The Pakistani Superhero Who’s Battling Polio

In Pakistan, a woman superhero is saving the day on television screens, spreading awareness about women’s issues and fighting for gender equality. Launched last summer, award-winning animation Burka Avenger tracks Jiya and her titular alter ego. An agreeable schoolteacher by day, Jiya transforms into her superhero counterpart at night, donning a burka and kicking butt before sunrise.

In the midst of rising Taliban opposition to girl’s education, Pakistani pop star Aaron Haroon Rashid created Jiya, who was originally intended to fight for equal access to education. Since then, his brainchild has expanded thematically; the superhero now fights against discrimination, child labor and environmental harm.

This week she’s taking on Pakistan’s growing foe: polio.

While it may be naïve to think an animated cartoon can help eradicate a spreading disease, Burka Avenger‘s writers hope to at least spread awareness about the importance of the polio vaccine. Produced for World Polio Day on Oct. 24, the episode (which is available online) follows an evil magician who kidnaps a polio vaccinator and steals the vaccines. With the help of her friends, Burka Avenger must right this wrong. Framed in a lighthearted manner, the plot speaks to the real-life threats facing Pakistani health workers. “We always have a social issue or a social message that is the centerpiece of each show,” Haroon explained to NBC. “And of course, with the rising number of polio cases … the situation is alarming.”

The storyline on Burka Avenger mirrors what’s happening to real-life women in Pakistan: While polio is not specifically a women’s issue, it’s mostly women distributing polio vaccines in the country—and they’re putting their lives at risk to do it.

In early October, Pakistan logged its 200th new case of polio since January, the largest number of new cases in 14 years. Deemed a global public health emergency, polio is only endemic in three countries: Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan. As Pakistan breaches the 200 mark, Nigeria and Afghanistan have both documented only small-digit figures (six and 10 new cases, respectively).

In Pakistan, resistance to the vaccination comes from the Taliban and other Islamist militants. Viewed as a Western ploy, the vaccination is misconstrued in two ways: as a scheme to sterilize Muslim children, and as a cover for U.S. spies (since information about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts was gathered via a faux hepatitis vaccination program). Militant groups are targeting the health workers who administer the vaccines and collect immunization data, and since 2012, more than 50 anti-polio health workers and security officials have been killed in their homes or doing fieldwork.

The polio vaccination teams work across the country, convincing people of the vaccine’s value in face-to-face interactions, which requires health workers to trek from village to village, door to door. Women—perceived as less of a threat to parents—are more readily welcomed into a home, and so the burden of spreading the vaccination gospel has fallen on their shoulders. When extremist groups target the messengers, the violence therefore disproportionately puts women at risk.

Rotary International, which has been working to eradicate polio since 1985, is starting another new push for Pakistani immunization. The organization plans to increase the number of women involved in door-to-door work, and to give cell phones to midwives in order to track polio immunization data. 

While this reinvigorated campaign is crucial, the new policies put women’s lives in danger yet again. Burka Avenger is helping to dispel myths about the polio vaccine—which helped to successfully eradicate polio in many parts of the world by 1999—so that her real-life counterparts can spread awareness about the disease and stop polio once and for all.

Photo courtesy of Burka Avenger.



Brianna Kovan is a reader and writer from the Midwest. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English.