Friday, August 2, 2013


All the talk about Burka Avenger has given me a fresh dislike for the burka. In spite of a growing number of people adopting the burka on the streets, in the workplace and even in my own family, my distaste for it isn't waning. Now, with the creators of this cartoon superhero talking about reversing stereotypes associated with something that is "not necessarily oppressive," I'm seeing way more rationalization and even celebration of the garment than I'm comfortable with. On one hand, it's awesome to have a modern South Asian female superhero-one that is not a saint, goddess or ancient warrior, but an (extra)ordinary Pakistani woman. Kudos to the creators for empowering children with a positive, girl-power image, but I am curious as to why they chose the burka as her secret identity costume. Is it a playful jab at the anonymity the garment affords? Is it deliberate irony, given that one is hardly equipped to be ninja-kicking anybody in a burka? Or is it what I am afraid of-an attempt to glamourize the burka?

Let me make it clear here that I support a woman's right to choose what she wants to do with her body-whether that means wearing a catsuit or a chaadar. However, I think it is deeply problematic to suggest that either outfit has the potential to make women more appealing or powerful. The only message that comes with male superhero garb is that you have to be physically fit to save lives, fly, etcetera. The message that comes with BOTH hypersexualized, high-heel wearing superheroes and with Burka Avenger is that women's bodies are commodities for male consumers.

This is usually where defenders of the burka stop paying attention to me, but it is something I strongly believe. Encouraging women to wear burkas sends the message that it is their responsibility to prevent the lecherous male gaze; that their piety and virtue are directly linked to how they are viewed by men. To every South Asian who has argued with me that "modest" clothing (however you define that) prevents sexual harassment, all I can say is-no. Just no. That is statistically dishonest, to say the least. Sexual harassment is a huge, underreported problem in South Asia and it happens to women from all walks of life-those who cover and those who reveal, those who are Muslim and those who are not. Suggesting that our culture is superior because it encourages women to prevent their own rapes is a gross oversight of the victim-blaming that our society engages in. It is a morally empty argument. I personally prefer to dress conservatively on some days-because to do otherwise would make me uncomfortable, or out of respect for someone else's values, or simply because I like to blend in. On other days, I don't bother with a dupatta and go out wearing a kameez and tights. You know what happens when I go to certain parts of the city wearing a big, modest chaadar? I get cat-called or made kissy noises at and sometimes groped. You know what happens when I go out in my tight clothes to the same places? I get cat-called or made kissy noises at and sometimes groped. Ugly displays of male entitlement have nothing to do with how I choose to behave or what I wear.

So back to superheroes. I think what we all love about superheroes is our potential to be one. They're ordinary people living ordinary lives-heartbroken teenagers, tired insurance company employees, billionaires with secret gadgets and loyal butlers-ok maybe not always ordinary, but always something little kids can imagine themselves being one day. They fight bad guys and make the world a better place and after they are done fighting crime, their alter egos look like much more attractive versions of you and me. So Kudos to the Burka Avenger's real life persona wearing normal shalwar kameez and kicking ass like you only wish your primary school teacher did in her spare time. But it would be nice to live in a world where little girls didn't have to choose between donning a catsuit or a burka to play superheroes. It would be especially nice if they thought they could be superheroes wearing clothes that are culturally  relevant in Pakistan-which I'm sorry, but the burka is not, seeing as how it's exclusive to a small subset of only the Muslim population. In a world where daring to be a woman with opinions, choices and yes, a face, is increasingly taboo, our only solution is to fight misogyny with a stubborn refusal to give in to it. 


Ishrat said...

I agree with you . Love the maturity with which u have resolved the issue of dress code for yourself.

Unknown said...

can you just compile all your random writings and thoughts on feminism into a book please? one geared for south asian women in particular, that would be v helpful and ill just refer to it for everything. thanks.