This article argues that there has been a significant turn in the discourse of feminist
politics in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The author suggests that the rise of a new
feminism - rooted in Islamic discourse, non-confrontational, privatized and
personalized, whose objective is to 'empower' women within Islam - is not a post-
9/11 development but rather a result of unresolved debates on the issue of religion
within the progressive women's movement. It has been due to the accommodation of
religion-based feminist arguments by the stronger secular feminist movement of the
1980s that paved the way for its own marginalization by giving feminist legitimacy to
such voices. The author argues that the second wave of feminism may have become
diluted in its effectiveness and support due to discriminatory religious laws,
dictatorship, NGO-ization, fragmentation, co-option by the state and political parties
in the same way as the global women's movement has. Yet it has been the internal
inconsistency of the political strategies as well as the personal, Muslim identities of
secular feminists that have allowed Islamic feminists to redefine the feminist agenda
in Pakistan. This article voices the larger concern over the rise of a new generation of
Islamic revivalist feminists who seek to rationalize all women's rights within the
religious framework and render secular feminism irrelevant while framing the debate
on women's rights exclusively around Islamic history, culture and tradition. The
danger is that a debate such as this will be premised on a polarized 'good' vs 'bad'
Muslim woman, such that women who abide by the liberal interpretation of theology
will be pitted against those who follow a strict and literal interpretist mode and
associate themselves with male religio-political discourse. This is only likely to
produce a new, radicalized, religio-political feminism dominating Pakistan's political
Much of the literature tracing the women's movement of the 1980s and 1990s in
Pakistan tends to be statist and in opposition to military dictatorship and
religion (Mumtaz and Shaheed, 1991; Jalal, 1991; Iqbal, 1992; Bhasin et al.,
1994). Colloquially, the slogans that Pakistani feminists have used in their
political resistance include 'men, money, mullahs1 and the military'. This
approach has given the movement its structural moorings and clarity with regard
to its confrontational and dynamic relationship with the state, the military and
capitalist development. However, during this time, the biggest challenge has
come from within the movement: that of the personal and, necessarily, that of
religious identity. Personal ambivalence on the part of Pakistani feminists and
global political attention over the war on terror has made this an unresolved
issue. Consequently, today the issue of religious identity confronts activists
within the women's movement in Pakistan, which has serious implications for its
The 1977 military take over and the subsequent decade of General Zia-ul-Haq's
rule made women direct targets of a misogynist state under his purported
Islamization project (Jahangir and Jillani, 1990; Zia, 1994). One of the most
important legacies of this troubled decade has been that, seemingly, the only
tool for analysing women in Pakistan is faith-based politics and a woman's
acceptance or resistance to expressions of this politics. This article traces the
trends within the women's movement that led to this point. The article contends
that geo-political influences such as modernity and globalization have been just
one aspect with which women have had to consciously contend, negotiate or
engage. Moreover, it has been the simultaneous resistance and co-option of
liberal (modern) ideals by women in right and Islamic fundamentalist movements
that have enabled a newly constructed identity of feminism and women's
relationship with the state. In the process, the agenda as well as the
methodologies of the progressive Pakistani women's movement have been
challenged, redefining feminism in our context.
This historical perspective is important in understanding that the emergence of
these identities can not be exclusively attributed to an external, western
influence, nor can it be seen as an outcome of imperialism or globalization alone.
Feminist politics in Pakistan has been trying to grapple with the issue of
fragmented, polarizing identities in relation to religious identities for many years.
The central case in this article is that, in fact, the empowering strategies of
Islamic feminists2 working within the framework of religion have not only been
successful but have also subsumed all other forms of feminist expression along
the way. It is the contention of this paper that, unwittingly, the apologist,
insider, inclusive approach of the women's movement on the issue of religion has
enabled and assisted the political expressions of Islamic feminism as we see it
today. This was not the purported motivation behind such a revisionist agenda
but its expression is certainly visible in Pakistan today. This article will argue that
these internal imperatives and the lack of clarity on the issue of religious identity
within the secular or progressive women's movement have contributed quite
effectively towards forming a new brand of feminism, one rooted in a
predominantly religious identity.
War on terror as a marker of women's identities
It would be an academic inaccuracy to suggest that the events of 9/11 created
'new' religious identities for women. The subsequent global war on terror,
however, has influenced women's political identities so as to render a deeper
division between the perceived modern, liberal Pakistani woman and the
talibanized, regressive, conservative one. Rather than consider this a structural
divide brought on by 9/11, the debates within the movement show that the
spectrum of diverse feminist strands is really continuous from the past.
To the extent that both stereotypes mentioned above are constructed within a
larger patriarchal discourse of both the war on terror and nationalist identities, it
would be more accurate to suggest that the political identity of the Pakistani
woman has coalesced rather than been 'born again'. What is new is a general
acceptance of a clearer West vs. Islam dichotomy in post-9/11 Pakistan, and its
attendant political challenges.
