Pakistani Superhero 'Burka Avenger' Uses Books As Her Weapon

She's a mild-mannered teacher by day and a fierce keeper of the peace by night.

ISLAMABAD -- On a recent workday in a labyrinthine building in Pakistan’s capital city, young men and women in t-shirts, kurta tops and jeans stared intently at computers in a maze of offices and cubicles. Around them unfolded a style of workplace not typically associated with the country’s best-paved city, known for a suburban calm that remains a sticking point in the age-old question of whether Lahore’s soulful bustle is superior.

At the Islamabad-based animation studio known as Unicorn Black, even the walls pulse with creative activity. Nearly each hosts an image, some printed on slick poster paper, others drawn directly onto the vertical surfaces with pencil, mostly of a young woman in a form-fitting black bodysuit, a cape usually flapping righteously behind her. In each portrait, a determined pair of eyes peek out through the dark cap segmenting her face. 

One of many sketches of Pakistan's leading female superhero decorates a wall in the Islamabad studio, Unicorn
One of many sketches of Pakistan's leading female superhero decorates a wall in the Islamabad studio, Unicorn Black.

She is Jiya, fictional star of Pakistan’s most popular homegrown cartoon, "Burka Avenger." The country’s first female superhero is a mild-mannered teacher by day and a fierce keeper of the peace by night. Her nocturnal incarnation uses books as weapons and fights for causes unique to the region -- polio awareness, literacy, anti-radicalization efforts -- all while wearing a stylized burka in the form of her jet black costume.

In two years of existence the conceit has proven broadly popular, expanding to India and Afghanistan. This fall, the fourth season of "Burka Avenger" will air in five languages across the region, coinciding with the roll-out of Pakistan’s first line of TV-inspired merchandise.

In the studio earlier this month, project manager Adeel Abid described the fine balance between values -- commercial, civic, religious -- the show walks. When it launched in 2013, “people were divided” on its buzziest feature, he recalled. “Are they making fun of the burka? Or supporting it?”

The answer is more complex than the question. "Burka Avenger" reflects the concerns of Pakistan itself, a country where growing extremist factions are plunging the middle class into existential reflection. Jiya, at once progressive and devout, represents the balance many in Pakistan long for on a national scale.

Her ability to reconcile seeming contradictions informs a favorite anecdote at the office, of a mullah who was approached by a French newspaper early in the first season. Asked what he thought of the show, he gave a response that surprised even its legendarily uni-named and polymath creator, Haroon. Instead of issuing a fatwa, the mullah proclaimed that even he approved. 

A Unicorn Black animator manipulates the show's villain Baba Bandook using Autodesk Maya, a software new to Pakistan. 

In a country where women make up nearly half of the population but only 25 percent of the labor force, the endorsement defies reasonable expectations. An educated girl can seem mythical in the country’s rural stretches (the studio’s promise of unicorn harboring seems fitting). As of 2012, a mere 61 percent of Pakistan’s girls finished primary school, according to World Bank figures. The same census also found that nearly an equal ratio of women between 15 and 24 were literate.

Girl power ranks high in the cultural consciousness. The first episode of "Burka Avenger" aired after Malala Yousafzai rose to global fame in 2012, after surviving a gunshot delivered point blank to her face on her way to school. But the show had already been conceived of by then, Abid said, adding that the first episode alone took five to six months to produce. “When Malala happened, [distributors] said to air it,” he said. “But we waited.”

Production time has sped up as the team has grown. For the fourth season, nearly 80 people worked out of Islamabad to turn out 26 episodes in less than one calendar year. Operations are more sophisticated as well. Unicorn Black claims to be the first studio in Pakistan to use Maya, a premiere software that enables designers to tweak facial expressions and body movements with the drag of a mouse, like puppeteers blessed with hundreds of sensitive strings.

Still, the country’s rhythms set the pace. When asked about the presence of significantly more male employees in the studio than women, Abid seemed flustered. He cited a powerful female producer absent that day, before conceding that the overall ratio is heavily skewed. In explanation, he produced a twist on the old Islamabad-Lahore dichotomy, crossed with the realities of new Pakistan. “Everyone who goes to art school is from Lahore,” he said. “And for women, it’s not safe to travel for a job.”

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