Pakistan's "Burka Avenger" cartoon stirs outfit controversy

A poster image for the new Pakistani superhero show "Burka Avenger"
A poster image for the new Pakistani superhero show "Burka Avenger"
Burka Avenger Facebook Page

(CBS News) The outfit of the world's newest superhero is sparking reaction around the globe. Pakistani television's "Burka Avenger" is a teacher who fights crime, slaying extremists with books.

Her enemies are Taliban-like characters who try to prevent Paksitani girls from getting an education. In each episode the black burka-clad heroine fights against a new evil - from child labor to discrimination and sectarian violence.

The Urdu-language program was created by one of Pakistan's biggest pop stars, Aaron Haroon Rashid, known as Haroon. He came up with the premise for the show three years ago, about the same time that Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani student, began speaking out against the Taliban's attempts to shut down schools. Now 16-years-old, Malala narrowly survived a Taliban attempt to assassinate her in October, 2012. 

Much like Malala, Haroon's feisty "Burka Avenger" has a simple message: education trumps violence.

"She doesn't punch. She doesn't hit, she doesn't kick, she doesn't shoot anybody, all she does is clonk people on the heads with books or throw pens," Haroon told CBS News' Margaret Brennan.

"So there's an underlying message with that -- the importance of education -- and the pen is mightier than the sword," he added.

While the TV series is prompting dialogue about education and women's rights worldwide, the Pakistani public is just learning about it due to limited distribution. As news spreads, some are reacting reacting more strongly to her crime-fighting outfit of choice -- a burka -- than to her message. The burka is a conservative outfit that many view as a symbol of oppression.

Human rights activist Marvi Sirmed told Brennan she feels the cartoon wrongly glamorizes the burka, which she calls "a tool of oppression."

"[It is] a symbol of submission of women. It cannot be used as a tool of empowerment," Sirmed told Brennan.

But Haroon rejects that argument, and says critics like Sirmed are missing the point.

"Superheroes hide their identity," he said, "In this case, she's a schoolteacher. She goes about her everyday life as a normal person. She doesn't wear a headscarf, she certainly doesn't wear the burka. But she only wears the burka to fight the bad guys, to hide her identity like a super hero would."