Women have become, once again, symbols for the (western) audience of either
the progressive, modern, potential of the nation or the veiled, traditionalist,
threatening reminders of faith-based politics. Muslim women's identities seem to
have indeed become a project worthy of study within this new framework - a new
brand of academic interest.
This article argues that these strains pre-existed 9/11, which then can merely be
seen as an event that speeded up the dichotomies and gave currency to the
unresolved issue of women's identities, particularly with regard to religion, in
Pakistan. The war on terror furthered this cleavage and has lent a certain
political credibility and legitimacy to faith-based feminism as the alternative to
a larger imperialist, US-sponsored, westernized women's rights discourse.
Further, we may see growing feminist expression that will prove challenging in
political terms as well, in which religion will not be so much of a 'bridge
[between] the realms of the spiritual and social' (Shaheed, 2002: 366) but very
much to the political realm as well. This would debunk the suggestion that
political expression of religion lies outside the faith-empowering, personal
agenda of Muslim women in Pakistan.
The interplay of secular and Islamic feminisms
A short overview of the debates that took place within the mainstream women's
movement over the issue of religion throws light on the ambivalences that
marked the movement. This can be traced to the decade of the 1980s, which saw
a rich debate on the issue of religion, both as a contention and as a strategy of
empowerment, within the urban-based women's movement in Pakistan (Khan,
1994). This debate was most vocal within the Women's Action Forum (WAF),3 an
alliance formed in 1981 of women's groups and individuals fighting against
Islamization and Martial Law.
Initially the women's movement, including WAF, decided to employ the strategy of
using progressive interpretations of Islam to counter patriarchal state religion
(Khan, 1992). They succeeded in this strategy to some extent and, importantly,
garnered unlikely support in the process, from moderate and right-wing Islamic
feminists4 alike - at least strategically. This was a most unlikely source of
support, as the urban women's movement included several women from
progressive political parties, left politics, professional women's groups including
trade unions and also development groups. For example, on the issue of rape,
women from right-wing fundamentalist political parties participated in protests
against the state, but would distance themselves on WAF's slogans against the
Hudood Ordinances or Islamization.
In 1991, after years of debate, WAF took a radical departure from its liberal
feminist history and decided to declare itself secular - in principle. However, this
also initiated a series of further debates within the movement at large and which
arguably remain unresolved till now.
In the light of this historical experience, Saba Mahmood, professor and scholar of
Islamic revivalist feminism, makes an interesting departure with reference to her
own personal involvement in the progressive feminist movement in Pakistan. She
recalls that activists during the Islamization years considered Islamic forms of
patriarchy as the root of women's oppression and that 'feminist politics came to
require a resolute and uncompromising secular stance' (Mahmood, 2005: x). My
own membership of the Lahore-based WAF and participation in the debates that
informed the movement in the 1990s suggest that this stance was not as
resolute, and if not compromised on principle, was always open to negotiation
and strategic rethinking from the very beginning.
One criticism of the secular stand by modernist Islamic feminists is that it did
not help to mobilize women across classes and after all the time-consuming
debate may, after all, have been a misplaced identity to adopt (Shaheed, 2002:
373). Interestingly, the same strand of criticism suggests that women have
'priorities and agendas other than gender' and 'dominant feminist groups' (ibid.)
did not recognize this and merely reacted to and allowed the state to lead the resistance discourse. The modernist Islamic feminists suggested that instead of
'entering into a headlong confrontation, a better policy may be toydistinguish
between the various strands of religion, customs, and culture' (ibid.: 381). This
liberal positioning argues against a prescribed 'eitheryor' choice between
religious and secular identities forced upon women by politico-religious forces or
'dominant feminist groups', respectively. This is the exact space that I am
suggesting left the movement wide-open to be co-opted and absorbed by a force
larger, more overwhelming and more rewarding than the progressive women's
groups could offer; personally, politically or in spiritual sisterhood.
During the 1980s, the Pakistani Intelligence agencies, funded by the US
government, created an ideological and armed guerrilla force (the Taliban) to
fight against the communist invasion of Afghanistan (Rashid, 2000). Almost as a
parallel, some sections within the Pakistani women's movement were complicit in
the creation of an alternative, Islamic feminism as a tool to fight patriarchal
state religion. Activists advocating progressive women's rights may not have been
directly responsible for finding or funding women activists of the fundamentalist
Islamic movement. However, the strategy of making alliances, mobilizing and
accommodating the religious perspective, gave feminist credentials to those
working within the Islamic discourse, regardless of how much it was defined and
constrained within an overall patriarchal framework.
