By Samreen Shahbaz
March 06, 2017
Benedict Anderson, in his book Imagined Communities, described “nations” as “political community”, imagined by individuals who perceive themselves as a part of that group, a “deep, horizontal comradeship”. Each nation is bound together as single political unit by shared/common ideologies. Nations hold identities based on which they define the “insiders” (people who belong to that particular nation) and the “outsiders”. Often these identities/national borders are constructed on the basis of race, ethnicity, language, religion, and sexualities.
Pakistan came into being as the homeland for Muslim Indian and was very much a nation in-building at the time of its independence. The political elites of the newborn country relied on religious sentiment as the common “ideological underpinning to bound together” a population of wide ethnic and linguistic diversities, and the idea of a “Muslim nationhood”, counter-posing the hostile “Hindu India”, took birth. This ideology was frequently used--mostly for secular reasons--to deny autonomy and share in the central power to the country’s ethnic minorities. Islam was also used to threaten and attack the socialist-leaning groups by labelling their acts “un-Islamic”, “against the national interests”, and “foreign inspired”.
This consistent use of Islam by the political elites in their pursuit of maintaining hegemonic power in the centre, paved way for politico-religious groups to conveniently push their conservative and regressive agendas in the country’s constitutional, legal and policy framework and ultimately in the defining parameters of social values and what constitutes a “true Pakistani”. An “Advisory Council of Islamic Ideology” (ACII) and “Central Islamic Research Institute” were founded in 1962 to provide religious expertise to the government on economic and social matters.
Ironically, the opposing national identities “Muslim Pakistan” and “Hindu India” share quite a few characteristics i.e. the binaries of insider/”true Pakistani”/”true Hindu” vs. the outsider/”foreign inspired”/”foreign agent”. Partha Chatterjee argues that the discourses around Indian nationalism are framed around the dichotomy of “the outer and the inner”: the “inner” being the spiritual India while the “outer” being the materialistic West. A similar dichotomy can be identified in the nationalist discourses promoted by the political elites and politico-religious organisations in Pakistan, wherein the “outer” being the immoral West and the hostile and conspiring India, and the “inner” being the puritanical, spiritual “Pakistan” where Muslims live their lives in accordance to the teachings and requirements of Quran and Sunnah. And given the fact that these discourses were mostly politically motivated, diverse interpretations of Islam were used to frame the yardstick of “puritanical and spiritual Pakistan” under different political regimes.
The contours and parameters of women’s rights and their roles in the public and private spheres were inevitably framed within the inner vs. outer dichotomies of the nationalist discourses in the country. Women were inscribed with the role of keepers of the social traditions and upholders of the moral values as outlined by Quran and Sunnah, and reproducer of the next generation of the nation. While the women stepped out in the public sphere during the freedom movement, they were expected to follow “Islamic” values and return to their homes to assume their roles as mothers, sisters and wives after independence. It was in this background that the state heralded in a series of onslaughts on women’s participation in public spheres, including a ban on Women’s National Guard and Women’s Naval Reserve, in 1954, after protests from religious and conservative elements in the political fabric of the country. Under Zia’s era, the establishment took it upon itself to “Islamise” state institutions and introduced a series of “regulative” and “puritanical” legal measures including restricting women to the “Char-Diwari” (four walls) of their homes and controlling women’s sexuality through introduction of Zina and Hudood Laws.
The family planning programme of Pakistan was launched by the government of Pakistan in the 1960s by the then President of Pakistan, General Ayub Khan. Like many of General Ayub’s social policies, the Family Planning (FP) programme of Pakistan was also vehemently protested by the politico-religious actors in the country who termed “birth control” as anti-Islamic and a threat to “Muslim nation” building process. In 1962, soon after the launch of the state-run Family Planning (FP) programme, Mufti Mehmud, leader of Jamat-i-Islami (JI), carried out countrywide protests against the programme. In the same year, Moulana Abul A’la Maududi, founder and leader of JI, authored a book titled, Birth Control: Its Social, Political, Economic, Moral and Religious Aspects, opposing the FP programme on multiple grounds. Labelling “birth control” a modern phenomenon with its historical roots in West’s “materialistic and sensate view of life”, he claimed that FP does not have a place as a social policy in Islamic culture and society. A chapter of the book was distributed in the form of pamphlets in the 1966 during protests against the FP programme by religio-political parties. In 1984, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) issues a report which declared FP programme against the spirit of Islam and called the government for the cancellation of the programme.
Birth control and family planning has been equated with infanticide which is forbidden by Islam and Quran (17:31), and this argument has been frequently promoted by clerics in the local mosques through Friday sermon. Government’s official slogan "Chota Khandaan, Zindagi Asaan” has been routinely countered in religious sermons by referring to Quranic verses that prohibit infanticide out of fear of poverty (6:151). A field study conducted by Shirkat Gah quotes a local woman in Muzaffargarh, “religious clerics exhortment in Friday sermons to prevent women from using family planning and vaccination because it is a sin and interferes with God’s will.” The assaults against the FP programme in Pakistan are also rooted in a belief that birth control is a sinister foreign controversy against the “Muslim nations” by the non-Muslim countries to keep the Muslim population in check. In the same vain, NGOs working on family planning and women’s reproductive rights are labelled as “foreign agents” “working for Western donor interests rather than Pakistani national interests.”
The FP programme did receive some support from religious leaders including the first head of Central Islamic Research Institute, Professor Fazlur Rehman, who supported the use of modern contraceptive as a birth control mechanism. Another eminent scholar, Javed Ghamidi, also supported the use of modern contraceptives. In 2005, the Ulema Conference, hosted by Population Welfare, released the Islamabad Declaration on Population Development which called for “concerted and cooperative efforts” by the Muslim Ummah and Muslims countries for “population development” and expressed concerns over rapid population growth.
In addition, women’s rights activists have been challenging the politico-religious nationalist discourses in the country for last few decades, and due to their strong advocacy and campaigning as well as awareness raising interventions at the grassroots level, women are beginning to resist these conservative elements and claiming autonomies over their bodies.
The good news is that nationalism and national identities are social construct, and like other social constructs, they can be resisted, challenged and changed. The same applies to the discourses around nationalism and national identity. This can only be achieved if state demonstrates stronger commitment to promotion of women’s reproductive rights. State should also make it more visible in its policy and programme framework to depoliticise women’s bodies and their bodily autonomy. Measures should also be taken to depoliticise Islam to prevent abuse of religion as a tool of oppression, inequality, and discrimination.