By Mishaal H. Shirazi
June 22, 2013
Introduction: For many years, Muslim women have always been sidelined from obtaining or competing for equal benefits like men. This contributed to the rise of Feminism Movement in Pakistan that advocated for equal political, economic and social privileges for women. The social rights were worried with the privileges to education and occupation opportunities irrespective of their gender of cultural hindrances. Notable feminists such as Veena Das and Ritu Menon influenced the movement's penetration in Pakistan.
Most Asian countries observe restrictive Islamic laws that prohibit women from participating in societal and economic developments. However, feminism offered channels where women would address their grievances and fight for gender equality in the modern setting. Although the feminist practices were unpopular in Islamic nations due to fears of victimisation, Hindu women and other salient aspects changed feminist discourse in Pakistan, which led to the reinvention of modern feminism activities.
Background of How This Feminist Movement Started In Pakistan
Feminism started in the 19th Century with the introduction of gender sensitive representation of females in the literary circles. For example, scriptwriters used liberation and respect for the minority rights as themes in the fiction pieces. On the other hand, Muslims debated on the restrictive issues relating to Islam religion. The Muslim women in India advocated for identity rights where they would be appreciated with human dignity. Ritu Menon and Hasan Zoya in their book 'Unequal Citizens' claim that it was hard to separate gender from religion because it was homogenised under on the term of "Muslims". This idea of homogeneity of the entire community facilitated inequalities in the Indian society. Menon and Zoya state that women were discriminated against and faced criticisms because of the double disadvantage of them being Muslims and women (Zoya, and Ritu 587). This made them face unjust treatment in the community and inequitable enjoyment of social privileges like education and employment. It is also prudent that discrimination against women was different according to their locality and social class, but not community.
Comparison between Pakistani women and Hindu women show that women faced similar problems despite their socio-economic or caste status in the society. Another observation was that the Hindu women were actively involved in decision-making activities because of educational opportunities. Caste is the biggest challenge to women shaping in a country where wealth openings are wide and often challenging (Zia 30). Secular feminists claim that Islam cannot bond women through class, cultural, and language positions because Islam does not grow to the heart of daily suppression. This is because Muslim parents objected the ideas of their daughter attending school. This implies that Muslim women performed limited roles in the society and lacked autonomy to undertake their decisions. For example, Muslim women were not allowed to move on their own without supervision from their male counterparts. However, there were no substantial differences between the Hindu women and the Muslim women apart from cultural differences and minority rights. The few liberties and privileges that the Hindu women enjoyed motivated Pakistani women to fight for their positions (Zoya, and Ritu 588).
Therefore, in their struggles at domestic, society and state ranks, feminist and civil rights groups in Pakistan have resorted to substantial concepts of nationality, gender-neutral notions about privileges, and diversity of the public domain.
Pakistani feminist discourses in the modern world order have been vital in the Western democracy and ethnic notions of collective human rights and freedom. These have become the main discursive medium in a struggle of Western advancement versus Islamic traditionalism. Muslim women were also being used to advance misinterpretation and hatred toward Islam as a whole.
Feminism that may have erupted during Zia-ul-Haq's period: General Zia-ul-Haq is among Pakistan's longest-serving and cruel dictator. He served between '78 and '88 and he introduced an Islamisation method that affected the perception and status of women in Pakistani culture. Zia's new program of Islamisation was based on repressive cultural practices common to the subcontinent. He formulated the idea of Islamisation contrary to the true and religious meaning of Islam. Some clerics re-interpreted the teachings of the Qur'an to support the policies of Zai. This is because they believed that women had no position in society.
It is also apparent that Zia deliberately targeted women because he knew concentrating on the re-invigoration of the Pakistani kinfolk would be externally reinforced by spiritual parties, and would win him the downcast consent of all caste of society. His so-called Islamization campaigns, which finally sought to streamline the public scope, partly focused on judicial processes and propaganda. This is because modification of the judicial systems led to the establishment of Hudood Ordinance (Loomba 8).
In Anatol Lieven's Pakistan: A Hard Country, a female lawyer, Shireen Masoud says, 'Feminists complain about the Hudood Ordinances, and rightly, but most people have always imposed such rules in their own families and villages.' Therefore, to some it seemed like the Hudood Ordinance just highlighted the lack of rights for women in Pakistan.
It was because of such actions that women's rights activists organised themselves against the laws to demand protection against mistreatment. Protests against the government were expressed through newsprint articles, crusades in public institutions, art centres, poetry, and song. While a number of these women were inexperienced in the Pakistan movement and relied on directions from women who had pushed for women's human rights on the eve of nationhood in '47, their involvement was notably changed from the social action of the '30s and '40s. This is because the modern group had a decisively more radical stance and tactic than the previous group. However, in the early '90s, feminist movement gained popularity, but it was sparked numerous debates about the identification of the activists (Akhter). This is because the main discussion between feminists is whether to describe women's movement through a no spiritual or an Islamic perspective.
