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Students holding up open pages of the AzCorp Sheeba comic book as part of The Pakistan Education Innovation Fund.

Solving the mystery of the out-of-school children

Imran Azhar is the creator of AzCorp, a comic book company adding a fun factor to education in Pakistan. He believes the best way to combat stereotypes is to bring the real world to life in a way children love.

Imran Azhar, the creator of AzCorp, speaking at a conference

We tackle divisive stereotypes by showing the action as a norm. For the reader, it should appear perfectly natural that there are three girls leading the adventure, supported by a boy and two scruffy pets.

Imran Azhar

Like so many kids, I grew up with Superman, Batman and Spiderman. Even as an adult, I could never shake the dream of writing comic books. But something always bothered me. There were no Pakistani heroes, solving Pakistani problems in a Pakistani way. I decided to do something about it.

Enter a new heroine

We worked with education development specialist Nadya Karim-Shaw to create Sheeba and the Private Detectives: Three girls, a boy, a donkey and a dog. They’re the Pakistani answer to the Secret Seven, Famous Five and Scooby Doo, except they solve mysteries using the principles of maths and science. The comics go far beyond academic subjects. From the start, we wanted to include themes around social justice, diversity and tolerance. So, we have multicultural, multifaith heroes. As we build the plotlines, we ensure the action takes place in cultural and heritage sites in Pakistan.

The school textbooks in Pakistan are very informative and teach the principles of maths, science, geography and the social sciences. But I always felt they lacked entertaining content. Knowledge should be fun. That’s why our comics never preach education – instead we try to illustrate its benefits.

Freedom to entertain

Textbooks tend to look at kids as recipients, not the end customer. As a for-profit business, we need to get children’s buy-in to survive. Our mission as a social enterprise is also to do good. So, we aim to challenge stereotypes by planting strong, subliminal messages. For example, it’s the girls who take risks and fight crime.

We have deliberately developed characters in a ‘he-for-she’ way. Take Sheeba. She is the heroine, a rebel, strong and tough, with a love of boxing. By contrast, the boy, Majid, is quiet and calm. He’s happy to follow Sheeba’s lead and learn from bookworm Qulsoom. Majid plays a willing sidekick to his precocious little sister Reemi. In Pakistani popular culture, it’s usually the females who provide support in the male world, but this is the other way around.

The comics highlight girls’ quest for education and mystery solving with the support of the male members of their family. Likewise, the roles of street dog Sheru and grumpy donkey Tufaan are central to the gang’s success solving mysteries, and our depiction is a gentle reminder about the worth of even the lowest animals.

We tackle divisive stereotypes by showing the action as a norm. For the reader, it should appear perfectly natural that there are three girls leading the adventure, supported by a boy and two scruffy pets.

We feel this taps into authentic Pakistan, where there are many amazing women. We link the narrative into real stories too. For example, Sheeba is typical of many young girls in the Dhobi Ghat, Karachi’s ancient laundry wharf on the banks of the Lyari River.

Sheeba has lost her mother, while her brother has a disability. Her clothes are smudged and patched. Her hair is wild. We are showing that Sheeba’s world is not imaginary or untouchable, but a true reflection of life that kids can seek to replicate.

Foundations for growth

These are exciting times for us as a company. We are looking to expand internationally. The comics may be about Pakistani heroes, but the principles that motivate them are universally relevant and popular. Another goal is to reach out to new markets by providing content that reflects multiculturalism.

We recently had an opportunity to bridge the gap between Western and Pakistani literature with a soft launch of our comics among the Pakistani community in Bradford, England. We’re developing an audio series and podcasts for digital download worldwide, and looking to translate the comics for Chinese and Arabic audiences.

I’m proud of the way we have managed to develop partnerships with various school networks and organisations to improve the basic education skills of primary school children. Our books reached almost 17,000 children in Pakistan in our first year.

This is an important time for our country. Pakistan is progressing quickly. We have one of youngest populations in the world, with 60% under 25, and the highest growth rate in Asia.

We will be a young country for at least the next 20 years, so we have a window of change that we can’t afford to miss.

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