This is not to take away the agency of women in the religious right, but to point
out that their politics was always critical and unaccepting of western, modern,
liberal feminism (Rashid, 2006). Both the state and sections of the women's
movement used Islam as a political defence against 'foreign' ideologies
(communism and western feminism, respectively). This gave agency and credence
to new religious movements. These gradually formed into independent Islamic
organizations and forces, which took on a pro-active, socio-political agenda
beyond the original resistance goals. These movements have morphed into forces
that offer the most serious political confrontation with the state today.
The irony is that the empowerment and solidarity strategies that attempted to
demystify, translate and bridge western feminist theory with local, indigenous
culture were far more successful than progressive women's rights advocates could
have hoped for or are willing to take credit for.
Through field research, strategies and programmes, Muslim women's organizations
have been actively working towards eliminating religious and cultural
impediments to advocate for and pursue justice and equality for Muslim women.
Several such initiatives such as the Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML)6
are funded by international donor agencies. The larger, visionary 'project'
necessarily revolves and centres around Islamic values and reinterpreted texts.
The academic debate around these issues makes for very interesting reading.
Tahmina Rashid's research based on Pakistan makes a useful categorization ofMuslim women's ideological relationship to Islam based on the 'woman question'.
These categories range from traditionalists, modernists, secularists and socialists
(Rashid, 2006). Quite rightly, she considers Riffat Hasan (Pakistani-American
theologian) and members of Shirkat Gah/WLUML including Farida Shaeed, in
Pakistan as Islamic modernists, seeking modernist interpretations of religion
towards ensuring women's rights as outlined in the Quran.
Although not mentioned in Rashid's feminist categories, Dr Farhat Hashmi has
been instrumental in bringing about what is loosely referred to as the 'Al-Huda
phenomena' in Pakistan. She established the Al-Huda Academy for women to relearn
Islam as early as 1994. This institutional approach to reinterpreting all
issues in a 'modern' way and 'within the parameters of the Quran'7 challenges
masculinist but not necessarily state or orthodox discourse directly and, most
importantly, pre-dates 9/11. With this background, Riffat Hasan's challenge to
Farhat Hashmi's aspirations to be a scholar of Islam makes interesting reading
within the Islamic feminist discourse.
Hasan does not accept Hashmi's claim that the male ulema challenge her
attempts to 'liberalise Islam'. Instead, Hasan considers Hashmi 'no more
''modernist'' than she is ''feminist'' or ''liberal''' (Hasan, 2002: 18). In examining
the content of her message, Dr Hasan considers Hashmi's ideological stance to
be 'still very markedly right-wing' (ibid.: 17).
This ongoing debate is indicative of and is shaping future academic discussion. A
generation of post-9/11 Pakistani scholars are increasingly involved in
researching, revising and redefining Islamic legal, social and economic history,
in order to graft a new interpretation to socio-political movements in the Muslim
world. The debate has become internal and, with regard to the issue of feminism,
it is the Islamic modernists who would be more acceptable to the fundamentalist
or neo-fundamentalist Islamists today.8 This is because the former provide a
much-required modern, liberal, palatable form of Islam that can counter
Islamophobia in the West. Some of these 'empowering' methodologies that
attempt to give a 'new and progressive' face to Islamic expressions are discussed
In retrospect and despite criticism of WAF's secular stand, two important points
emerged from their positioning. First, historically WAF remains one of the few
avowed secular organizations in the public sphere. In the Islamic Republic of
Pakistan, this anomaly in itself is a political comment that few others are willing
to embrace. Secondly and paradoxically, this stand allows members to belong
personally to other non-secular organizations, movements and even political
parties, and yet continue to express their 'politically secular' position within WAF.
In other words, WAF has become a political comfort zone for activists where they
can take radical and feminist positions. This is true even when such stands may
be inconsistent with the more diluted, comparatively conservative politics of organizations that WAF members have founded, or belong to professionally, or
support ideologically. It is a brilliant compromise and convenient separation of
the personal and the political.
Traditional criticism of the women's movement has tended to focus on its
ineffectiveness at bringing about radical, visible progress for women, particularly
working-class women. This external critique has focused on the upper-class
background of women activists and the non-governmental organizations (NGO)
culture that has encouraged activists to be donor-driven rather than independent
or 'indigenous' in drawing their agendas; often the criticism has been directed at
the personalities of women activists and their 'western' outlook. More
importantly, the little reflective critique within the women's movement that
has taken place has often raised the question of funded projects defining the
direction of the movement, as well as globalization and the weakened Left,
banned trade/student unions movement and general de-politicization, as well as
the fall-out from years of cumulative military dictatorships and lack of
democratization as reasons for the loss of active membership. This critique also
recognized that increasing social conservatism was threatening secular feminism,
but this criticism was almost always directed against a state that was growing
increasingly theocratic in nature. However, by externalizing the causes and
accommodating the faith-based approach that attempted to look for 'moderate'
alternatives within Islam and by insisting on situating the debates on the
women's question within Islamic tradition and history, such reclamation projects
merely squeezed out and delegitimized the secular feminist approach that sought
to redefine women's rights outside the religious framework.
