One can be cynical of the chauvinism that comes with patriotism and nationalism and yet admit a joyous moment of pride when Pakistani women receive international acclaim for their accomplishments. It’s the reverse of that depressing expectancy that follows a terrorist attack and you hope, irrationally and selfishly, that the perpetrator is not some Pakistani man.
If these women achievers should belong to ethnic or religious minorities or be part of the working class, the sense of pride and hope multiplies. This is not because of the fake Musharraffian mantra that global acclaim improves Pakistan’s ‘image’. It is also not the case that these achievers have proven that Muslim women do not need to be saved and can progress with their religious convictions intact.
Instead, the pride emerges from the knowledge that these women have achieved international levels of excellence in their fields despite being borne of a country that stacks the odds against women and non-Muslims. This is a country that accords them unequal legal and social status compared to Muslim men.
Even after taking risks and resisting the patriarchal collusion of the state, its institutions and the majority of its male citizen, achieving women may still be accused of being traitors, opportunists and imperialist money-grabbers.
Just over the last few years, the Nobel Prize for Malala, the recognition of the scientific discovery by astrophysicist, Dr Nergis Mavalvala, the double-Oscar wins for Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, have all thrown up some interesting and paradoxical issues regarding women, international fame and domestic benefit. Their successes have also advanced the debate on religious agency and its competitive opposition to secular autonomy. This is despite the efforts of many recent careerist scholars who pretend such contradictions are fake and fabricated by liberal and secular activists in Pakistan.
Neuroscientist Dr Afia Siddiqui devoted her worldly talents to achieve jihadist ends and this made her worthy of political reification as ‘daughter of the nation’ in Pakistan by the right wing. This is in stark contrast to the openly gay Zoroastrian astrophysicist, Dr Nergis Mavalvala who has been ignored by the Islamists. Instead, the invitation to visit her birth country was extended by Pakistan’s current ambassador to the US.
The attempt by male political leaders to capture the heroism and causes of these hybrid-identity Pakistani-American women respectively is of critical importance. Such acceptance and cooptation is not out of respect for their personal worth but for the symbolic political value that can be extracted from these women.
The question is: why would either of these women want to be claimed by or belong to Pakistan? When Siddiqui came to Pakistan seeking refuge after her alleged terrorist activities, she was extradited via a stripping off of her constitutional rights. Similarly, given our historical treatment of the Nobel prize winning scientist from another minority faith, Dr Abdus Salam, would Mavalvala really want to return to where she would not enjoy equal constitutional status nor personal or professional freedoms that she does currently?
In other words, what’s in it for her who is to become a recognised or acceptable Pakistani woman?
The case of Malala has been the most politically controversial. This is apt because her politics was one of resistance to religious militancy and support for women’s autonomy. This makes her the most threatening symbol and practitioner. She’s young, a woman and defies religious politics. What can be a more lethal combination in Pakistan’s history of resistance politics?
The success of Chinoy’s documentary film puts her case somewhere in between the contrasting examples of the scientists and the political Malala. Chinoy is not demonised much as a western political pawn since her work does not challenge the Pakistani state, the military nor religious actors (and of course, because of her class).
Since Chinoy’s work is free of religio-(military) politics, she is also far less threatening or controversial. Since she works from within Pakistan, her perspective is that of a standpoint one and her medium of film allows her to portray her vulnerable and oppressed subjects with a certain gentle authenticity and authority.
Beneath the genuine worth of her work and the more affective gloss of the Oscar awards for her two films on acid throwing and honour crimes, the limitation of Chinoy’s work is that it deflects attention from the main cause and the prime beneficiaries of violence. Precisely because her focus is more on circumstantial social and cultural constraints for women, her reformative approach is acceptable – and embraceable – by the Pakistan government, the Oscar Academy and the functionalists and reform-minded, in general.
Meanwhile, activists who work on these issues have noted two important outcomes of Chinoy’s Hollywoodisation of these crimes of violence against women. The first that, certainly, international attention and chatter over acid crimes has increased since Chinoy’s first Oscar win for her film. Yet, experientially, when non-funded organisations such as the political and secular Women’s Action Forum takes up cases of acid throwing survivors, they find there is really no change in mechanisms or legal responses to these cases. For all their pride and applause, there has been zero success in mobilising support from Pakistani patriots on specific cases, too.
Secondly, the root cause of such violence – as is the case of honour crimes – is around marriage and the political economy of sexual relations. In the case of honour crimes, the impunity awarded to the murderers is afforded by the Qisas and Diyat law, which Chinoy circumvents in her film and this is becoming secondary to the issue and being euphemistically referred to as the law of forgiveness.
This attempt to depoliticise acts of violence and delink impunity afforded by religious law is what has allowed confusion. Such aversion to expose the dangers of such laws has also allowed for the completely false and absurd impression now that criticising the blasphemy law is blasphemy itself.
None of this is to suggest that films should not be made or that it is not critically important to repeatedly discuss oppressive violent practices in society via different effective media. But films and books have been produced on these issues by Pakistani women since the 1980s; these films and books have directly challenged the Islamisation of society and its benefits for male violence. A serious additional contribution today would be not about which forum to promote the issue at but to advance a more radical solution itself.
Rather than diluted proposals of either blaming culture or passing even more laws or raising even more international funding for such causes, it is important to change the culture of impunity that lies in religious and legal sources.
After the glam, glitter and symbolism of propagating issues fades out, the practical challenges of discriminatory laws, marital arrangements and deadly combinations of religion, politics and sex will still have to be candidly dealt with to ensure women’s safety. Pakistani women will have more to celebrate if we succeed in dismantling these colluding sources of oppression because that would be a collective win in real terms.
The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi.