"Feminism requires more responsibility from scholarship"

An interview with Afiya S. Zia

Afiya Zia is a feminist researcher and activist based in Karachi. She has contributed to peer-reviewed journals and edited several books on women’s rights, issues and perspectives. She has been an active member of Women’s Action Forum in Karachi and has written regular column for national dailies like Dawn and The News. She is the author of Sex Crime in the Islamic Context (1994) and, more recently, Faith and Feminism in Pakistan (2018) which is also the subject of this interview.

The News on Sunday (TNS): Your book is about reclaiming the contributions of secular resistance and especially feminisms in Pakistan. It focuses on the pragmatic, material contributions of working women’s movements. You are critical of scholars of social sciences who focus merely on performativity and piety, rather than politics of the subjects they study?

Afiya S. Zia (ASZ): The post 9/11 period has seen the rise of many anthro-apologetic works on Muslims and an explosion of postsecular scholarship which has achieved near orthodox status in western academia. All research is political and has consequences, and this scholarship relies on several conceptual inaccuracies and evasions.

My book attempts to clarify some of these with reference to Pakistan (misplaced terms like "liberal-secular", or how agency is a better substitute for Muslim women, or that secular feminists are imperialists, or that‘liberals’ is some class in itself). I see it as a corrective effort as much as an attempt to promote the secular feminist project. I argue that working class movements have been secular in their resistance strategies (Lady Health Workers, peasant and council women and many individual icons). Infantile lazy accusations of work on secularism as being an anti-Islam project or elitist, is like saying one can support and study socialism and argue for Marxist possibilities for Pakistan but should not critique capitalism in the process. It’s a bizarre, self-defeating proposal. I’m not convinced by the ‘hybrid model’ which is just another way of proposing a compromised or liberal middle-ground.

TNS: Writing in the post 9/11 context, some diasporic scholars have posed a challenge to the very term "secular" such as, Saba Mahmood’s unsettling of the secular-religious binary, and Humeira Iqtidar’s thesis that Islamist parties are a ‘secularising’ force. What is your response to these definitional challenges to this word?

ASZ: There is no comparison to the influential scholarship produced by Saba Mahmood with the rather anemic, limited and Punjab-centric thesis of Iqtidar. Their works are examples of the postsecular scholarship that emerged in the post 9/11 period. Mahmood’s challenge to secularist theories has offered an alternative -- that of pietist and docile agency of Muslim women as a viable way of being/living. Iqtidar simply and unsuccessfully inverts the process of what is actually re-Islamisation and redefines it as secularisation through academic word-play and argues the Jamaat-e-Islami and Dawa are ‘secularising’ Pakistan.

Both these scholars have not been involved with the women’s movement in Pakistan and/or did not study these as part of their scholarly work. They simply set up the (inaccurate) hybrid of "liberal-secular" as their control group against which they wish to make a case for Islamist/pietist women.

The concept of ‘empowerment’ is dealt with throughout the book because it’s a phrase that we use casually and as an undefined goal and magic bullet when discussing women’s rights.

TNS: Saba Mahmood’s hugely influential work Politics of Piety (2004) subverts the conventional notion of "agency", removes the burden of equality and emancipatory politics and establishes ‘self-realisation’ through pietist activity as an end in itself. What is her model of pietist women’s agency and what is your critique of it?

ASZ: Saba Mahmood’s debate with Stathis Gourgouris in Public Culture (2008) on secular critique and transcendentalism is extremely educational and their scholarship is of high quality. My argument is simply that a) Mahmood’s theory of docile or quietitude or pietist ‘agency’ empties the concept of its political potential. The theory fragments when it hits the political ground reality in (my interest) Pakistan and very probably other Muslim majority contexts; b) it discredits secular feminist resistance and also, ignores liberal feminist successes for women’s rights; c) It pretends pietist Muslim women’s agency is always neutral and simply about virtuosity and conservative non-change and; d) I question why this theory is of gendered interest when in fact, Muslim men also practice dawa, peaceful tabligh and own pietist agency.

