The Burka Avenger versus liberal patriarchy

Published: August 2, 2013
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The reason patriarchy is wrong is because it interferes with a woman’s choice. PHOTO: PUBLICITY

If you live under a rock and are still unaware of the phenomenon that is the “Burka Avenger”, please check it out.

The cartoon series is the story of a teacher, Jiya, who dons a stylised burka costume, becoming a super-heroine. Using her martial arts skills, the Burka Avenger fights evil, mainly to defend her students and the school she teaches at, from patriarchal goons who want to shut the school down.

Not only was I impressed by the message of education for boys and girls, what pleasantly surprised me was that her choice of super-heroine costume – a black burka that covers her face and incorporates a cape – is very feminine. So not only does she kick ass, she kicks ass without conforming to the mainstream view that attributes physical strength to masculinity only.

But while she’s being lauded as just what kids in Pakistan need, her burka is bothering people; specifically some liberal men. They see this as a promotion of the Islamic hijab and find it detrimental to the message of empowerment the show supposedly carries. To these men, “saving” women from patriarchy means that the burka or any other form of hijab should be banned altogether or discouraged at the very least.

I know why this is happening.

I myself was raised in quite a religious Muslim environment, so from the get go I used to believe that women should wear the hijab. Not just pious women or religious women, all women. Then, I grew older, read more, studied more, talked to more women and my views changed. I decided that I had been wrong. No, women should not wear the hijab under any circumstance, I believed. Not just ‘liberal’ or irreligious women, but even religious women. All women!

But then I really wised up.

I was able to put everything in context; the religious scriptures I had cherished when I was younger, the more philosophical mumbo jumbo that I educated myself with in my 20s, the conversations, the encounters and the incidents involving women who covered themselves, and that’s when it hit me,

“I’m a guy. Why should it matter what I think women should wear?”

So now I don’t care whether anyone wears it or not.

But to be where I am now, I had to understand something critical to dismantling patriarchy.

The natural trajectory for most men who discard their faith in a male-dominated social, religious, economic and political system is quite similar; it’s rarely – at least in the beginning – about nuance. It doesn’t immediately raise the question, “What specific mechanisms does patriarchy use to oppress women?”, but rather we first have to go through the immediate phase of, “It’s just wrong because it is.”

In time, we slowly realise an important fact; the reason we stuck with patriarchy before wasn’t just upbringing, but the fact that it gave us privileges over women that we benefitted from; privileges in social standing, in education, in employment, even in marriage and raising kids. It’s great being a man in a patriarchal society as opposed to being a woman.

The funny thing about privilege, though, is that as hard as it is to come by, it’s equally as hard to relinquish.

So during that critical phase of just having discarded patriarchy, instead of going in search of the root causes of why patriarchy is wrong and how it works, we focus entirely on the tools that are borne out of those roots and enforce the system. Hijab or burka or whatever you might want to call it is simply a tool. In and of itself, it doesn’t do anything. It’s like any other article of clothing. Some women feel happy walking around in thigh high shorts, some like to wear jeans, some prefer miniskirts and others want to wrap themselves up in dark and baggy garments that cover their entire bodies including their faces, in essence, burkas and the sort.

The reason patriarchy is wrong isn’t because it forces women to wear only the dark baggy garments and rejects everything else, it is wrong because it interferes with a woman’s choice at all. It’s wrong because whether a woman wants to wear a burka or a bikini, she has a right to do so as a human being – equal in standing with men.

So when we men give ourselves the right to tell Jiya that she shouldn’t wear the burka to become a super-heroine, we’re assigning ourselves the same patriarchal privileges that we are supposedly working against. What she should or shouldn’t wear and how it affects other women’s decision to wear or not wear the burka is for her and for other women to choose for themselves. Our job, as men, is to respect those choices personally and work to get everyone to do the same.

Dismantling patriarchy isn’t going to be achieved by opposing the tools of patriarchy alone, but rather figuring out what motivates those tools and then not just taking them away from the abusers, but thoroughly cleansing ourselves off it as well. This means relinquishing our privileges and giving up the right to tell women what they should or should not wear or do with their bodies or souls. Afterwards, when women have made those choices, respect them and their choices. Discarding patriarchy must begin with us discarding our unjust privilege of forcing our opinion on women.

We can’t defeat the villain that is patriarchy if we still have residual villainy left in us.

And if we fail at defeating our inner villains, then maybe the Burka Avenger should give us an ass-kicking too.

Josh Shahryar

Josh Shahryar

A US-based reporter and blogger, covering human rights in South Asia and the larger Middle East. He tweets @JShahryar (twitter.com/JShahryar)

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