Role models for yesterday and tomorrow: Rosalind Franklin vs Burka Avenger?

Over the last few days the internet has been buzzing with posts about Rosalind Franklin (see, for example, posts on the BioMed Central blog or The Guardian), sparked off by a google doodle on her 93rd birthday.


Rosalind Franklin was a female biophysicist, who was active in the mid-20th century, a period, when it was still unusual for women to follow a career in science. There is a wonderful biography by Brenda Maddox (Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA) about Rosalind’s life and career, which I can only recommend to anyone who enjoys a bit of non-fiction. I read the book when I was still at university, and found Rosalind’s life story and attitude towards science very inspiring. I was probably not the only one, because when I go to talks about women in science, I often hear her mentioned as a role model for girls and women today.

But role models only make sense in the context of their time and social environment. So in an era of globalization, when there is an increasing awareness of different cultures and social norms, maybe we also need new role models? By this, I don’t just mean contemporary female scientists who’ve achieved great things within a classical scientific career path, as one might follow in Europe or the US. I also mean that maybe girls and women in other countries might face completely different hurdles before they can even consider a career (in science). Thus, their role models might also have to tackle different problems…

Since this has been on my mind lately, I was rather happy when someone informed me about a new TV series, called “Burka Avenger”. It’s a cartoon, which is to air soon in Urdu language in Pakistan. Developed by a Pakistani pop singer, Aaron Haroon Rashid. The series promotes a number of social and environmental issues, including the importance of girls’ education. The main heroine is a school teacher, who – clad in billowing, dark burka, and using books and pens as weapons (like, literally) – fights the Taliban. Here’s the English trailer on youtube:

The message of the series might not appear very highbrow, compared to some of the “women in science” campaigns out there, but in a country where there even basic education for girls is part of a cultural battle, maybe Burka Avenger (and what she stands for) is the kind of role model that is needed? Every target audience should be addressed in a manner that is tailored to fit, and while the burka costume of the heroine might be seen by some as a sign of oppression, Rashid, the creator of the series points out: “She is using the burka to hide her identity like other superheroes. […] Since she is a woman, we could have dressed her up like Catwoman or Wonder Woman, but that probably wouldn’t have worked in Pakistan.” For sure, media coverage about the series seems to have raised awareness outside of Pakistan, let’s hope it also achieves it’s goal at home. And if nothing else, it looks like a quirky show to keep an eye on!