show, but the narratives of the nation it brings to the surface are indicative of a common but powerful form of exclusionary nationalism operating in Pakistan. We can call it “liberal religio-nationalism”—a vision of the nation that insists on upholding the country’s origin story, that Pakistan was made for Muslims, but commits to a liberal structuring of the nation. This structuring attempts to contain differences or erase them altogether through multifarious proclamations about the moderate liberal Muslim as the ideal Pakistani citizen, which are illustrated in the very premise of Burka Avenger and littered throughout its sub-plots.

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During his election campaign, the champion of Pakistan’s urban liberal youth, Imran Khan, was embroiled in a controversy about one of his party members attempting to garner the Ahmadi vote by promising legislative changes if the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) came to power after the May ballots this year. Khan’s response to a meeting between Mirza Masroor Ahmed, the head of the Ahmadi Jamaat and Nadia Ramzan Chaudhry, a woman said to be a PTI member, was to declare that Chaudhry was in no way affiliated with the PTI. He also asserted that he strongly believes in the finality of prophethood, and therefore the non-Muslim status of the Ahmadi population. The entire episode, according to Khan, was an attempt to label him a kafir (infidel) by the country’s religious right. Yet, in his rebuttal, Imran Khan affirmed the position taken on the Ahmadi issue by the very religious organizations he was apparently condemning.

The stance taken by Khan on the Ahmadi question, and his overall discourse surrounding religion and civil society in general, illustrates the double bind constructed within the rhetoric of Pakistani liberalism. On the one hand, the protection of minority groups and their persecution by the religious right is a major rallying point. On the other, safeguarding the sanctity of religion and fostering a national identity around Islam renders the structural incorporation of minority groups into the state an impossibility. Khan is not the first politician to be caught within this double bind of liberal religio-nationalism in Pakistan. Even the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) found themselves weighing one set of interests against the lives and safety of particular demonized sectors of the population—be it the Pashtuns of Waziristan, the Hazaras in Balochistan or the Ahmadis in the Punjab. The simultaneous call to extinguish the fires of religious hatred while championing the sacredness of a singular authentic Islam is truly the irreconcilable mantra of liberalism in Pakistan.

Enter into this mix Burka Avenger. The show purports to stand for a new wave of tolerance and understanding in Pakistan. It champions the future of rural women, denied an education by bigoted militants and feudal malfeasance. It promises that when one woman stands tall, fights back with pen and book, a world of music, dancing, learning, and great promise lies ahead. The show’s writer/producer, Haroon Rashid (Haroon), a British-Pakistani pop star, appears in avatar form at the end of the first episode to speak about the possibilities created by courage and determination, and then sings a song about faith and belief. A neat conflation takes place here between the promise of a modern Pakistan and the need for it to be rooted in some religious spirituality. The militant/terrorist, a warped religious figure ignorantly opposed to the proselytizing strength of westernization, is reduced to menace (albeit one that needs to be eliminated quickly and with force) while the Burka Avenger and her indebted child-admirers are raucously proclaimed by Haroon to be the champions of a moderate Islam – the ‘true’ faith.

The show depicts how those who exist outside this form of liberal nationalism are then to be expelled from the nation – humorously in the cartoon with flying pens and books but not so acme-style in the real politics of northern Pakistan. They are the animate cadavers, deemed ineligible for citizenship, security, and identity. The political message most powerfully delivered by the show, given the ethnic, religious, and sectarian fissures currently permeating the Pakistani landscape, is that those opposed to the desired modern nation are to be dealt with using force, with little distinction made between the so-called terrorist and the non-citizens droned and disappeared in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan. The village of Halwapur, infiltrated by an identifiably male-Pashtun militant cadre, is given a voice only through the children (Ashu, Immu and Mooli), Jiya (Burka Avenger) and her stepfather. The episode contains no other adult characters. The children, whose futures are yet to be made, can still be saved, but those whose character is set in stone blend in with the militant threat: compliant, complicit, and possibly even directly part of the problem.

