Two superheroes, one from Pakistan and the other from Egypt, have a burka-clad Islamic woman as their protagonist. Lakshmi Krupa reports
“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” said Oscar Wilde and Haroon, the Pakistani pop singer and creator of the Burka Avenger couldn’t agree more. Jiya is a burka-clad teacher who fights the shutting down of girls’ schools by the ‘evil elements’ of Pakistan. Meanwhile in Egypt, Deena Mohammed’s Qahera (http://qahera.tumblr.com/) is another burka-clad superhero who aims to destroy “all the ridiculous dehumanising stereotypes of Muslim women as oppressed and helpless.”
Both Qahera and Burka Avenger are powerful protagonists who wear a burka not as a mark of submissiveness but thrive in the anonymity it offers and use it to fight oppression. In Burka Avenger, Jiya does not wear a burka during the day but only at night when she becomes a superhero. “She is obviously not wearing it out of any form of oppression,” says Haroon, adding that Burka Avenger is taking a symbol of oppression and subverting it so that she can turn it against the oppressors and defeat them.
For Haroon and Deena, the message is that many women wear the hijab or burka as a symbol of their faith. Haroon says he is “deeply against oppression of any kind”, but adds that throughout the world many women do wear symbols of faith by choice. He quotes journalist Melissa Weelham: “We know that the burka (or headscarves, niqab, khimar, chador, or a nun’s habit) are often called tools of oppression by individuals outside of the religions or cultures that encourage and/or enforce their wear. But they are also symbols of faith and identity. For the women who choose to wear them, it can be deeply affronting — not to mention infuriating, condescending and patronising — to suggest that they are allowing themselves to be controlled by the patriarchy.”
Deena sees it as an important tool in the fight against Islamophobia. “Hijabi women bear the brunt of Islamophobia because they are so visibly Muslim. All the responsibilities and stereotypes of Islam are placed on their shoulders. That’s another reason I felt Qahera had to wear a hijab so she could be a part of combating that. There is also very little representation of hijabi women that isn’t about their ‘oppression’, so I hoped Qahera would be a character that hijabi women could relate to as well,” she says.
While Burka Avenger’s motto is justice, peace and education for all, Qahera is a visibly Muslim superhero who combats misogyny and Islamophobia among other things. Jiya is a middle-class schoolteacher fighting everyday problems like education, social change and the well-being of children. She does not create false stereotypes such as girls growing up to become princesses.
Deena’s Qahera in one comic strip fights men who harass a woman on the street while taking on the ‘don’t dress provocatively’ cliché. In another, Qahera lashes out against FEMEN activists, the topless female protestors. Says Deena: “I absolutely dislike their ideologies. I think they represent a significant mentality that only recognises a certain form of liberation (their own); along with dehumanising Muslim women and reaffirming colonial white-saviour attitudes.”