A radical animated series from Pakistan, ''Burka Avenger,'' features a heroine who battles oppression with ideas (and pens) mightier than the sword

By Karen Valby
Updated July 18, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

Last July 28, an unlikely superhero burst into the world. By day Miss Jiya is a kindhearted teacher empowering Pakistani children with knowledge. But in times of danger — as when extremists threaten to shut down her all-girls school — she transforms into…Burka Avenger! Disguised in the flowing black garb of traditional Muslim women, she battles evil forces of tyranny and ignorance not with guns but with flying books and pens she wields like swords.

Burka Avenger is Pakistan’s first-ever animated TV series and already a phenomenon. Within three days of the show’s debut, its website received 4 million hits. Since then, the 13-episode first season has been recognized with a Peabody Award and the International Gender Equity Prize. The pilot — in which Burka Avenger back-handsprings over telephone wires to confront Taliban-esque baddies, one of whom drops his pants in fear — is available on YouTube with English subtitles; there are talks to bring all 13 episodes to iTunes.

Show creator and Pakistani pop star Aaron Haroon Rashid is being inundated with offers from around the globe — from a Bollywood director who wants to make a live-action film to U.S. publishers eager to release graphic novels. ”No Pakistani movie or television show has ever gotten this much attention in the history of Pakistani media,” says Rashid, 41, noting that his country’s 80 TV channels are otherwise full of soaps and political talk shows.

In many ways Rashid is an unexpected media king. His parents met in London, where his Pakistani father was working and his New Zealander mother was singing with the Royal Opera Company. Rashid was born in London but raised in Islamabad. He spent his childhood living under the fundamentalist rule of President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, who banned Western culture from the airwaves. Rashid nourished his creative soul with a heavy diet of comic books and pop records his parents would bring home from their travels. When he was 16, he formed a break-dancing crew with his friends and performed in one of Islamabad’s popular marketplaces for an audience of 300. ”At the time, it was against the law for crowds to gather in public, so police came charging out with their batons and whistles trying to break us up,” he remembers, clearly tickled by his public act of youthful rebellion. ”My 10-year-old brother was there, and I grabbed his hand and we all started running wildly.”

After earning a business degree at George Washington University in the early ’90s, Rashid returned to Pakistan and enjoyed years of fame, first in the pop band Awaz and then as a solo artist under the name Haroon. But even as a pop star he was driven by a deep sense of moral responsibility. ”I was always aware that I had a platform,” he says, ”and getting positive messages out is more pressing than the idea of sex, drugs, and rock & roll.”

In 2010, Rashid was horrified to read accounts of extremists shutting down girls’ schools in northern Pakistan. ”That’s when I started imagining somebody standing up to these bad guys, and who would be better than a schoolteacher?” says Rashid, whose mother and sister have both worked as teachers. ”In Pakistan, education for girls is not given a priority. Even in middle-class families, the parents will be like, ‘Okay, we’re going to send our son to university, but our daughter, she doesn’t need to study, she’s going to be married off anyway.”’

From the beginning, Rashid mandated that his cartoon heroine wouldn’t fight with guns. He ripped up early sketches depicting twentysomething Jiya as too curvy. ”I didn’t want to go down the common path of objectification and hypersexualization, especially since we’re creating a children’s program,” he says. He also withstood early criticism from Pakistani feminists who mistakenly thought that the burka, a symbol of subjugation to many women, gave his character her power. ”It’s her disguise,” he explains. ”She leaps off rooftops and fights bad guys and wears burkas — there’s nothing of it that reeks of oppression.”

The Burka Avenger fan base extends far beyond Pakistan’s borders, and includes Marvel Comics editor Sana Amanat, a Muslim American. ”I was just so happy to hear that Rashid made this character who was a strong, adorable, well-meaning woman,” says Amanat, who recently spearheaded the relaunch of the 45-year-old Ms. Marvel comic-book series with a new alter ego: a 16-year-old Muslim American from Jersey City named Kamala Khan. (The first issue, released in February, is now in its fourth printing.) ”Having some representation of your identity and experience on television or in a comic book is so empowering,” she says.

Back in Islamabad, Rashid and his team of more than 40 animators, artists, and writers are wrapping Burka Avenger‘s second season, to air this fall. He promises more plotlines of Jiya taking on issues such as sectarian violence, child labor, and women’s equality in the workplace. One story line you’ll never see is her search for a Prince Charming. ”She has other priorities right now,” says Rashid. ”She’s more concerned about saving the world.”