In review

Who's afraid of women?

Updated May 04, 2017 07:50pm

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Over 100 female motorcyclists ride through Lahore at a rally launching the Women on Wheels campaign in July 2016 | AFP
Over 100 female motorcyclists ride through Lahore at a rally launching the Women on Wheels campaign in July 2016 | AFP

Women’s active engagement in domains outside of their traditional roles is transforming Pakistan in remarkable ways. There is, however, little agreement within the country on the extent of their engagement with the world outside their homes, on how Pakistan has been changing because of it or on the value associated with women’s changing roles.

Many groups within Pakistan are differently interpreting what Islam says as they grapple with women’s rights. The long-held view that women need protection from the outside world where their respectability – and that of their family – is endangered is changing as women take on greater responsibilities and activities in the ‘outside world’.

There are many reasons that account for the emergence of women in public life and their notable leadership roles in a wide variety of activities. Whether we attribute these changes to women being more educated than before, to economic necessities that force them to work outside their homes, to personal choices, or to the ‘information revolution’ whereby Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms connecting people in unprecedented ways — the reality is that the changes exist. Social conservatives have debunked them as being western-inspired but a mere glance down any boulevard, road, street, gully or corner virtually anywhere in Pakistan can attest to their indigenous origins.

Twenty-five years ago, I related personal stories of women living within the walled city of Lahore in my book Walls within Walls: Life Histories of Working Women in the Old City of Lahore. I described the old city’s public spaces as being the domain of men; what was “conspicuously absent” there was “the presence of women”. This scenario no longer exists as women today are seen actively participating in those public arenas that were once restricted for them.

There have been important studies of women’s participation in public life in polities similar to that of Pakistan and those can offer valuable insights into the issues raised above. Turkish academic Aysegul Baykan’s 1990 essay Women between Fundamentalism and Modernity provides a gendered perspective on the clash between two of the most potent ideologies competing for supremacy in Muslim societies. Egyptian-American writer Leila Ahmed’s book Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, published in 1992, takes a historical view of gender relation in Islamic societies.

This transformation has enabled the Jamaat’s female members to claim political – if not moral – leadership of working-class rural and urban women.

American historian Margot Badran’s 1996 book Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt focuses on the status of women and women’s rights movements in contemporary Egypt. A 1998 volume edited by American anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East, analyses changes in the role of women in the Middle East. Saba Mahmood, a Pakistan-born anthropologist teaching in the United States, offers an ethnographic account of a women’s movement in mosques in Cairo, Egypt, in her 2005 book Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject.

None of these studies, as is obvious, is specific to Pakistan. In the past few years, however, a number of books have interrogated the extent of women’s political activism, the effects of this activism on the women participating in it and its impacts, over time, on Pakistan’s political and social transformation.

These books situate their research within specific historical and cultural conditions of the country. This frame of reference is important because it enables a study of contemporary expressions of political Islam and secularism that not simply collide but, as Amina Jamal argues in her book Jamaat-e-Islami Women in Pakistan: Vanguard of a New Modernity? (published by Oxford University Press, Pakistan, in 2017), also have the possibility of colluding in promoting an understanding of piety, freedom and modernity coexisting among Muslim women.

This understanding, Jamal argues, enables South Asian feminists to reconsider “the secular” — not simply as a guarantor of democratic participation, representative government and human rights that progressive Muslims associate with it. It also becomes, as Talal Asad has argued (in his 2003 book Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity), a globalised (hence western/Christian) standard for evaluating civilisation, modernity and citizenship.

This review essay, in the same vein, discusses how women’s lives, their sense of active agency and their roles as actors in public spaces are changing even when they work as members of ‘non-secular’ groups.