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As is the modus operandi of many nationalist projects, the cornerstone of the liberal religio-nationalist discourse in Burka Avenger is a woman, Jiya. The fact that she is a woman is important. As a teacher, Jiya’s character is already doing the reproductive labor of making children’s futures and rearing the nation, but she also embodies the nation as a metaphor. This reproductive and metaphoric role of women is repeatedly valorized in the show. For instance, in Ashu’s monologues she talks about the importance of girls’ education because girls, as future mothers, have a duty to bear and raise ‘our’ children, pass on ‘our’ culture, and, in effect, reproduce ‘our’ nation. In other words, the idea that  girls should have access to education regardless of their reproductive choices has no place in this logic. Conjuring up nightmarish visions of illiterate women (read bad mothers) who ruin ‘our’ country with their miscreant, illiterate (bomb-able) children, this storyline epitomizes liberal religio-nationalist discourses of progress and also what is holding back progress. This reduction of the allegedly ignorant masses is an elitist fantasy meant to centralize and legitimate educated liberal religio-nationalists as the desired model citizen of Pakistan.  It also depoliticizes and devalues people who happen to be illiterate and renders them as a mass of barbarians who haven’t nor will have anything valuable to contribute to the nation or, for that matter, to their own children.  They are vilified as the antithesis of national progress and are to be justifiably silenced in imagining the nation until they are made suitably eligible through processes of education. Interestingly, this smacks of a delay tactic reminiscent of colonial governance, deployed to further disenfranchise the already marginalized.

In addition to the obvious plot about girls’ education, liberal religio-nationalist discourse inflects many of the show’s sub-plots. For instance, in one of the scenes in the Burka Avenger trailer, Jiya is in front of a classroom blackboard writing the word basant on the board. A shot of the main villain, Baba Bandook, torching kites in the sky swiftly follows. Both of these scenes are a reference to calls for boycotting and/or banning basant by several religious groups in Pakistan. As a teacher, a woman, and a superhero, Jiya’s responsibility to teach, reproduce, and protect ‘our’ national culture is emphasized through her position on the basant issue. Basant simultaneously becomes a matter of defining culture and religion: as the ideal Pakistani citizen-subject, Jiya’s Islam is one that is compatible with the festival of basant. The underpinning political claims of the basant sub-plot are clear when juxtaposed with the music video for the show’s theme song, Lady in Black, where truck art adorns the set. We see that the emphasis on basant is drawn from the repository of liberal religio-nationalist cultural artifacts deemed to be legit Pakistani culture alongside truck art. The problem with this is that this construction of Pakistani culture is symptomatic of a troubling trend of selective cultural appropriation and self-exoticization by liberal nationalists. That is, in the liberal construction of ‘Pakistani’ culture, bits of identities stolen from groups who are otherwise marginalized are pieced together. Emptied of people associated with these practices and aesthetics, this is cultural appropriation of the dehumanizing kind: truck art without truckers, rickshaw motifs without rickshaw drivers, crabbing in Keemari with fisherman who have been made invisible.

What kind of a nation can be imagined through this superficial yet violent appropriation? This emergence of the self-exoticizing Pakistani hipster culture (and this is as much a self-critique) is troubling because it attempts to designate, codify and disseminate a dehumanized, dehistoricized, depoliticized, commodified, orientalized, moth-eaten national culture.

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This politics of appropriation comes to a head in the namesake of the show, the burka. One of the reasons the Burka Avenger has gotten the attention that it has is because she appears to represent an empowered, veiled Muslim woman. While this representation is a welcome relief from the usual bombardment of images of oppressed veiled Muslim women, it falls in line with more stereotypes of veiled women than it resists.

Foremost of these stereotypes in the show is the representation of the burka-as-disguise. What rescues the burka for the producers of the show is that Jiya isn’t actually using the burka as a practice of piety or as an everyday dress code. It is exclusively a disguise. Jiya only adorns the burka when in superhero mode and otherwise wears a shalwar, kameez and dupatta, sufficiently moderate and modest Pakistani attire. In effect, the show reifies a more ‘moderate’ form of modesty over the insidious, ‘extreme’ form of modesty signified by the burka.  Burka Avenger does little by way of breaking away from stereotypical associations of the burka with fundamentalist/extremist/terrorist cultural codes of women’s modesty. Instead, the show displaces the myriad meanings attributed to the burka by women who wear it (burka-as-piety, burka-as-dress code, burka-as-fashion) and plays on fears of the burka as a tool for the concealment of mysterious sinister identities.

In a global context where burka bans in western countries such as France and Canada are justified through invoking fears of dangerous identities that are concealed by the burka/niqab/veil, the show affirms stereotypical meanings attributed to the burka: that it in fact can be used for concealment of dangerous identities (rebel-heroes to some, terrorists to others). When asked about this representation of the burka in interviews, the producer, Haroon, makes clear that he only wanted to use the “stylized burka” as a cool disguise and distances himself from any other meanings of the burka (and, presumably, the people associated with those meanings). Consistent with its commitment to promoting ‘moderate’ (read liberal) Islam, Burka Avenger codifies liberal religio-nationalism by regulating expressions of women’s piety. How would the story be different if Jiya wore a burka as a form of piety or as part of her usual dress code? Who would Jiya represent?

