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Burka Avenger, Catwoman and Other Masks

The Veil Threat

by FARZANA VERSEY

Mumbai.

Is Amina Wadud, an American convert to Islam, an avenger? When she was not permitted to address the students in Chennai recently, there were loud cries against the muzzling of freedom of expression of this “Islamic feminist”.

The Burka Avenger, a character in an animation series that made its debut on July 28, had begun to attract negative feedback even before it was aired because its protagonist wears a veil.

Within a week, we witnessed the double standards of the pedestal progressives. Dr. Wadud wears a hijab and her main preoccupation is religion; she leads the prayers at a mosque and it is seen as akin to breaking the glass ceiling. This, by the same people who question the patriarchal quotient embedded in religion. Therefore, in effect, would she not be leading the brigade to reaffirm the validity of a notion perceived by many? Why is she then hailed as an important symbol whereas the fictitious character Jiya is seen as a threat even though she is a qualified professional who fights against fundamentalist forces?

The series should be applauded for being indigenous – it is in Urdu and deals with the concerns of Pakistan, apart from female literacy, it will tackle problems of child labour, the energy crisis, and the environment faced by the country and that do not figure high among those banking on the terrorism card.  Jiya has been described as a “gentle, compassionate schoolteacher” who transforms at night into this crusader. “Don’t mess with the lady in black when she’s on the attack!” goes the theme song.

The maker, Pakistani pop star Aaron Haroon Rashid believes, “This is such an interesting way to reinforce positive social messages for kids. The Burka Avenger is a great role model. We lack those in Pakistan.”

While this is not quite true, for there are role models, the reaction has more to do with appropriation, not unlike what was done with Malala. They seem to believe that they can snigger at women who wear the veil, but react rather sharply when their own position, clothes, and lifestyle are questioned.

If I have any problem with the series it is the apologetic tone of the makers, probably in response to the urbane version of the Taliban that wants to ensure a homogenised culture based on the superficial. Clothes are merely a cover and if this jeopardises their liberal values then it speaks volumes about lack of self-esteem. To judge a society according to what people wear is facile.  Surely, the cape is not turbo-charged to give Jiya power; it is her mind that works. She does not fit into the mindless horde that is exploited and needs a saviour. She is the saviour.

Why does the veil frighten its critics? I am posing this query because it certainly seems to. One reason to demonise the Burka Avenger is not because she is wearing the veil, but because they are not. She is fighting alone with that “moving prison”; she is making the choice to use it as a camouflage, like soldiers do on the war front.

Taha Iqbal, in charge of animations, explains her garb, more a gear, “…she has to kick ass. Tight leather pants are hardly practical for that purpose”.

Rashid says, “She is non-violent because she’s throwing books. Most people throw bombs. Think about it.” Violence is no virtue, but he is merely affirming a stereotype about those with bombs. Besides, let us not forget that in the summer of 2007, it was a bunch of veiled women, given the name ‘danda chicks’ – they used sticks –  who fought against the armed incursion in the Lal Masjid while the ‘cultural Muslims’ were busy spouting sermons about democracy.

It is surprising that the anti-Burka lobby has not come across any woman in a veil who is accomplished. It is even more revealing that they do not wonder why only women raise these queries. Would they question the men they share a professional and social equation with about their silence?

The Moral Angle

When in doubt, raise the issue about choice. Women in burka are supposed to be bundled into these ‘tents’. It is assumed it cannot be a choice because it follows a religious diktat. The Quran does not prescribe the veil. It speaks about modesty, and modesty as an attribute has several dimensions.

A school in Worcestershire wants girls to wear trousers because their short skirts are “unladylike”. A parent is quoted as saying, “You hear so much about the over sexualisation of children these days but to call a nine-year-old girl unladylike is absurd. They aren’t ladies, they are young girls. And to stop them from wearing skirts is just going to confuse them. I’ve always been against skirt bans, but I understand there has to be a limit for teenagers as they are turning into young women. But not for girls as young as nine, that’s just crazy.”

