Stereotypes of Muslim women in the Post-9/11 Era: An Analysis of the Burka Avenger
Studies in Visual Arts and Communication – an international journal / Dec 2014 1(2)
In August of 2013 the animated action-television series Burka Avenger was released in Pakistan, quickly garnering the attention of the international mainstream media for its apparent paradoxicalness – entailed by its progressive framing of the burka. Combining superhero plot lines that resonate with the Batman franchise or the US-American comic book series Ms Marvel (Marvel Comics) with the more negative and indeed cultural stereotypes of Muslim women, the Burka Avenger provocatively situates the woman under the burka as a superheroine of sorts. Disrupting static and essentialized imaginings of Muslim women that dominate European and North American popular culture today, those that frame women in burka’s as oppressed, victimized, and backwards subjects, the TV show offers a number of different ways for audiences to rethink the “collectivized other” in the mainstream media (Ayotte and Husain 125). First, it makes a series of interesting remarks about the audience’s cultural familiarity with the burka and its powerful visuality that propels both the character and the narrative forward, repurposing the garment for audiences. Secondly, the program’s origin story tells viewers something new about Pakistan’s socio-political landscape, through which its characters must maneuver. Audiences encounter a woman who not only educates children but also heroically protects them fighting for education and equality. Lastly, its subject considers in part the subject of Orientalist tropes, those that identify representations of women in burka’s through simple binary forms of identification such as West-East, secular-religious, dominant-submissive, civilized-barbaric, or modern-traditional. In light of these characterizations and the polarizing debates that continue to circulate in the Western public sphere about the burka and its symbolic meanings, the garment has emerged as a generic signifier that not only singles out Islamic fundamentalism but also Muslim women as other, framing Islam as morally inferior, irrational, backwards and barbaric (Moallem 8; Skalli 47). Yet, in spite of these politically charged discourses, the Burka Avenger offers a series of compelling counter examples for viewers in lieu of such sensationalist representations. In this article, I analyze the forms of representation that dominate the Burka Avenger, those that offer viewers a conceptual space where they can confront their collective fears and anxieties when encountering visually loaded symbols of Islamic iconoclasm. By simultaneously deploying and retooling powerful cultural icons, the Burka Avenger effectively counters hegemonic representations that situate the burka as an icon of women’s oppression. Taking my cue from Lila Abu-Lughod and Mireille Rosello’s discussion of stereotypes as discursive constructs, I show how the representations and concepts deployed in this TV show are productive in resisting stereotypical representations of the burka (and the women who wear them).