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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 28 Jan 2021, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Tradition Clashes With Modernism In The Ongoing Debate On Women’s Role In Pakistan

By Khaled Ahmed

January 25, 2021

Tradition clashes with modernism in the ongoing debate on women’s role in society

Pakistan’s women rights movement has a long and storied history, with one of the best scholarly works on it being found in Tahmina Rashid’s 2006 Contested Representation: Punjabi Women in Feminist Debate in Pakistan.


A poster from an Aurat March demanding equal rights for women in Pakistan. Twitter


Rashid studied and worked at various institutions in Pakistan before moving to Australia, where she continued her learning pursuits. Her major area of interest includes political and international issues, gender, religion and society, feminism, poverty and urban issues. She has a Ph.D. from the Department of Political Science and Gender studies at the University of Melbourne. In her book, published by the Oxford University Press, Pakistan, she points out that traditionalists in her homeland believe that Islam has given comprehensive and divine guidelines regarding the rights of women in the Quran and Sunnah and that these rulings are universal and unchallengeable.

This school of thought is generally represented in the country by scholars of Ahle Hadith, and thinkers such as Maududi, Thanvi, Afzalur Rahman, Anees Ahmad and Israr Ahmad. There is a general agreement in their writings about the role of women in society. They believe that Allah has assigned the role of reproduction and motherhood to women and that this is their prime responsibility.

Victims Of Pious Literalism

Unless there is a compelling need, according to the prevailing mindset, women should not play any public role, as it will destroy the fabric of Muslim society and its natural order. They also see women as physically and intellectually less capable than men for handling various public responsibilities and situations. They believe that God made women to serve as companions for men, and assert that Islam has already given women enough rights, and asking for more risks inviting God’s wrath.

Traditionalist scholars are committed to literal interpretations of the Quran, which they perceive as a source of unchanging guidelines for all aspects of human activity. They are critical of Muslim women who defy these views and seek rights beyond these guidelines. They selectively use the historic facts about the active public role of women by glorifying domestic roles of the past, creating a conflict between the concept of the ‘authentic’ Islamic identity and a modern cultural consciousness based on knowledge and rational intelligence. It has been widely presumed by these traditionalists that “feminism” cannot exist within “Islamism”—at least in its present form.

Culture Subsumed By Faith

Islamic modernism emerged in British-ruled India in the 19th century as a reform movement. It was rooted in a pluralistic environment, characterized by the presence of diverse ideological groups and followers of the Enlightenment, Westernizers, Evangelicals, the traditional Islamic establishment, and modernist theologians. Muslim modernists have a different vision regarding women’s rights and role in society. This pluralistic context was also characterized by the limited intervention of the State in religio-cultural production within society.

Pakistani scholars have defined “culture” in a number of ways. Nazrul Islam, a social scientist, regards it as the “manifest aggregate of people’s language, religion, customs, manners, dress, art, economy and outlook.” He suggests that Pakistan is a multicultural state in the sense that people speak different languages and each language can be identified with at least one of the geographical regions. Many scholars of this tradition thought that women could play a public role in this environment.

Class Divide Of Victims

The general assumption about upper-class women, especially married ones, is that they live a life of luxury and comfort, enjoying an equal status with the male members of the family. These perceptions are refuted, however, in surveys conducted by some non-government organizations such as Simorgh, which reveal that women in the upper class are treated as badly as those in the lower class. The only difference is that more sophisticated means are employed to keep their socio-economic role suited to the needs of the male family members.

In Pakistan, women’s issues are generally interpreted and analysed either in the context of Islam or in relation to the state; and identities like class and location, and modes of female agency, have also been understood in relation to these categories. Recently, feminists have begun to attract academic inquiry in a broader context. Such views arise from a variety of stimuli, including a visible religious factor that has aided the presence of powerful ecclesiastic groups, often enjoying official patronage and magnified in the past, especially during the regime of Gen. Ziaul Haq.

Women belonging to the religious right, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and Deobandi activists, are disdainful of the idea of feminism in all its manifestations. In their opinion Islam has already bestowed sufficient rights upon women. And it is only necessary to implement these rights in a comprehensive Islamic setting.

Risks Not Taken

Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto was unwilling to risk his political survival by supporting “peripheral issues” such as women’s emancipation. State policy under him was based on the rhetoric of class issues, wrapped in the folds of religion rather than gender; however, he failed to even address any of these concerns. It was the peculiarities of the class situation of women and the particular ideological orientation of their families that determined the extent to which they were able, if at all, to take advantage of state populism, and extricate themselves from some of the more oppressive moorings of Pakistani society. A lot of expectations were attached to Bhutto’s regime, but irrespective of an increase in the number of women’s organizations, Pakistani women did not gain half the benefits that they could have expected to achieve in a period of populism.

The Hudood Ordinances of 1979 relate to: a) the crimes of rape, abduction, adultery and fornication b) the crimes of theft and armed robbery; c) false accusations of a crime, including zina; d) prohibiting the use of alcohol and narcotics and e) describing the mode of whipping as punishment for those convicted under the Hudood Ordinances. Ostensibly, the Hudood Ordinances were promulgated to bring the criminal legal system of Pakistan into conformity with the injunctions of the criminal Laws of Islam.