There is no absolute yardstick for the regressive or the progressive.

Hissa Hilal, a finalist in a poetry contest in Abu Dhabi in 2010, had become the toast of the liberal Arab world and the western media when she referred to the clerics as “barbaric”, who prey “like wolves” and started receiving death threats for reading out a provocative poem.

When she said, “I have seen evil in the eyes of fatwas, at a time when the permitted is being twisted into the forbidden,” she might have wanted to expand on the idea of her rejecting the permitted since the veil is not mandatory. Or, when she spoke about clerics as “vicious in voice, barbaric, angry and blind, wearing death as a robe cinched with a belt” (the latter being a reference to suicide bombers), she forgot that clerics themselves do not die for any cause. In a society rife with ire and angst, it is the educated person who seeks martyrdom. And Saudi Arabia has not produced many such young men. It is the smaller Arab nations and the satellite countries that fall victim to such brainwashing.

As a self-confessed provocative writer, who won the applause of the judges and the voting audience, her summation was surprising: “I worry how I will be perceived after the show is over, when judgment is passed and people begin to talk about my performance and ideas. I worry the lights of fame will affect my simple and quiet existence.”

She is opinionated and would be judged. She was aware that her views were not the norm and would be discussed. If women need to speak out – as she has done – and challenge the status quo then they have to learn to give up quiet existences. It is not about fame alone, or ought not to be. A microphone in the hand of a poet is not merely a reaction to the bluster of clerics on loudspeakers.

But, she became a woman dressed in black “with only her microphone and her eyes visible”. It would have been far more productive to generate a debate about why she dressed the way she did and yet “blasts” the clerics. We would then enter the arena of choice, of how to perceive religion, of patriarchy, of the literary voice as the awakener of conscience.

Message of Play

An animated series may not be as ambitious. There is the question about how innocent toys can impact young minds. This, we must see in the context of commercial interests. Mattel, the creators of Barbie, introduced several the Arabic versions.  Historian Albert Samuel was deeply agitated about the arrival of the “prayer-mat Barbie” and said, “It is a dangerous game…If children do not resemble each other, at least in their games, if their games separate them, Barbie doll against Muslim doll, society will be divided…”

The local simulators would be as regressive, but this was about propagating Barbie as the ideal. So much so that a woman spent $55,000 for 20 surgeries to make her look like the living doll. Is this vanity, or peer pressure? Many of the trends do create a demand, and those who object to the veil are more than willing to be in the agreeable company of standardised hair bonding.

If a fictional Jiya is backward because of her clothes, what about Catwoman, whose eyes are covered too? How many have thought about the negative impact of a woman who has to not only be a superwoman, but also titillate while at her job? The original character was “partially inspired” by Hollywood diva Jean Harlow specifically to add oomph. Selina Kyle, the Catwoman, is a thief and an appendage to Batman. For us in South Asia this sounds a bit like the good woman pawning her jewellery to help her partner in distress.

Bob Kane, her creator, explained how he thought about Catwoman: “I felt that women were feline creatures and men were more like dogs. While dogs are faithful and friendly, cats are cool, detached, and unreliable. I felt much warmer with dogs around me—cats are as hard to understand as women are…So there’s a love-resentment thing with women. I guess women will feel that I’m being chauvinistic to speak this way, but I do feel that I’ve had better relationships with male friends than women.”

In the series later, Selina gives birth to a baby that she nurtures. The father remains unknown. Perhaps, a mythic significance of the Virgin Mother? She appears to have no real attachment to anything other than what she has created, in that she becomes alienated. The message would be that superwomen must not belong, cannot belong, to mainstream life.

In comparison, the Burka Avenger, surrounded by the children at her school, seems so grounded, more real, and more sensitive to her environment. Even if she wore a veil in her daily life, it would not pose a barrier to giving her full attention to the concerns she – and indeed many women and men – holds dear and fights for. In order to see that, it is necessary to first remove veils that cover eyes and avenge the cobwebs in the mind.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at Cross Connections