The Burka Avenger – putting education at the centre of debate in Pakistan

Hugely popular TV series The Burka Avenger has put girls’ education at the centre of public debate in Pakistan – and around the world. Here creator Haroon tells A World At School the story behind the cartoon, and the real-life hero whose rise it spookily foretold.

Birth of the Burka Avenger

Around 2009-2010 I was reading news articles about girls’ schools being shut down by extremists in tribal areas in the north, like Swat. And that upset me, because I’ve always believed that what Pakistan needs more than anything else is for girls and women to be educated. It’s the women who build the families; it’s the mothers who impart morals and ethics to the children. But often in Pakistani society families give less importance to educating their girls. They will happily spend money on sending their sons to university, but they say ‘Our daughters will get married off anyway, so why waste money on their education?

I was looking to make a TV show or a movie based around this and the extremist incidents, and so I came up with the Burka Avenger concept. She is this girl who is protecting a school and fighting back against the bad guys. That idea initially came to me around 2010, and then I made an iPhone app called The Burka Avenger in 2011 – which still hasn’t been launched yet. With that I made a small animated 3-minute backstory in September 2011, about how the girl’s school gets shut down and she fights back. That short film turned out really well, and I realised I had all the resources here to start working on a TV series. So I set up my company Unicorn Black in April 2012, and we finished the first Burka Avenger episode in July 2012.

Malala, the real-life superhero

When Malala Yousafzai was shot in October 2012, I hadn’t heard of her, and nor had most people in Pakistan. We had done six Burka Avenger episodes by this stage, and it was quite a shock because there were so many parallels between her story and the show. A lot of people urged me to launch the first episode immediately, because with so much press about the incident it would hit right home. But I felt we would be cashing in on a tragedy. Also we didn’t have all 13 episodes ready, and I didn’t want to release a few episodes and the have a gap until we had finished the rest. So I decided to wait.

It was an uncanny coincidence, but without a doubt Malala is an amazing person and a real inspiration. As I tell people, the Burka Avenger is a cartoon superhero, but Malala is a real-life superhero, who had the courage to stand up and be counted. But beyond that, she’s so wise. What she has to say, and the way she is behaving, is inspirational.

It’s also incredible that the language she used in her UN speech – “books and pens are our weapons” – coincided with the Burka Avenger. I’m very anti-guns and anti-violence, so in 2011 as we were coming up with the character I didn’t want her to use a weapon when she’s taking on the bad guys. So we had the idea that she would use pens and books and school bags to protect the girls’ school. We thought that it would give the message of the importance of education, as well as ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. But that is also a theme that has echoed throughout history, of course.

Striking a chord

The reception here to the show has been very positive, and it has had very high ratings – some of the highest viewerships ever for a show. Because it has a lot of cultural and social references to Pakistani life, people say that it’s something we can be proud of – our own home-grown, animated show that has received all this positive attention around the world. So it has struck a chord here. People love the humour and wit – and they love the messages.

The burka question

Some critics who hadn’t seen the show asked why does she have to be in a burka? They assumed this was a woman who is oppressed and is wearing the burka all the time: she is ‘angry young burka woman’. Once people saw the show, this criticism disappeared. People could see that this was a strong woman, a teacher who had worked hard to master her skills, and was fighting for what she believed in. She only wears the burka as a disguise – as a costume.

An appetite for change?

Do people in Pakistan want education to be a right for all its children, boys and girls? The Burka Avenger, and of course the Malala incident, have opened up a lot of discussion about the importance of educating girls. There is a little girl who comes forward in the show and says, ‘We are the mothers of tomorrow. We are not going to get educated, and so the future generations will be illiterate and without knowledge’. That is a message that resonates not only with girls themselves but with the parents who watch the show. I don’t think the Burka Avenger is preachy, though. It is always about entertainment – comedy and laughter and action. So people are open to watching it, yet at the same time it is getting across a very powerful message.

Using pop to be positive

As a musician I have always done songs with social messages: anti-corruption songs, pro-education songs, positive national sentiment songs. With a big fan base it gives me a great platform. There are so many issues in Pakistan that are constantly staring us in the face, and I want to make a positive difference – try and do the right thing. I had produced and directed many of my own music videos over the years, so I knew I had the ability to do some kind of show. I usually bankroll my own projects, and I realised that a full-scale live-action movie would take too long and be too expensive. I was in Hollywood in 2010 and I saw a video that used a lot of animation, so when I came back to Islamabad I started working with animators. I wrote the stories and then got a number of scriptwriters to work with me, to bring out additional interesting elements: some jokes, some dialogue in local ‘lingo’, etc.

It was great fun. And because I am a well-known musician I was able to bring in some famous friends to participate – some of the biggest South Asian singers and bands. I’ve also done a full album of 14 songs to accompany the series. At one point Burka Avenger was the number one trending topic on Facebook and Twitter in Pakistan, we had four million hits on the website in a couple of days – it was pretty incredible.