The success of the empowerment strategy
Although the term 'empowerment' is a popular one among the non-governmental
sector (NGOs) and has a specific historical significance in developmental
discourse, it is one that has become co-opted and bandied by groups who seek to
portray themselves as 'progressive'. Faith-based activists who consider
themselves 'moderate' promote their brand of women's rights as one that
empowers women, just within the Islamic framework. Many faith-based activist
initiatives mask themselves as development organizations, are often registered
under the same law, and raise funds by including gender rights within their
proposed aims and purposes. Apart from mimicking the perceived successful
formula of secular feminist activism, the more right-leaning women's groups have
also furthered their radical goals by increasingly confronting the state. This has
been possible because they are confident of outnumbering and overshadowing the
secular activists. The strategy of accommodating seemingly apolitical cultural
Muslim feminists and empowering them to challenge patriarchy from within
progressive interpretations of Islam has thus been partially successful. It has taught them political strategy but has not been able to harness their larger goal
of turning the state into a true Islamic nation that functions according to the
The women's movement had managed to negotiate a fairly successful relationship
with governments in the democratic interregnum (1988-1999) between the two
military dictatorships of Generals Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988) and Pervez Musharraf
The women's movement gained maximum influence in policy making in general
and women's issues in particular during the two terms under Prime Minister
Benazir Bhutto's liberal leadership (1988-1990; 1993-1996). During this time,
NGOs found more negotiating space and a less threatening state, and shifted
their efforts towards sensitizing, negotiating, influencing and 'infiltrating'
government policy. Bhutto's pro-women agenda galvanized the women's
movement to engage with her government in a more meaningful manner. This
was a time for realizing the possibility of a democratic and if not directly secular,
then at least a liberal, modernist future. Bhutto and her party categorically
supported the removal of Islamic laws such as the Hudood Ordinances, although
her government never managed to do so while in office. The World Social Summit
for Development and International Conference on Population and Development in
1994 and the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women 1995 took place during
her time, and we saw very close co-operation and collaborative work between
women's groups, NGOs and the government in Pakistan.
However, between 1997 and 1999, under Nawaz Sharif's leadership and the
government of the Muslim League party, women's groups found themselves losing
ground to growing political conservatism, as well as religious revivalism
increasing at the socio-political levels.
For example, the Council of Islamic Ideology in its annual report of 1997
recommended 'the obligatory wearing of Hijab' (veil) (Rashid, 2006: 147). The
Punjab government announced a ban on cultural activities in girls' schools and
colleges, directing them to abide by Islamic dress code, and in 1998 banned
dance performances by women. Tahmina Rashid notes that since these
announcements were neither official nor legislative, the legal status of such
measures remained ambiguous and made it difficult for women activists to target
their response (ibid.).
Honour killings during this period extended from rural and tribal areas into the
larger urban centres. In 1999, a young woman was murdered by her father for
filing for divorce in a human rights office in Lahore (Rehman, 1999).
NGOs came under criticism and suspicion from the conservative
government, which attempted to regulate their activism, which it termed as the 'spreading [of] vulgarity, immorality and obscenity in the name of
Unlike the military dictatorship of the 1980s where General Zia-ul-Haq's project
of Islamization (1979-1988) targeted women both symbolically and by making
them repositories of punitive discriminatory and misogynistic policies, General
Pervez Musharraf's rule (1999-2008) was one of self-acclaimed 'enlightened
As early as 2001, Musharraf stressed the need for the political empowerment of
women and, in an unprecedented move, increased women's political participation
through the reservation of seats in parliament (33 per cent). He also set up a
permanent National Commission on the Status of Women in 2000 and while all the
recommendations were not accepted from this Commission, the Women's
Protection Act of 2007 did reform the controversial Zina Ordinance. This reform
was a central concern of the Commission and the women's movement for the past
twenty-five years. Musharraf supported women's public activities, such as
contentious mixed-gender marathons in the conservative Punjab province, and
called for increased numbers of women in the armed forces as well as the
appointment of women guards at the mausoleum of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the
founding father of the nation.
However, by now the backlash against NGOs, who were increasingly perceived to
be run by western anti-Islamic forces, particularly in the conservative and tribal
North Western Frontier Province that borders with Afghanistan, had become a
It was during this period that right-wing women's groups started adopting and
using strategies that the mainstream secular movement had so far been using, as
reported in a monograph on the activities of the MMA (a coalition of religious
parties that were part of the Opposition in Parliament, 2002-2007) (Brohi, 2006).
