Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The failure of Pakistani feminism by Rafia Zakaria

The failure of Pakistani feminism, by Rafia Zakaria

JH represents failure of Pakistani feminism — Rafia Zakaria The Jamia Hafsa women have made a conscious choice to be part of a violent and radical campaign. But this choice represents the failure of Pakistani feminism to formulate an equally compelling, competing discourse that could truly empower them

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.

Questions abound. But the most important one has not been asked: why would these women choose a militant and radical brand of Islam, one that ultimately preaches the subservience of women, as their vehicle to political action?

Answering this question, and analysing why these women have launched a campaign that so brazenly challenges the state reveals important truths about the state of Pakistani feminism and its failure to provide a political and ideological discourse that could avert this very scenario.

It is important to pay close attention to the extremist discourse that has attracted these women. According to newspaper reports, the women of Jamia Hafsa are not just from Islamabad; most belong to religiously conservative families from all over Pakistan. The fact that they have travelled and live without their families in the madrassah represents the legitimising power that religious conservatism has provided them.

By donning the burqa and adopting the radical and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam espoused by the Lal Masjid establishment, they have rid themselves of the shackles of familial restriction in a way previously unknown to them. While it is true that the power they wield with the burqa and the stick is ultimately designed to impose an order that would all but eliminate their power in the public sphere, it is nevertheless heady and intoxicating in its ability to transform these women from being the receivers to becoming the perpetrators of violence.

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 Pakistan internationally.

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 France while millions of women in her country cannot leave their houses without a black shroud covering their faces. (Lal Masjid authorities have since denied issuing any fatwa against Ms Bakhtiar.)

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 Pakistan on women’s empowerment have to tread beyond the comfortable confines of hotel symposia and rallies; they need to develop strategies that engage the vast swathes of excluded women.

The Jamia Hafsa women have made a conscious choice to be part of a violent and radical campaign. But this choice represents the failure of Pakistani feminism to formulate an equally compelling, competing discourse that could truly empower them.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at

full text is avialble on Daily times.

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