Mahmood suggests that Muslim women "flourish" in their own world of piety without the ‘burden’ of emancipatory politics but I contest that equally. Muslim men and patriarchal politics and practices will also "flourish" because now they are unburdened of the responsibility of adhering to women’s liberal freedoms or emancipatory politics too. This pretense that we live in hiatus or suspension, or what I call Mahmood’s "political nunnery" is problematic -- not because one is seeing it through tainted, Islamophobic secular eyes but because theories have consequences and applicability too. I challenge the applicability of their theories and offer examples in Pakistan that do not adhere to such limits of agency.

Aamir Mufti goes further and argues that Mahmood’s work rehabilitates and is in active agreement with Islamism (2013). Sadia Abbas (2013) has unpacked Mahmood’s virtuosity of piety in her book more engagingly.

What is a body or conscience without agency that is poised to become political? Dead!! What is that condition when one remains un-emancipated? Or, are Muslim, Islamist, pious women post-emancipatory? Why are we so apologetic of discussing the consequences of non-emancipation and defensive in saying that, ‘well, that’s what Muslim women want so no need to rescue them’. Don’t rescue but don’t side-step or gloss over the conditions that come in the absence of temporal freedoms either. What fills the vacuum is patriarchy and conservatism. Those not affected or invested can afford to be indifferent or hide behind the shield that this is just academic thinking and philosophy. Feminism requires more responsibility from scholarship.

Even in the case of men, we can see how quickly the competitive force of religious politics (the recent Barelvi rising under Khadim Rizvi) can drag agency out of its quietude and spill into politics.

TNS: Some postsecularist scholars claim that they’re merely showcasing the "interiorised subjectivities" of Islamist women who have historically been excluded from any sympathetic secular feminist discourses. How can their agency be apprehended through a secular framework?

ASZ: Fair question. I’m not questioning the existence, growth or study of pietist women and not even making a case that they should be read or understood or analysed exclusively through secular, feminist, socialist, communist or any particular ideological lens. There is value to studying or researching any subject or topic from any perspective.

But our conclusions based on location and sites are different. For example, studies and theories by Pakistani scholars (on the Al Huda in Pakistan by Sadaf Ahmed, Faiza Mushtaq and others) located in Pakistan are very different from those of diasporic scholars like, Humeira Iqtidar and Amina Jamal. The latter do not engage with or analyse the politics of the women of the JI and JuD but say, okay, so these are conservative, non-feminist women but they are not passive, anti-modern or pawns of men. That’s not news to Pakistani feminists -- we just never wrote about the anthropological nuances of Islamist women for western readership. But we do bring attention to the use of their agency, their politics and its consequences.

Masooda Bano’s work is different -- she and to some extent, Sadaf Aziz and several male post secular scholars I discuss, look to rehabilitate Islamist possibilities (legal and in Bano’s case, political and social) in Pakistan. Their conclusions on the Lal Masjid siege are in diametric opposition to those of Pakistan-based analysts. So I’ve tried to document (critically) the various forms of scholarship as shaped by and produced in the post 9/11 era and bridge the gap by documenting feminist debates and theorising in/on Pakistan since the 1990s to contemporary times.

There’s been despair and criticism of my observations of the scholarship produced by Pakistani diaspora. However, all diasporic communities create or attempt to recreate coherent or collective memories for their fractured or displaced experiences and subjectivities which may have been denied or erased or appropriated in their foreign contexts (see the works of Stuart Hall and Sara Ahmed).

In the case of Pakistani diaspora, their production of post 9/11 scholarship, literature and art clearly stresses on the leitmotif of Islam, or nostalgia for some radical Left politics that may never have existed or indeed, some other sanitised cultural memories (see S. Akbar Zaidi in EPW, 2012). It’s so ironic that scholars and academics get defensive when their work is challenged because in fact, they claim to be heroically challenging Islamophobia in the West and uphold postcolonial critiques of western hegemonies themselves. Who decides which critique is valuable and which is not?

TNS: You maintain that the activism of Islamist women does little to challenge and counter patriarchy, and you’ve categorised the work of Lady Health Workers (LHWs) as an example of a successful "secular movement"which operates without any theological underpinning, takes no recourse to faith and "destabilise[s] the traditional gender order". How valid is this comparison?

ASZ: The comparison and discussion of competitive politics in my book is not about one set of women against another -- it is about one set of ideological politics against another set, and to discuss all the attendant methodologies, consequences and potential. I don’t apologise or make Foucauldian cases and harbour no anxiety about ‘binaries’. In Faith and Feminism, I don’t apologise for the political dualities that inform women’s rights issues in Pakistan but highlight the realistic departures between secular and Islamist women’s politics who themselves are not anxiety-ridden about these ‘binaries’. Neither does this mean that they demonise or depend on the other for shaping their own identities or politics -- disagreement does not have to translate into delegitimisation or conspiracy. Both sets of political women compete over representation of The Pakistani Woman -- legitimately so.

Secondly, I don’t categorise anything as ‘secular movements’ or even ‘working-class’ movements because these are challenging academic references and because of the lack of existing or prior work on them I use the term ‘secular resistance’ and ‘working women’s movements’.

Third, I discuss how the impasse of women’s rights in Pakistan remains suspended between the two narratives of faith-based empowerment and liberal reform. I argue that working women’s movements push both boundaries. Autonomy through work is very different from faith-based agency and service for the religious cause. Many faithful women work, of course, for a living but for them service is divine rather than about serving the state. On the other hand, many, maybe most, LHWs or women councillors or public officials would be of the faith or religious or even pious but their service is driven and motivated and sustained by secular means, methods, purposes and ends. These working women are challenged by religious politics and their survival depends on secular resistance. (There are certainly lay patriarchal practices and obstacles too but religion as a tool is much, much harder to resist. Attempts to counter religious politics do not invoke sympathy or the assistance of the state or parties who are reluctant to seem as if they are against Islamists, or wish to avoid being labelled as ‘against’ Islam).

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I discuss the dangers of instrumentalising Islam in women’s development and empowerment through faith-based programmes and charity (donor-driven Islam) against the very different purposes and methods of secular programmes. I don’t suggest ‘the secular’ is a stable category -- I’m simply asking the question, why we are wary, scared, rejectionary and limiting ourselves out of some fear of the word based on its origin (but not about Marxism or socialism). Why doubt the potential and outcome of secular politics as if it can only be westernised, anti-Islam and disconnected from the reality of Muslims when in fact, the cases I cite demonstrate the benefits of secular resistance and potential for challenging the theocratic (male) majoritarian hegemony that is the Islamic Republic today?

TNS: Much of the debate about women empowerment comes down to the very definition of "empowerment". For NGOs, empowerment means training, awareness and counsel. For Islamist women, empowerment comes from spiritually mobilising activities like darses (pietist study circles). Could you lay down some of the competing notions of empowerment in the Pakistani context, and elaborate your own definition of it?

ASZ: The concept of ‘empowerment’ is dealt with throughout the book because it’s a phrase that we use casually and as an undefined goal and magic bullet when discussing women’s rights and it’s an intrinsic part of development jargon. In Chapter 3, I open with a comparative discussion on empowerment using Naila Kabeer’s prolific work on this concept and using Batliwala’s brilliant observation over how empowerment has become redefined from a noun that used to refer to social transformation to a verb that signals individual power, achievement and status. This explains the recent expansion of development and feminist efforts to ‘girl power’ and feel-good zumba classes, speed-mentoring, social media liking activities on the one hand, and hijab empowering, madrassa and mosque leadership, and faith-based empowerment towards non-liberal aims, on the other.