In 2004, the Jamaat Islami11 held a World Conference entitled 'Strong Family;
surety of our survival and women's rights' (Brohi, 2006: 68). They also launched
an 'anti-obscenity campaign' for the 'protection of women', which their youth
wing (Shabab e Milli) claimed was a 'feminist' act (ibid.: 71). Advertising
hoardings that carried women's images were defaced with black paint as part of
this campaign in all major cities. It was reminiscent of radical feminist directaction
strategies of the 1970s in Europe and USA. In 2005, the MMA proposed a
'Prohibition of Indecent Advertisements Bill 2005' that would make publishing
'indecent' and 'humiliating' advertisements a criminal offence.
This attack against media stereotyping was a concern shared by the progressive
women's movement. At this time, it was the Islamists who were seen to be taking
the lead on this agenda, and progressive women's groups should have tried to reoccupy
this space. An intervention was necessary in order to 'convert every
opportunity in a creative and even opportunistic manner to fight [the progressive] battleyto ensure the proposed MMA Bill [did] not become a vicious
means of rendering women invisible in an already under-represented society'
The strategy of right-wing religious parties has been to articulate conservative
demands through women representatives. Brohi observes the motive is to make
'women talk of women's confinement and curtailment of rights [so that it]
makes the talk more legitimate, more ''indigenous'', less ''imposed''' (Brohi,
2006: 74). This is how modernist Islamic feminists seek legitimacy too. Women
seek to reinterpret religious texts in a modern, indigenous, culturally relevant
context rather than in an 'imposed' western feminist discourse.
The threads that bound the women's movement together historically and across
the feminist spectrum were the controversial Hudood Ordinances, especially the
discriminatory Zina (adultery) laws.12 There was a loose consensus from
progressive to right-wing Islamic feminists on the need to review, repeal and
amend this law. However, by 2003, for the first time in twenty-five years, a pro-
Hudood demonstration was held by right-wing women activists of the Jamaat e
Islami to protest against the recommended repeal of the laws by the National
Commission on the Status of Women.
These challenges and pockets of conservative expression peaked in the direct
confrontation between Islamist forces and the state at several points during
Musharraf's government. With regard to women, such subversive challenges were
perhaps best exemplified in the Jamia Hafsa incident in early 2007.
Creating and co-opting feminist spaces
The activism of the Jamia Hafsa women students in Islamabad first appeared in
the media in January 2007. These students belonged to a religious school or
madrassa that was part of the Lal Masjid/Mosque in a posh neighbourhood in the
capital, Islamabad. These young women illegally occupied the premises adjoining
the Lal Masjid, in protest against the government's threat to demolish it and
reclaim it as state land. The women also allegedly kidnapped a woman from the
neighbourhood whom they accused of prostitution and only let her free once she
'repented'. Most civil society members were disturbed by the threat to liberal
life-styles, rather than looking at this occupation as a politics of protest that
challenged the state. The Jamia Hafsa women, who wore complete black veils and
carried bamboo sticks in their occupation of the mosque library, were mocked by
the liberal, English-language media as the 'veiled brigade' or 'chicks with
The liberal elite in Pakistan condemns 'extremist forces' and portrays them as
new arrivals from nowhere, or at best as straight out of a madrassa. This
tendency tends to elide over and ignore the serious political spaces they have come to occupy. Progressive women's groups, as expected, made more salient
statements on this incident, bringing out a historical perspective and linking
extremist violence to the past thirty years of state policies. However, in a press
release a group of clearly identifiable 'progressive' organizations claimed to
'slam the action of female students of Jamia Hafsa who have become pawns in
the hands of political forces and use religion to gain political power and control
over the state'.14 WAF activists also organized a street protest in Lahore against
the actions of the Jamia Hafsa women students, for which they were arrested by
the local administration.