The Reinvention of Feminism in Pakistan
The rise of new feminism was entrenched in Islamic ideas, non-combative and personalised manner aimed at empowering all women within Islam. This was a long struggle that started in the '80s during General Zia-ul-Haq's tenure and was not associated with the recent 9/11 terrorist attacks (Zia 31). Religious oppressive 'extremist interpretations' were the aspects that generated and stimulated feminists' movements in Pakistan. There is no linkage with terrorism or societal discriminations, but Islamic values. However, the second upsurge of feminism was hindered through biased religious laws and dictatorship from the Muslim leaders. The emergence of political parties and perception of global women movements also affected the operations of feminist groups in Pakistan. Despite the challenges from different quarters, internal discrepancy of the political schemes coupled with the personal and Muslim personalities of secular feminists facilitated the penetration of the feminist agenda in Pakistan. Among the debatable feminist groups included the secular feminists and Muslim religious identities that had similar objectives with different political and religious inclinations. These vital groups shaped the reinvention of feminism in Pakistan. This is because the majority of the secular feminists and Muslim religious identities advocated for a modern, no spiritual Pakistani state. They are not anti-religious or in contrast to Islam, but rather diverge from Islamic radicals on the manner through which to discuss women's privileges with the government and on matters, which unite Pakistani women. However, caste is the biggest challenge to women's shaping in a country where wealth openings are varied and often challenging (Zia 30).
Secular feminists claim that Islam cannot bond women through class, cultural, and language positions. The battle on terror expanded the movements of feminists' cleavage and promoted political sincerity and validity to faith-based women's rights as the alternate to a larger imperialist, US-funded, westernised feminism discourse. A current example of this westernised feminism is the Femen protests that have been taking place.
This is a feminist Ukrainian protest group based in Kiev, founded in 2008 and the organisation became internationally known for organising controversial topless protests against sex tourists, religious institutions, international marriage agencies, perceived sexism and other social, national and international topics. Recently on April 4th 2013, the Femen group celebrated "International Topless Jihad Day" which just intensifies a culturally tone-deaf narrative that says Islam is oppressive, Muslim men are violent and Muslim women are voiceless.
Furthermore one of the Femen activists said, "So, sisters (I prefer to talk to women anyway, even knowing that behind them are bearded men with knives). You say to us that you are against Femen, but we are here for you and for all of us, as women are the modern slaves and it's never a question of colour of skin . . .You say you live the way you want. Being fifth wife in harem the maximum you can be is the favourite wife . . . Right? You say we talk about you because we are irritated only by bearded men who pray five times per day." This is seen by the Muslim world as complete Islamophobia rather than liberating women from the shackles of Islam.
At the same time it gives religious extremists a good reason to denounce feminism as an importation of the West that insults cultures and religions. Which further makes one question if feminism is a western concept and can there ever be a universal concept of feminism throughout the world? Just within Pakistan one can see different kind of feminists, ranging from the modern NGOs to the extremist religious kind. Therefore will it ever be possible that feminism is a universal notion rather than layers of different identities?
In Pakistan, the women's movement, including Women's Action Forum (WAF), employed the approach of using liberal explanations of Islam to counter male state beliefs. They thrived in this approach by receiving improbable support from reasonable and right-wing Islamic feminists (Zia 32). For instance, on the issue of rape, women from conservative political parties contributed in demonstrations against the government, but would not contribute to WAF's mottos against the Hudood Ordinances or Islamisation. In the review of WAF's secular stand, it is apparent that they remain among the few acknowledged no spiritual groups in the public domain.
This implies that, in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, this irregularity is a political observation that many people are not ready to embrace. Which also leads to the point that maybe feminism in Pakistan can only really gain traction when it's framed within Islamic tradition and pro-female Qur'anic interpretation? The no spiritual stand of the group allows members to belong personally to other similar civil service, activities and even political parties. They continue to express their political opinions within WAF making WAF a suitable forum to air radical and feminist location (Zia 34).
Conclusion: Feminism movements in Pakistan faced many challenges of opposition in fighting for autonomy and empowerment of women. Rights to socio-political access were not possible as all avenues were restricted through Islamic rules. However, feminism offered channels where women would address their grievances and fight for gender equality in the modern setting. Therefore, in their struggles at domestic, society and state ranks, feminist and civil rights groups in Pakistan have resorted to substantial concepts of nationality, gender-neutral notions about privileges, and diversity of the public domain. Pakistani feminist discourses in the modern world order have been vital in the Western democracy and ethnic notions of collective human rights and freedom.
These have become the main discursive medium in a struggle of Western advancement versus Islamic traditionalism. The rise of new feminism was entrenched in Islamic ideas, non-combative and personalised manner aimed at empowering all women within Islam, which further widened the gap between western feminism and the one present in Islamic countries like Pakistan. Also indicating that feminism is not a universal notion rather just layers of different identities.