The failure of Pakistani feminism, by Rafia Zakaria
The pictures of burqa-clad, baton-wielding women of Jamia Hafsa have made it to the newspapers and TV channels across the globe. For those Pakistanis who do not support their militant brand of vigilante justice (and there are many), these women are a bold and taunting illustration of the increasing Talibanisation of Pakistani society.
The association of women’s empowerment with wealth and moral laxity is a disease that has afflicted Pakistani feminism for decades, the founders of it being women from the elites, who needed a social cause to ease the boredom of long days spent in luxurious villas. In recent years, with the advent of the NGO boom, Pakistani feminism has to some extent redefined itself and expanded its denizens to include liberal, educated middle-class women in urban areas. Despite this, it still remains largely limited to those who can speak the language of women’s rights as a result of English-medium education and the freedom afforded by liberal middle-class families who do not frown on co-education or working outside the home.
But few within the liberal NGO cadres have attempted to challenge the virulent combination of Islamic literalism and traditional patriarchy or engage with women from religiously conservative families. Also, disturbingly absent from the NGO discourse are uneducated women; women who work as maids in urban homes, poor women, rural women and those who have to wear the burqa so they will be permitted to get an education.
When these poor, rural or religiously conservative women do appear in the discourse of Pakistani feminism they appear always as the victim, being defended or empowered by their more educated, liberal counterparts. Other categories of women are somehow never envisioned as the stalwarts of the struggle towards women’s empowerment. Indeed, many women who professionally champion feminist causes never seem to realise the relevance of issues of economic equality and human dignity when dealing with their own female domestic workers. This double standard of who defines Pakistani feminism was most evident in the wake of Mukhtar Mai’s ascendance to fame and popularity. Many “empowered” Pakistani women spoke publicly about how they were offended by the fact that Mukhtar Mai, a rural and uneducated woman, was representing
This double standard and the resulting elitist and exclusionary concept of Pakistani feminism that emerges from it, is in many ways at the heart of the Jamia Hafsa issue. In narrowing in on women excluded from the discourse of the NGO-brand of Pakistani feminism, Maulana Abdur Rashid Ghazi and his brother Abdul Aziz have accomplished a number of things.
First they have, by manipulating the religion, provided these women with a moral vehicle through which they (women) can transcend familial objections and partake of social and political activism. Second, through the use of Islamic doctrine, the Lal Masjid agenda is making a compelling critique of the economic disparities in Pakistani society and capitalising on the belief that women’s empowerment is a cause only for the wealthy and irreligious.
What is often critiqued as “immoral” is the economic exploitation of those who are neither members of the feudal elite nor the political and military classes bestowed with favours. The recent fatwa against Nilofer Bakhtiar, federal minister, is an apt illustration of the strategy. While aimed at the immorality of hugging her French coach, it also makes a compelling statement about the disconnect between a minister for women’s affairs who can go paragliding in
This analysis is not meant to illustrate the viability of radical Islam as a vehicle towards women’s empowerment. If anything, I have taken pains to show the tragedy of how the Lal Masjid clerics have manipulated the powerlessness of women to further a grotesquely extremist agenda whose ultimate goal is to subjugate these women even more. The purpose is to show how current discourses in
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the
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