There are a couple of points that need to be addressed here. First, twenty-five
years ago, when the 'progressive women's movement' was protesting dictatorial
rule, women would apply direct action strategies such as 'gherao' (encirclement)
of TV studios, in protest against 'misogynistic programmes' or workplaces where
women were harassed. Given that section 144 of the Criminal Code15 was almost a
permanent feature, these activists would regularly risk breaking the law, and
court arrest as part of their activism. Rural-based organizations, such as
Sindhiani Tehriq (ST), have historically undertaken, and today continue their
brave, direct action in the form of 'rescue kidnappings' of women from forced
marriages or as victims of abuse. It was peculiar then that when the Jamia Hafsa
students defied a military state and the police, and resorted to illegal forms of
protest, their action was condemned. Women's organizations were seen to be
empowered, and they were also seen to be autonomous. Both WAF and (at least
on women's issues) ST worked to a feminist agenda, over and above male politics,
and hence their actions were praised as successful strategies from a sisterhood
However, the modus operandi or indeed the agency of the Jamia Hafsa women
needs to be looked at afresh. There was no evidence that they were 'pawns in the
hands of political forces that use religion to gain political power and control over
the state'. Hence, the question that arises is why the activism of some groups is
considered more autonomous than others. The Jamia Hafsa women did not
proclaim political allegiance to any political party, and their activism was part of
a moral crusade. Even if they were following male dictates, given that the
'women's wings' of other political parties, or women activists from the
'progressive' Pakistan People's Party, do not waver from the party line, why did
the movement expect more from women representatives of religion-based
political parties? In fact, the Jamia Hafsa women were indeed following an
autonomous agenda in seeking salvation for the suspected 'prostitutes' and
liberating them when they repented of their activities. Prostitution has never
featured in male religious rhetoric. In fact, there has been a silence on the issue,
given the ambivalence in Islamic literature and also some well-documented cases
where male religious leaders themselves have been accused of indulging in illicit
Also misplaced is the condemnation of their activism as a means of gaining state
power, since this is the aim of all political activism - to gain control and power
over the state.
The statement from progressive organizations also claimed to 'reject [Jamia
Hafsa students'] attempt to enforce their misguided version of morality'. One is
tempted to ask then, where can one find the 'good guidance version?' Once
again, the standard back-tracking within the progressive movement becomes
obvious when they take the oblique position that they are not against morality
per se, nor against religion per se; it is just someone else's 'misguided version'
that is offensive.
This form of liberal side-stepping and inability to resolve any issue, and not going
beyond issuing strategic apologies for, or issuing strong verbal statements
against Islamic forces, betrays a hang-over from the activism that was mounted
against General Zia's Islamization policies. The state has learned to use religion
either in its most oppressive form or by donning a more liberal enlightened garb,
to co-opt and bankrupt civil society. However, with regard to dealing with
violence in any form, neither method has worked.
This is not to trivialize the criminality of the act of the Jamia Hafsa women when
they kidnapped and held women hostage, nor even their appropriation of state
land on which the madrassa Hafsa and Lal Masjid are built. However, what is
critically dishonest among the establishment and elite was their unwillingness to
acknowledge that this incident was neither about the hostage taking nor about
land grabbing. It was about the liberal fear of the potential of obscurantist
forces, who had now demonstrated their ability to appropriate (state and one
day possibly private) property, as well as waging a moral crusade that goes
against liberal life-styles.
It is also a comment on the complete failure of the so-called progressive
potential of Islamic feminism and the revivalist, reformist, apologist approach
that is a major part of the women's movement. Today, those very same
empowering strategies of WLUML have come back to haunt them in their most
triumphant form. It is about the complete failure of the non-governmental sector
to propel a progressive politics outside its projects and donor-driven agendas.
Today, the same international funding agencies that funded and supported the
dictatorial regimes of the 1980s are, in the new millennium, scrambling back to
the drawing board looking to fund projects that can help fight 'extremism' and
'talibanization', as if it appeared post-9/11 and is an indigenous, madrassaempowered
More interestingly, while revivalist Islamic feminists talk at length about
reclaiming the agency of Islamic feminism (see Mahmood, 2005), in the above
incident, the progressive women's movement, including modernist Islamic
feminists, condemned the autonomous spaces the Jamia Hafsa women students sought. Mahmood talks about the need to understand that 'both positive and
negative notions of freedom have been used productively to expand the horizon
of what constitutes the domain of legitimate feminist practice and debate'
(ibid.: 13). However, this radical expression of autonomy and political
confrontation against the state, which led to the ultimate death of many
students when the state stormed the Lal Masjid in July 2007, elicited no response,
let alone support, from the modernist Islamic feminists.
Religion has taken on a new force after 9/11, with women seeking political
expression within male-defined religious resistance to western Islamophobia.
Many young women, particularly from the lower-middle classes, found sanctuary
in religion in an otherwise disempowering society where they were losing rights
and representation. One example is found among those who took on the 'hejab'
(veil) as a religious symbol, and then found it a convenient refuge against male
harassment and a way of negotiating for more space in the public sphere. Female
religio-political leaders earned some form of power, even if it is really an illusion
of power, by compromising with a militarized, dictatorial state that assumed a
moderate religious and liberal rhetoric. Religion has in many ways become
privatized and women home-based preachers found power in their small
followings (dars), which compensated for the absence of democratic or domestic
importance. Women preachers now give short sermons at funerals to women
mourners of the community, with their own translations and interpretations of
Quranic verses. Individual mourning and reading of the Quran is being
increasingly substituted by the dars phenomena.