Frozen In History

According to the ordinances, if rape or zina is committed by an adult married Muslim, the “hudd” punishment is stoning to death; for adult non-Muslim and single Muslims, the punishment is 100 lashes. “Hudd” for committing “Qazaf” and for consumption of alcohol (for Muslims alone) is 80 lashes. Mode of evidence was intended so that the condition of capital punishment becomes exceptionally difficult. The provision of General Zia’s law requiring four male witnesses to establish rape, and placing the onus of proving the crime on the complainant, created problems for women victims.

Moreover, the onus of proof makes the complainant vulnerable, because if she fails to prove the rape, she must be prosecuted for Zina, i.e, fornication or adultery under the Zina Ordinance or wrongful accusation under the Qazaf Ordinance, 1979. Her registered complaint becomes a confession of Zina and she can be implicated as a party, while the man involved escapes punishment despite being a party to any sexual act.

These laws ignore modern scientific techniques for establishing a crime in their exclusive reliance on four male witnesses and the disregard of other available signs, symptoms and forensic evidence. Because of numerous loopholes in General Zia’s laws, girls marrying without the consent of their family could be falsely accused of adultery. The laws become an instrument and deterrence against adult girls revolting against prevailing socio-cultural norms. There were lots of incidents reported in the press where the provisions of the Zina Ordinances were misused by police and influential people to extort money or settle old feuds. It has been frequently reported by the national press that under the Zina Ordinance, the rapists were often set free due to lack of evidence, while raped women are arrested, prosecuted and punished for committing Zina, or for giving birth to an illegitimate child.

Curse of Qisas and Diyat

The law of Qisas and Diyat was proposed in 1982 during the Zia period (but implemented during Nawaz Sharif’s first regime in 1991), when the Federal Shariat Court held some provisions of the Penal Code to be repugnant to the injunctions of the Quran and the Sunnah in relation to the offenses of murder (qatl) and injury to the human body (zurb). This law describes all offenses relating to injury to the human body and has provided for monetary compensation in lieu of Qisas.

The monetary compensation is of three kinds. Diyat (blood money) is the compensation payable to the heirs of the victim by the offender in case of murder. The value of Diyat is to be fixed by court and the minimum prescribed by the law is equal to the value of 30.630 grams of silver. The money is to be disbursed among the heirs of the victim in accordance with the rules prescribing the shares in the inheritance. It can either be paid by the offender as a lump sum or in instalments over a period of three years. If the offender fails to pay the Diyat once it is agreed upon, he can be imprisoned till it is paid. Secondly, Arsh is another form of monetary compensation, which is payable for causing harm.

Like the Hudood Ordinances, the Laws of Qisas and Diyat reduced the legal competence of women to half of that of a man. Qisas cannot be enforced on a minor, under the prevailing law of Qisas and Diyat. An adult is defined as “a person who has attained, being a male, the age of 18 years or, being a female, the age of 16 years, or has attained puberty, whichever is earlier.” This definition has caused inequality of treatment between men and women in the imposition of punishment.

Women Come Out For Women

A woman becomes liable to harsher punishment at an earlier age than a male. As puberty varies by region and ethnicity, girls can become liable to the same punishment as adults at ages as young as nine or 10. Human rights activists have advanced arguments that puberty does not determine mental maturity, and is, therefore, not acceptable as a measure for fixing criminal liability.

Author Rashid has taken note of several women’s rights organizations active in Pakistan. Simorgh, a relatively small organization, was established in 1985 and includes among its members some vocal founder-members of the Women’s Action Forum, such as Neelam Hussain and Fareeda Sher. Like the Applied Socioeconomic Research (ASR) Resource Center, they have published a lot of informative material and introduced local readers to the works of modernists and traditionalist Muslims, as well as progressives and feminists, providing a discussion forum for local progressive and liberal writers.

Joining The Global Paradigm

Since its inception in 1976, Shirkatgah has published a large number of books, training material and information brochures, as well as educational posters. It is the South Asian branch of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, an international organization working for the rights of Muslim women within the paradigm of modernist interpretations of religious texts. The organization has known modernist Islamists, Fareeda Shaheed and Khawar Mumtaz, in its ranks.

Like ASR, Shirkatgah regularly publishes the works of local writers as well as translated works from across the world, particularly those written about Muslim communities. Their range of publications is diverse, comprising training manuals, posters and information on any current situation such as instructions for voting during local government elections. Aurat Foundation, established in 1986, differs from other organizations, as its major focus is on lower/lower middle class women. Publishing mostly in Urdu, it provides legal service to destitute and victim women. Its published material primarily deals with issues faced by lower class women in their daily lives, and its outreach is wider compared to the publications of other organizations.

The book notes: “Two lawyer sisters (Asma Jahangir and Hina Jillani) come to the fore, due to the wider publicity available to them in national and local dailies. Their work generated controversies as they took up many controversial legal cases relating the Christian minorities, blasphemy, divorce and marriage without the consent of the parents. Most were aware of these two names and their heroic efforts leading to various attempts in their lives to harass and deter them from their work.

“Their office, despite all security measures, was like a public office, providing legal assistance to destitute women. One sister was frank in her criticism of the military regimes and Islamization of society through legal means, leading to undemocratic and conservative societal attitudes. The international acclaim of their work has given them wider acceptability among women to relate to them and acknowledge their work for the cause of women. Many participants were able to acknowledge their work by their names and not through their organization or links with international agencies.”

Original Headline: Shortchanging Women in Pakistan

Source: Newsweek Pakistan


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