The hero we need

Pakistan's 'Burka Avenger' speaks to a society in the throes of large transitions

Mild-mannered schoolteacher by day, crime-fighting ninja by night. Sounds like yet another superhero story, except this particular schoolteacher with secret martial arts skills conceals her identity with a burqa and battles thugs trying to shut down the girls' school where she works. Pakistan's first female superhero, the Burka Avenger, is a sort of apotheosis of real-life hero Malala Yousafzai, and the villains she fights are all too familiar. Less familiar are her tools of trade. Jiya, the woman behind the burqa, has traded in the standard superhero utility belt for books and pens, and instead of jujitsu or krav maga, her martial art du jour is "takht kabbadi".

It is unsurprising, perhaps, that a society in the throes of upheaval would embrace a superheroic solution for its problems. From their comic book origins in 1930s America, these sometimes-superpowered men and women in tights have battled Nazis, aliens, environmental catastrophe and even overly ambitious real estate magnates. Their talents for averting the apocalypse in this 'verse and all the others were comforting in their constancy; no problem, even the threat of nuclear annihilation during the long years of the Cold War, appeared unsolvable.

So, much of the 20th century was about Superman, when the American public needed an icon who could take on the evil Other and embody every national originary myth. Later, when disillusionment with the state set in, the more broody Batman and his arsenal of nifty gadgets offered the perfect fantasy solution to an impossible choice between security and civil liberties. The Burka Avenger may be an expression of modern Pakistani anxieties and the yearning for a magical solution, one that skips over the years of institution-building that lie ahead. She's the hero they want, maybe even the one they need.

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