It is seriously unlikely that the women's movement will raise another political
campaign against the Hudood Ordinances as it has over the last twenty-five
years. Just as tribal justice 'settles' disputes at the local level, the state has
resolved women's issues by tweaking some parts of this law without questioning
its premise or purpose. It is unlikely that another government will have the power
to remove discriminatory laws on principle, or by arguing from the angle of
international imperative. Instead, the state has co-opted and absorbed an
adequate amount of liberal forces, as well as enough good will from civil society
groups, to steer the direction of liberal or progressive activism in the future.
Women's activism will, in all probability, focus on women's political participation,
but not necessarily on empowerment; will focus on violence against women with a
focus on victims rather than on prevention; and will fail to challenge networks of
informal negotiation between men or misogynistic cultural practices. Most of all
we are likely to witness the growing polarization between 'good Muslim' and 'bad
Muslim' women, such that women who abide by the liberal interpretation of
theology will be pitted against those who follow a strict and literal interpretist
mode and associate themselves with male religio-political discourse.
A new feminism?
Historically, the claim that working within the religious discourse helped cut
across and bridge class differences is a strategy that has proved to be ill founded.
Interestingly, in arguing the 'success' of forging links with grassroots
mass organizations based on identities other than gender, Shaheed (2002) quotes
the importance of urban women's groups' links with rural-based ST (which has a
membership numbering in tens of thousands). What she does not mention while
quoting this example is that ST is part of a clearly secular political nationalist
On the other hand, the criticism of the upper-middle class and feudal identities
of activists who are a part of the urban women's movement has not proven to
have necessarily been an impediment to their larger cause. In her criticism of the
movement, Sumar (2002) quotes instances where the activists of WAF and NGOs
failed to organize their own actions along feminist and class critical lines.
However, to the extent that these are lobby groups, there are an equal number of
instances where the same women fought cases and campaigned against their
class and economic interests.
Many outside and within the women's movement recognize that Zia-ul-Haq was
unable to convert the nation to Islamic fundamentalism or to bring about any
fundamental changes in its capitalist economy (Khan, 1992), yet they concede
that the state became increasingly theocratic during those years. Thus, the
process of internalizing an Islamic identity over the years and succumbing to
political positioning within the Islamic discourse in the women's movement has
been commented upon. However, this in my view was not so much due to
'political naivete of the activists' nor even 'a substitute for their inability to
organize for power' (Sumar, 2002: 428-429) but, instead, a result of genuine
ambivalence on the personal level. These include the contradictions wrought by
the identity split that motivated activists to attempt to reconcile their personal
Muslim identity with their political activism.
More than political stands, it was personal identity politics that often stumped
the debate within the movement. Over the years, this has included issues such as
membership for polygamous wives, relationship with Benazir Bhutto as a woman
PM, misuse of organizational identity for legitimacy or even whether a protest
should be temporarily interrupted because of the Azaan (call to prayer).16 On one
level, the women's movement successfully challenged the state's attempt to
impose a dress code on women. On the other, it remained silent on Benazir's
strategic choice to drape the dupatta/veil on her head as a personal decision.
The importance given to the personal (though some complained it was not
enough) as well as the political strategies needs to be highlighted here. I would
argue that apart from the inability to resolve on clear secular strategies in vision
as well as methodology, the movement also did not rethink the controversial issue of multiple, often conflicting, membership identities and clearly defined
By taking a purist stand on the principle of non-hierarchy and secularism, WAF in
particular seems to have become the purgatory for the movement. It is also a
misleading notion because clearly the 'founding members' of the organization
always refer to themselves as such and thereby automatically render a hierarchy
anyway. This also empowers them to make decisions because of their
commitment to the liberal cause, but in fact WAF in reality remains a forum
in theory rather than in practice. If this forum took advantage of its historical
relevance and reorganized itself as a practicing secular, feminist, street activist,
like-minded, oppositional organization (instead of an open, inclusionary forum)
not just to the state but to neo-fundamentalist and revisionist Islamic forces,
including those run by and for women, it could play a more meaningful role
today. Challenging organized religious movements and such organizations headed
by women would mean that it would involve taking the bold task of clearly
defining secular feminist goals. It would mean rejecting all those defined by or
within a larger religious vision, whether modernist, progressive and/or feminist.
This break is imperative and requires honest reflection. It is important to
highlight that apart from personal discomfort and strategic disagreement, the
political stands of the urban women's movement, including members of WAF and
other NGOs, simultaneously accommodate faith-based and religio-cultural
diversity, and yet when Islamic feminists challenge the state, they condemn such
action.17 Al-Huda is tolerant of women who choose not to veil in their religious
gatherings or schools; Jamia Hafsa required women to veil themselves completely
in black. The liberal women's movement has no criteria nor any symbolic
requirement for its membership. One can change personal and political positions
on any issue at any historical period and still continue to be an ideological and
On one level, sociologists would reject the false binaries among moderates,
liberals and extremists and argue that instead they are all part of the same
social spectrum. Feminists have celebrated the diversity and range within the
women's movement from liberal to Islamic feminist politics.18 However, the
historical lesson should have taught us that, repeatedly, spaces made to
accommodate cultural expressions of religion have merely eclipsed, negated and
delegitimized the progressive feminist movement in Pakistan.
