By Nuray Mert
I happened to be in Islamabad on Women’s Day in Pakistan last week. The occasion was the sixth Think Thanks Forum of Islamic Countries; I used the opportunity to visit this beloved country for the third time and Pakistan’s Women’s Day was a good surprise.
My interest in the country has almost nothing to do with the special political-historical ties between Turkey and Pakistan. On the contrary, these ties have always been against my politics, since it was mostly about Cold War politics before becoming about the friendship between two military dictators, Kenan Evren and Zia ul-Haq, in the early 1980s. I am interested in the modernization processes in Muslim countries, the politics of nationhood, modernity, secularism and Islamism, and Pakistan is a very interesting case in this respect.
Nevertheless, for decades Pakistan has mostly been known for its ties with the Afghan jihad and the troubles of fundamentalism and corruption.
Unfortunately, although Muslim countries complain about bad representation in the Western press, they represent each other in similar fashion. Turkey is a good case of echoing Western prejudices, and it is not confined to Westernized, secular circles. That is why before and after my visits to Pakistan, each time I find myself struggling with those prejudices from my colleagues, friends and students, in an effort to explain my enthusiasm about visiting the country. So much so, that I even wrote about art and culture in Pakistan for Vogue Magazine (for its first issue in Turkey) about Pakistan years ago so as to fight against those prejudices after a Turkish journalist mocked the no-visa agreement with Pakistan as something useless (since he thought that nobody would consider visiting Pakistan anyway!).
My point is not about campaigning for Pakistan for its own sake, nor am I trying to paint a rosy picture of the country as part of an Orientalist fantasy. My point is to note the complexity of society and politics in such countries which are being represented in a one-dimensional way. The problem is not only the fact that such representations are unfair and ignore the complexities and richness of such countries, thereby further feeding prejudices, but it is also that such ignorance or negligence paves the way for a failure to understand more general issues related to the democratic deficit, social unrest, political instability and even corruption. As a result, clichés hinder genuine understanding of the problems and quest for solutions.
I can be considered as well-read on Pakistan, and therefore cannot be misled by liberal, secular and Westernized Pakistanis’ celebrations of Women’s Day, their debates on women’s rights and their image of Pakistan. Their comments may be considered to be an aspect of “alienation from the lives of the majority and of bitter truths.” However, I think that such views are indeed the expressions of patronizing Orientalism, no matter who is talking. In fact, in many cases, Western liberals who are supposedly fighting against negative Orientalist views of Western-centricism often fall into the trap of defining “Eastern, Muslim societies” as categorically different from Western societies, and totally alien to universal values. It is true that modernization theories neglected “differences” among societies, but the new dogma is to explain non-Western and/or Muslim countries away within the framework of “differences.”
For instance, “women’s problems” are both universal and cultural and need to be addressed as such, both in universal and cultural contexts. This is what women in different societies are trying to do. That is why Islamist or Muslim women have their own views and struggles. TV programs in Pakistan were full of such debates on the occasion of Women’s Day. It may be true that some voices sound rather detached from realities but after all, wrongs are to be corrected, and realities are to be challenged. It is true that some intellectual women’s lives and views are a world apart from that of the majority of Pakistani women. But after all, even in the most liberal societies, there are lots of differences among the lives and views of women. Even if there is a large consensus on sexual politics in Western societies, are not the lives of New York progressives still a world apart from the lives of those in conservative American towns?
In short, social and political problems are as complex as human societies and human life in general, and unless we acknowledge that non-Western societies are no less complex, we cannot address the problems, let alone solve them.
Pakistan is a very good example of such complexity with all its historical, intellectual and artistic richness and can be a very good starting point to enrich our understanding of so-called “troubled countries.” We should well start with challenging the term of “failed state,” which reduces “societies” to “states” and judges “states” merely in terms of strategic interests.