In her 2011 book Secularizing Islamists? Jama’at-e-Islami and Jama’at-ud-Da’wa in Urban Pakistan, Britain-based political scientist Humeira Iqtidar first raised the possibility of the Jamaat becoming a party of “secularized Islamists” in Pakistan. Jamal, who teaches sociology at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, takes the subject further. She questions the “guiding principles” that once saw “Muslim women’s emancipation” in their ability to enjoy “unveiled mobility”. These principles, she argues, are now being tested as larger numbers of university-educated women from lower classes are moving into “the social-political space of Pakistan’s crowded urban centres and even its portals of political representation”.

This transformation has enabled the Jamaat’s female members to claim political – if not moral – leadership of working-class rural and urban women. Their presence in the legislature, in effect, has turned “from purdah to parliament”, a well-known coinage by the independence movement activist Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah, on its head, changing it to “purdah in parliament”.

At the outset of her book, Jamal addresses questions arising out of the interaction between local and transnational identities on the one hand and the emergence of modern institutions such as political parties and legislative houses in religious-political realms on the other.

She offers a historical overview on how changes in identity and issues of modernity are being negotiated by many “religiously based women’s groups with widely differing constituencies” in contemporary urban Pakistan. She also argues how the postcolonial and transnational feminist reworking along the lines of western modernity in the late 20th century has amplified the cultural and political significance of women for Islamist movements such as the Jamaat.

Jamal has chosen to focus on the political and cultural activism of women in the Jamaat not just because it is one of the most significant politico-religious groups in Pakistan but also because, as she claims, it is the only political party in which members of a women’s wing are elected rather than nominated.

The Jamaat is also unique in the sense that its women members seem to have achieved some of the objectives sought by the secular women’s movement but with limited success — such as participation in political protests, electoral contests and legislative proceedings.

Jamaat-e-Islami members protest at a rally in October 2013 | M Arif, White Star
Jamaat-e-Islami members protest at a rally in October 2013 | M Arif, White Star

Yet, women in the Jamaat do not view their activities through a purely modernist lens. They rather see it from an opposite vantage point — how they are “harnessing the forces of modernisation and bringing them into conformity with Islam” as a “necessary part of the project of decolonisation and recovery from processes of degeneration of Muslim subjectivity”. A “discursive reconstruction of the relationship of Islam and modernity” is how Jamal interprets their activities.

She also highlights the dichotomy between the globalised promise of feminism and its inability to become a part of traditional orientations towards Islam in Pakistan. “ … it is not too far-fetched to propose that the Jamaat women’s successful mobilisation of a modern Muslim women’s identity marks the limitations of the secular modern as a cultural political project in Pakistan.”

She, therefore, advocates that “constructing a feminist argument by undermining local cultural practices as necessarily oppressive” must be avoided and, instead, the best traditions of Islam and of local cultures must be brought together to develop an emancipatory political discourse. She, however, provides no road map for such a discourse to emerge.

Jamal does show women in the Jamaat as building bridges and making productive compromises within this dichotomy. “ … there is no doubt [that their] activism has contributed to the successful linking of Islamic modesty and freedom of mobility by the scarf-wearing women who are appearing in larger numbers in public places.”

She argues that women in the Jamaat are reinterpreting modernity and Islam in ways that do not rule out global feminism entirely. Instead, they are seeking to reconceptualise their understanding of feminism – in their activism and discussions – to fit it into their interpretations of Islam.

While it is common to stereotype Islamist groups as being unconcerned or even regressive regarding women’s rights (as opposed to a secular women’s movement), the reality is far more complicated. As a group, the Jamaat seeks to connect Islamic theology directly to women’s actions in the world, believing it fully understands what the scripture says.

Its founder Syed Abul A’la Maududi championed complete segregation of men and women, subordination of women to men (that is, men are to have control over women) and recognition of shariah as the only source of law. He opposed any political role for women and declared that women should not step outside of the home and must veil themselves from head to toe. He went to the extent of propounding that a woman’s entry into the public domain causes immorality. But now we see women in the Jamaat doing all that.

But the Jamaat does not have an exclusive claim on orthodox Islamist visions of women’s rights. An offshoot of it, or rather a related organisation, al-Huda, clearly sticks more closely to the original vision of women in public life held by Maududi.

