She’s a doting older sister by day and a crime-fighting vigilante by night. Meet Raat, the Pakistani counterpart to Catwoman and other female superheroes, whose mission is to keep the streets of Kolachi safe for its residents.
On one adventure, Raat brings down corrupt cops who extort bribes from hapless civilians. Before she busts the wrongdoers, she carefully pulls away her hijab and ties up her hair, before offering namaaz and then putting on the demon mask and eyepaint that obscure her features, and identity.
“It’s about a common person with no superpowers and no assistance at all… it’s a character grounded in reality,” Raat’s creator Wasiq Haris said in an interview.
While Raat patrols Kolachi, her colleague (in a sense) is busy fighting social evils of another sort. Under the moniker of ‘Burka Avenger’ (a nod to her crime-busting costume of choice — a burqa) Jiya, a teacher, combats those who attempt to shut down schools for girls. Her motto is ‘justice, peace and education’ and when words don’t work, she isn’t above using ‘takht kabadi’ — a martial arts form that involves the throwing of books and pens — to fight gender-based crimes.
Raat and Burka Avenger are part of a growing tribe of Pakistani superheroes: comic book (and animated series) characters steeped in local flavour, tackling challenges that are of significance to Pakistani society.
Pakistan Man, for instance, has arch nemeses who go by the names The Corruptor and The Banner. As those titles might indicate, The Corruptor corrupts, while The Banner bans (in one case, The Banner was engaged in clamping down on the internet — a threat that Pakistan Man fought with his sidekicks 3G and 4G). As literal as the villains he is tasked with taking down, Pakistan Man is seen most often in a leotard and cape that owes its colour and logo to the Pakistani flag. The costume design may vaguely resemble Superman’s, and his origin story have faint traces of Batman’s (parents murdered brutally, stoic mentor oversees young boy’s training until he becomes capable of taking on wrongdoers) — but Pakistan Man’s ethos is entirely his own. (A somewhat dodgy storyline has him whacking the Pakistani starlet Meera with an English dictionary when she persists on murdering the language.)
For those who prefer their crime-fighting superheroes to be well, more heroic than satirical, there are the stories of Shamsheer, Buraaq and Team Muhafiz, among others.
Shamsheer has its protagonist discover a secret power developed by the Mughals to win wars. Buraaq is the brainchild of brothers Kamil and Adil Imtiaz who moved to the US in the ’90s. Several years later, when they became fathers, they felt the need for a superhero who young Muslims could look up to as a role model. So Yusuf Abdullah’s day job involves working at a charitable organisation, and putting on a mask to fight the forces of evil come night. In both personas, he strictly follows the principles of Islam.
“Our goal is not to preach or give sermons, rather our aim is to provide entertainment with a clean, inspirational message,” Adil Imtiaz explained in an interview.
Also being made as an animated series, Buraaq is brought to Pakistan by CFx Comics. CFx brings out Paasbaan — The Guardian, a comic book that aims to fight radicalisation of Pakistani youth.
Then there is Team Muhafiz — a bunch of teenagers with superpowers, from different ethnic groups of Pakistan, who unite to fight child marriages, extremism and even acid attacks.
Team Muhafiz is incidentally jointly drawn by Indian artist Soumyadipta Roy, and leading Pakistani comic book artist Babrus Khan. The style is influenced by the creators’ love for manga, anime, but once again, the stories are uniquely Pakistani in ethos.
“The characters are every-day teenagers doing great things. The main idea is that they love sports and music and want to give back to the community,” said Imran Azhar of Azcorp Entertainment, which brings out Team Muhafiz.
Marvel/DC characters continue to be popular in Pakistan. But these local superheros are grounded in the country’s past and present in a way that the Avengers cannot be. Raat, Burka Avenger, Team Muhafiz et al may have long way to go before they become recognised names, but in creating conversations around the issues that plague Pakistan, and bringing those into the realm of pop culture, they have already pulled off a super-heroic task.