By Ishtiaq Ahmed
OCTOBER 29, 2018
It is seldom that qualified research, conceptually and theoretically sophisticated informs the academic undertakings of Pakistani scholars. This is especially lamentable when one reads works written supposedly by political scientists. Their contributions to information and knowledge are mostly political history. Other branches of social science are not much better. Understanding society, its composition and structure, the cultural slants and religious biases of power are conspicuous by their absence from the Pakistani intellectual discourse. Research produced by NGOs, a very prominent source of concerned and committed is rich in fact and enlightened insights but lack theoretical sophistication.
Fortunately, Afiya S. Zia has defied that tradition of under theorized or rather un theorized research, rich in experiences but seriously deficient in conceptual and theoretical clarity, which obtains in Pakistan on the exposed and vulnerable position of women in Pakistan. Proceeding from a committed feminist perspective informed by the Enlightenment ethos of rationalism, secularism and universal human and women’s right she reviews in a systematic and sustained manner the various positions of Pakistani feminists on the rights of women, including that of the incongruent but influential that of “Islamic feminists”.
Islamic alternatives to democracy, sovereignty, equality, freedom, human rights and minority rights – when subjected to systematic and rigorous analysis invariably impede the incorporation of universal norms and values in the normative discourse on them in Pakistan. Islamic feminists do the same with predictable consistency and constancy. Zia reviews the works of Arab and Iranian Islamic feminists and Pakistani pioneers such as Dr Riffat Hassan.
Riffat Hassan set in motion passionate pleading for the rights of Muslim women not only in Pakistan but in international forums as well. Her line of argument was adopted by others who produced academic dissertations premised on cultural relativism, which called into question the universal claims of Western modernity. They propounded instead Islamic alternatives which they argued stand a greater chance of being accepted and internalized by Muslim men and women on grounds of cultural authenticity and Islamic sanction. Not much was achieved in behalf of Muslim women in either Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia or Pakistan.
Rather a perverted form of Islamic feminism emerged in Pakistan under the leadership of Farhat Hashmi who has built influential global networks which uphold segregation of men and women and oppose women from entering the public sphere on grounds that Western modernity subverts piety and the sanctity of family life. The argument is that Islam upholds the dignity of women higher than any other social philosophy or religion and secularism and modernism are the anti-thesis of the proper measure of rights of men and women. The Taliban Regime in Afghanistan which during 1996 – 2001,was an extension of such thinking to the sphere of politics, society and state.
However, the feminist debate in Pakistan is not polarized simply into secular and so-called Islamic alternatives. If that were so it would be an easy task to demonstrate the patently negative orientation of Islamic feminism. The strength of Zia’s book is a review of competing paradigms within the liberal-left branches of Pakistani feminism, where confusion abounds abundantly. The methodology the author adopts to demonstrate her point of view is to contextualize the debates, discussions and controversies among Pakistani feminists on the life conditions of women in Pakistan from the time of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq when Islamization reforms consolidated traditional patriarchy with fundamentalist arguments justifying the subordination of women to men with concomitant pressure to vacate the public sphere. That was the beginning of the activation of Pakistani women belonging mainly to the upper-class enlightened sections of Pakistani society.
Ayub Khan’s Muslim Family Law Ordinance and later General Musharraf’s reform of rape laws were possible because enlightened dictators were in power. Equally, General Zia was an Islamist dictator. His reactionary reforms remain intact notwithstanding the restoration of elected civilian governments. Secularists in general and feminist secularists in particular face an uphill task in a state claimed and won in the name of Islam.
The Islamic revolution of Iran, the animated fundamentalist Wahhabi regime of Saudi Arabia and the Taliban created a highly charged international situation which culminated in the traumatic impact of 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
The so-called war on terror unleashed by President George W. Bush resulted in a determined reaction of Islamist extremism. Inevitably its worldwide repercussions impacted the rights and status of women in Pakistan. Harassment and intimidation of women become endemic to Pakistani politics and in some cases resulted in assassination of women, including a female minister. Even more deplorable have been violent attacks on women working in the polio vaccination drives of the government.
Understandably, Pakistan feminists discussed and controverted the strategies needed to deal with an increasingly hostile environment. The author goes into interesting details of such discussions and controversies.
We learn about revisionists and post-secular feminists and other seeks refuge in patriarchy and culture finding anthropological arguments not to involve theology to explain why Pakistani women continue to suffer male hostility and aggression. The author makes a compelling case for holding on to secular feminism by exposing the ideational paucity and contradictions inherent in revisionist types of feminism. The book should be compulsory reading for feminist academics and NGO activists.
A question which the author does not deal with is to attempt an analysis of the limits on feminism, secular feminism, that an ideological state such has Pakistan imposes. The fact of patriarchy is universal and in neighbouring India Hindu society continues to be constricting for women but following the Hindu Reform Laws of the Nehru Government in the 1950s progressive reforms were enacted and have gone a long way in improving the rights status of Hindu women.
Ayub Khan’s Muslim Family Law Ordinance and later General Musharraf’s reform of rape laws were possible because enlightened rulers were in power. Equally, General Zia’s reactionary reforms remain intact notwithstanding the restoration of elected civilian governments. Secularists in general and feminist secularists in particular face an uphill task in a state claimed and won in the name of Islam.
The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Visiting Professor Government College University; and, Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He has written a number of books and won many awards, he can be reached on email@example.com