Originally named as Al-Huda International Welfare Foundation and founded in 1994 by Farhat Hashmi, a former faculty member of the International Islamic University, Islamabad, it styles itself as an “institute of Islamic education for women” and focuses on educating women about Islam especially through tafsir (exegesis or interpretation).

It has emerged as a potent force in Pakistan over the past quarter century or so, as it has become hugely popular throughout the country and is fostering a new generation of educated, middle-class women who have become veiled, orthodox practitioners of Islam.

The Islamic identity that al-Huda espouses is not rooted in indigenous traditions in Pakistan but instead borrows its features from Salafi visions of Islamist thought. Signs of al-Huda’s impact can be seen in every major city in Pakistan: more women – especially from educated classes – are veiling today than a decade ago and are wearing a distinct kind of hijab (a headscarf more common in the Middle East and Southeast Asia than in Pakistan).

Al-Huda’s emphasis on observing purdah reinforces the notion that women’s uncontrolled sexuality will lead men astray and disrupt the social order.

As women’s rights activist Simi Kamal observes in a 2001 article, women who have completed al-Huda training “are under the impression that their hijab is somehow different from the purdah of the middle classes”.

Sadaf Ahmad’s book, Transforming Faith: The Story of Al-Huda and Islamic Revivalism Among Urban Pakistani Women, thus addresses a scenario very different from the one being negotiated by women in the Jamaat.

Her study sheds light on how an orthodox Islamist women’s organisation is provoking a certain type of social change without overtly indulging in politics.

“Al-Huda has appropriated the meaning of Islam and presented it as not something that illiterate and ignorant people engage with, but as something very modern,” she offers. “The use of PowerPoint presentations and other audio visual aids contributes to the modern atmosphere of the school, and plays a role in increasing its validity, as does the fact that Hashmi has a doctorate from abroad.”

Al-Huda’s uniqueness, according to Sadaf Ahmed, lies in the fact that it has been able to make inroads into the middle and upper classes of the urban areas of Pakistan, a feat other religious groups have been unsuccessful at accomplishing.

“This quality is particularly relevant in a social context where Islam has always been closely associated with the maulvis ... [who are] generally perceived by the masses in general, and women in particular, as uneducated, unkempt, misogynist, and extremist.”

Women gather at a rally after a State of Emergency was declared in November 2007 | White Star
Women gather at a rally after a State of Emergency was declared in November 2007 | White Star

The author provides an alluring, comprehensive account of al-Huda’s various activities — its promotion of Islamic education, ‘character building’ and practical application of Islamic tenets. She also chronicles al-Huda’s considerable expansion in the past decade and its subsequent social impact.

Women taking classes at al-Huda become the basic building blocks of its work, resulting in many urban Pakistani women becoming avid yet unquestioning consumers of the kind of teaching that the organisation propagates.

While al-Huda states that it is not affiliated with any Muslim sect or group, that it instead teaches the one “true” Islam, Sadaf Ahmad observes that the Quranic exegesis developed by Hashmi is heavily influenced by the writings of the late Maududi and that the kind of Islam the organisation propagates has remarkable similarities with those promoted by other purist Islamist groups in the country. “[Hashmi] draws on a literal interpretation of the Qur’an, relies on the Sunnah, and has an idealised image of the first Muslim community.

She too desires to remove cultural accretion and tradition from society, places a great deal of emphasis on ritual, critiques the practices that people subscribing to [heterodox sects] engage in, deems Islam to be a solution to all human problems, and so forth,” writes Sadaf Ahmed.

It appears that an important result of participating in al-Huda’s educational activities is not simply that women get wholly focused on religion and become socially and politically complacent, even fatalistic, but that they also lose the desire to have agency in essentially anything else. Their focus turns to making religion “the primary framework informing their lives”.