As late as 2002, women's rights activist Farida Shaheed was still arguing against
those urban-based activists who, she suggests, have dominated the discourse of
the women's movement. She criticizes their attempt to subjugate 'culturally
challenging' practices, which include religion (Shaheed, 2002). In highlighting the
need to recognize that religion operates simultaneously as a potentially
spiritually empowering quest on a personal level as well as a mobilizing force in politics, Shaheed's work has consistently suggested that cultural customs merge
and sometimes contradict religious doctrine. Towards this, she suggests that
middle-class activists versed in feminist theory must be wary of 'presumptiveness'
when they challenge feminist interpreters of Islam. She warns against
challenging those revisionist projects that contradict the secular feminist stand
within the movement (Shaheed, 2002: 378).
The success she quotes of empowering strategies such as dars, khatams19 and
other religious modes defining social relationships are precisely the ones that
enabled the privatization of religion20 with political repercussions as discussed
above. Shaheed emphasizes the importance of such personal expressions of
women's relationship with religion. Mahmood challenges the notion that modes of
sociability, as defined by those who choose to conduct themselves in an 'Islamic
manner', and in opposition to 'Western-liberal' life-styles, are 'apolitical in
nature' (Mahmood, 2005: 73). Instead, she suggests the assumption that 'piety
movements do not confront the state directly' is a 'mistake' (ibid.). I agree. This
political reclamation of religion by women is the outcome of the very
'presumptiveness' that led modernist Islamic feminists to invest a progressive
political possibility in a redefined culture and religion. Whatever their
assumptions may have been, today they are unable to stop the dynamic
political and regressive direction that such movements are taking.
Now the dangers come from a second generation of the revisionist school - those
who try and find feminist, modernist and even secular tendencies and bents
within right-wing organized political (Jamaat e Islami) and seemingly nonpolitical
(Al-Huda) forces.21 I argue that by following the same trend from a
different approach, these revisionists too will end up enabling and empowering a
discourse that romanticizes Islamic traditions and indigenous cultural practices.
In the process they render secular political feminism a marginal westernized,
NGO-ized resistance or 'outside' voice on women's issues rather than a legal,
economic, sociological, political and personal, alternative challenge to all forms
of patriarchal expression, including religion. While modernists continue to reject
radical Islamic feminist expressions and politics, their revisionist approach will
not curb the radical and extreme political expressions.
The Islamic apologists therefore look around for a third way, a cultural
revisionizing within Islamic history and discourse that seeks no political
confrontation with men, money, mullahs or the military state. Instead they
advocate for the privatization of religion by claiming a rational space between
the ideological cracks of political religion and the secular. What is being
suggested is a segregated, artificial, stateless, social suspension or political
nunnery where women can interpret Islamic texts, educate and empower
themselves, within religious discourse. While the collective discourse may
challenge patriarchal religion in theory, there seems to be no clarity as to the
nature of the relationship of such a discourse with the modern Islamic state, its laws or its politics. Instead, the revisionists stand as a buffer between the
confrontational sections of the movement and the state.
The danger here is that the strategy of the earlier progressive women's movement
is being repeated, reminiscent of the 1980s when women attempted to fight
patriarchal fundamentalism from within an equally patriarchal Islamic discourse.
In the process, it successfully empowered neo-Islamic political feminism as a
side effect. Today, this form of feminism has captured the imagination of
feminist possibilities in a more symbolic, confrontational and rewarding way than
any vision that secular feminism can put forth. So there is every possibility of the
fruition of such a new, radicalized, religio-political feminism dominating
Pakistan's political future.
I am indebted to S. Akbar Zaidi for his meticulous reading of this paper and
invaluable comments, particularly regarding the framework in which the argument
is set. I benefit immensely from his continuous and patient counselling and
friendship. I am also grateful to Nazish Brohi for her insights and the daily
reflective sessions we share and which have found their way into this article.
This list includes works not cited in the text, to give an indication of the wide
range of feminist standpoints currently finding expression in Pakistan today.
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Management Sciences, December 2007.
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Multiple Identities, Lahore: ASR.
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Rashid, T. (2006) Contested Representation: Punjabi Women in Feminist Debate in Pakistan,
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Roy, O. (2007) Secularism Confronts Islam, New York: Columbia University Press.
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S.M. and Nadvi, K. (2002) editors, The Post-Colonial State and Social Transformation in India
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Pakistan, Karachi: Oxford University Press.
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(Viewpoint has re-published this essay with author's permission. This essay first appeared in Feminist Review-Ed.)