A bunch of Saudi Arabian women went for a drive on Saturday. There’s no punchline to that, because there’s nothing funny in the fact that these women risked imprisonment – or worse – in defying a ban on driving in the kingdom.
This was the third such protest staged by Saudi Arabian women against a de facto ban that has led to women being arrested, sentenced to flogged and losing their jobs for defying orders. There have been calls from various quarters to lift this ban – which really has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with exercising control over women. Saudi women also need a man’s permission to get a job or travel abroad.
But the Saudi government – and the country’s men – appear divided on whether it should lift the ban on driving. While the king has made some noises about lifting the ban in 2015, and various men showed their support on Saturday, one particularly enlightened cleric last month said women who drive risk damaging their ovaries and producing children with clinical problems.
Limiting the mobility of women is a time-honored practice in many countries, kept alive and well by politicians and religious leaders pandering for votes and afraid to incur the wrath of the religious conservatives. Clerics in Afghanistan this year barred women from leaving home without a male chaperone. Politicians and police in India advised women to not stay outdoors after dark following a brutal gang rape in Delhi last year. Movements such as Take Back the Night haven’t quite had an impact here; what we really need is more women going for a drive or a walk. Free and unafraid.
One wouldn’t generally expect Pakistan to produce role models for women – not since former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, and not the kind for Birkin bags that a certain foreign minister is famous for.
So Geo TV’s animated kids’ show Burka Avenger has been nothing short of a revelation. It is set in a picturesque green valley, where the arrival of a villain with a long beard who shuts down the local girls’ school casts a pall of gloom. Until, that is, the appearance of a figure in a flowing black burka, who takes on the religious zealots and corrupt politicians alike. Turns out – spoiler alert – it’s a teacher, who wields the chalk by day and displays her considerable martial-arts skills by night to protect the girls’ right to education, clad in a black burka.
There are so many facts about this one could focus on, especially when the young Afghan schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban for daring to go to school is being touted for a Nobel Peace Prize. Amazingly though, some of the conversation about the Burka Avenger has centred – not on the brave, new stance of Geo TV or the much-needed focus on education or the hopes for change in depicting women on TV and as superheroes – but on her burka, and the fact that it’s a symbol of oppression. Really.
That’s a debate worth having, yes. But picking on this series for just this reason is a bit disingenuous, surely. And hey, maybe just maybe, the show’s creators meant to show the burka as also being a symbol of power. Why must superheroes everywhere conform to the Western ideal of one, including their dress code? Is it more inconceivable to have a heroine clad in a saree, a kimono, an ao dai – or, indeed, a burka – than it is to imagine one with cat’s whiskers?