A new chasm seems to be emerging among Pakistani women, notably between those who engage with al-Huda’s teachings and those who do not.

This indeed affects their vision of women’s place in the larger social order — the complacency and fatalism they harbour allow injustices to go unquestioned. Sadaf Ahmad purports that the vision of an ideal woman propagated by al-Huda is one who “takes on the responsibility of keeping her family intact, and by extension the larger social order as well”.

Al-Huda’s emphasis on observing purdah reinforces the notion that women’s uncontrolled sexuality will lead men astray and disrupt the social order. These teachings, therefore, not only put the responsibility of any sexual crime against women on men – as we see in the rest of the world – but they also become an excuse for the control of women’s mobility and sexuality.

An important social result of these practices is what Sadaf Ahmad refers to as “the systematized valorization of gender roles”. She writes how women “are considered naturally nurturing, emotional and empathetic, whose primary duty is raising a family”. Such “reinforcement of an essentialist notion of womanhood, which creates a positive value for their roles of wives and mothers, leaves very little space for those women who want a different life for themselves”.

Al-Huda’s vision of proper roles places women more squarely in the domestic domain and leaves little room for the acceptance of any forms of deviance. “ … the characteristics that make up a ‘good Muslim woman’ put down those who are different, both directly and by default,” Sadaf Ahmed writes.

While al-Huda’s leaders claim the organisation is explicitly non-political, it indeed encourages roles for women that are in marked contrast to those being supported today by the government of Pakistan, women’s advocacy groups and the majority of women’s movements worldwide. Sadaf Ahmad argues that “being a Pakistani” for the women at al-Huda “means being Muslim” and their strengthened Muslim identity now also makes them feel more connected to Muslims across the world.

A new chasm seems to be emerging among Pakistani women, notably between those who engage with al-Huda’s teachings and those who do not. There are many who feel alienated by al-Huda’s teachings. Some women become outraged when they consider how al-Huda’s vision affects their social agency.

“Al-Huda’s success [is] being tempered by people who are religious yet possess competing cultural codes that prevent them from associating with the school,” Sadaf Ahmed notes. “Al-Huda faces even greater criticism from persons completely outside the movement, whether they are in the secular women’s movement, leading human rights groups and non-government organisations (NGOs), or religiously inclined people in general. The latter include individuals who believe students at al-Huda are extremists or see the school as propagating an Islam that does not match their own.”

The salient issue here is that al-Huda is no small organisation whose impact does not go beyond its own doors. Instead, it is slowly but substantively changing the social landscape in Pakistan and is affecting gender roles, values and interpretations of women’s rights in unprecedented ways. These appear to be in direct contrast with Jamal’s understanding of how being a member of the Jamaat affects women. Although members of both groups couch their activities within the context of orthodox interpretations of Islam, they appear to advocate different levels of agency.

In sum, we can see from these two works on orthodox Islamist associations in Pakistan that women’s mobility, political participation and self-sufficiency remain highly contested social terrains. The pervasive impact of the global economy on Pakistan is forcing more and more women into the workforce and the rise in female education levels is prompting more and more of them to enter the public arena because they have the know-how and wherewithal to do so.

But there are limited opportunities in the country’s formal sector to incorporate them. While women in the Jamaat have found a domain in which to operate actively, opportunities for countless other women in Pakistan remain constrained by how their families perceive the appropriateness of their active presence in public spaces. The teachings propagated by al-Huda often reinforce these constraints.

What results from the competing ideas over women’s place in Pakistani society – from secular feminism to the Jamaat-sanctioned purdah in parliament to al-Huda’s highly restrictive vision – is a confounding situation. Consequently, such ideals as the freedom to make political and economic choices, the exercise of free agency in individual and collective endeavours and the wielding of power over their own lives remain far from realised for most Pakistani women.


This was originally published in the Herald's April 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is a professor of International Studies at the University of Oregon and author of 'Interpreting Islam, Modernity and Women’s Rights in Pakistan'.