The intentions of the producers in appropriating the burka may have been more ambiguous had the burka-clad-woman-as-ninja trope not been so central to the show. “Ninja”, a derogatory phrase used to refer to women wearing a burka or a niqab, is commonplace in middle/upper class urban language in Pakistan. It is a gendered slur used to reduce burka-clad women to an absurd source of amusement. Why ‘ninja’? Stealth, agility, martial skills, strength, intelligence, power? First, when people refer to burka or niqab wearing women as ninjas, they are not making reference to these ninja-like qualities. The term is used to refer exclusively to the most superficial of ninja attributes – the black face covering. Second, the amusement and condescension operates through the stark contrast of two face-covered figures. These women are objects of ridicule because they are in effect, ninjas without any ninja-like powers, which renders them pitiful, ridiculous, powerless, face-covered people in the liberal religio-nationalist imaginary.

Taking its cues from derogatory popular parlance, Burka Avenger runs with the ninja trope and turns it into the hero’s superpower. Here we have a burka wearing woman who is actually a badass ninja (of sorts)! Yet, the hero is not actually a burka-clad woman, but a ‘moderate’ Muslim woman, Jiya, who only uses the burka as a disguise. In effect, the show’s popularity relies on the erasure of burka-clad women and the false sense of relief this appropriation of the burka affords.

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As mentioned earlier, there are very few characters with a voice in Burka Avenger. Of the adult characters that speak, Jiya and her stepfather are the only ones considered ‘good’. The other five – Baba Bandook, Vadero Pajero, Tinda, Khamba, and Munna – are the villains in the troubled village setting. They are also representative of identifiable ethnic stereotypes and liberal narratives about who terrorists are and what they actually believe. The minions – Tinda, Khamba, and Munna – are the not-so-bright Pashtun men easily recruited by the cunning militant mastermind adept at manipulating and inculcating the less endowed. Baba Bandook, the obvious brains behind the entire operation, is not so much representative of an ethnic group as he is of the idea that terrorism is brought to Pakistan by foreigners of middle-eastern and Afghan origin. He looks, at once, like a cross between a Disney-drawn Middle-Eastern villain, a turbaned Sikh, and an evil mystic. He also goes by the alias “fake magician”. His character description on the Burka Avenger website says that he is a “mercenary for hire”, highlighting his lack of ties to any nation or community.

In the discourse on terrorism in Pakistan, this is one of the most common narratives: the presence of foreigners in the country, often funded by Middle-Eastern oil money (or backed by Indian spy agency RAW), bent on radicalizing local village bumpkins with their Wahabi ideas. They come, they stay, they marry into local families, create lasting bonds based on blood, and spread their bigoted understanding of Islam. Now that unsuspecting Pakistanis have been turned, their loyalties are no longer with the state but with the cause of these foreigners. No wonder then that the liberal solution to this spreading cancer – disease is a prominent metaphor used to talk about violence in the country – is to look for answers within by identifying and appropriating things that are truly ‘Pakistani’ (such as truck art, basant, Mughal architecture, Sufi music, etc.) and creating a landscape adorned by symbols of popular culture but emptied of people and context.

The years following 9/11 have resulted in the distancing of the geographic periphery that is Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan from the enlightened center of urban Pakistan. The people that live in these regions are increasingly depicted as backward, and incapable of integrating with the modernity desired for the nation. Even when state violence is questioned, it is the complicity of Pakistan in forwarding American imperialism that is of primary concern rather than the actual victims of that state violence. In the liberal religio-nationalist imaginary, culture is selectively lifted from multiple sites deemed authentically Pakistani and appropriated by the enlightened citizen to form a landscape that places ‘modern’ Muslims alongside symbols of tradition and culture. The push to create this Pakistan is most clearly inscribed on the female body – the most publicized target of militant violence – which requires the protection and guidance of the modern state. The Pakistani woman must shed the burka while holding on to her faith and modesty, embrace the power of pen and book, and join the fight against the corruptors of faith and opponents of modernity.

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Nadia Hasan is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at York University.  Her research looks at the intersection of gender, piety, and nationalism in Pakistan.

Saad Sayeed is former assistant editor at The Herald and a Masters graduate in Interdisciplinary Studies from York University.  His research focuses on the intersection of religious and liberal identities in Pakistan.

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