Economic empowerment has become coopted by neoliberalism which focuses on including women in economic participation rather than challenging social relations. Religious empowerment also agrees to work within the patriarchal status quo and not challenge structural impediments to gender inequality. Ironic or deliberate, the more ‘empowered’ women become under these two approaches, the less structural change and transformation we can expect.

I would like to see empowerment reclaimed in a way that challenges patriarchal obstacles towards class, gender and racial equality -- no more half-way measures or defeatist arguments about how ‘at least some thing is being done’ or that ‘we feel empowered by social networking and training sessions and workshops or yoga classes’. This is near orientalist crumbs being thrown to distract feminist agendas of political challenge and radical expression.

TNS: How would you answer the contention of many modernist feminists, including the mildly secular and the postsecular ones, that feminist activism should make space for religious laws, references and idiom as they resonate more with the Pakistani woman?

ASZ: Ha! Mildly secular…it’s interesting how much we look for qualifications. Is there such a thing as mildly Marxist or moderately socialist? It sounds too much like Musharraf’s ‘Enlightened Moderation’…On a serious note, Samina Yasmeen makes a case for what she calls "passive secularism" in Pakistan in discussing the case of Javed Ghamdi. It’s fine, good. I think these are the kind of starting points and conversations we need to be having…refining definitions and debating the strains of secularism and secular practices we observe and can mark out in Pakistan.

In the book, I’ve contested this notion about religious resonance. It was the theme under Musharraf’s regime. But despite objections by postsecularists, the Zina law was reformed and since then has redefined the state’s view on sexual transgressions and broken a collusive chain of sexual regulation between the state and men. All the recent pro-women laws passed in all provinces (Domestic Violence Act; Child Marriage Restraint Amendments; Sexual Harassment at the Workplace; Amendments to the Nikah etc) have come despite resistance and opposing narratives and politics from Islamists. The point, as Mrinalini Sinha says, is not to get fixated on the efficacy argument of legislation but to understand the possibility of what she calls "agonistic liberal universalism" for women qua women. So why not make more space for women’s and minorities’ rights rather than negotiating for compromises within the patriarchal boundaries of culture and religion?

TNS: How would you answer the claim of some anthropologists that, from Zia’s Islamisation of the state and society to the emergence of piety movements like Al Huda -- which have captured the imagination of many young educated women -- the resurgence of religion is a form of anti-imperialist resistance and part of the very natural and inevitable process of decolonisation?

ASZ: Many things capture imagination…. nationalism, patriotism, religion and class privilege being the most powerful of levers or imaginaries of power in the project of decolonisation. Feminists, like Rubina Saigol and Saba G Khattak (in Pakistan, but of course a much richer body of literature in India) have noted that the casualties of such projects are women and the marginalised. Maybe that’s acceptable for men, postfeminists and postsecularists but we need to engage with specifics and the uncomfortable price paid for such ‘sovereignty’ and supposed decolonisation. Again, who gets to define this process or arrival at decolonisation and why does religion remain a privileged entry point and alternative to western imperialism? It’s mystifying because there is no evidence of this being beneficial to the working classes, women or marginalised in real terms.

Some left men have attempted to impeach secular resistance as ‘elitist’ which suggests Islamist politics is proletarian -- it’s the same myopia that has led to the marginalisation of the left in the past either on feminism or progressive thinking. They contradict themselves all the time, sadly. Pakistani scholars borrow obsequiously from subalternist scholars like Partha Chatterji without interrogating the Marxist feminist critiques of his work. I reference these in my book.

TNS: In Chapter 5, ‘The Limits of Capital’, you discuss the Islamist embrace of consumerism and touch upon the process by which faith has undergone commodification, presumably because of the need for distinctive and marketable cultural products (like Hijab) in the postcolonial narrative.Could you explain your use of the term "self-orientalisation" while discussing the marketing of such products to Western audiences?

ASZ: This was the most challenging chapter but I think it’s a key argument for further discussion. I make an appeal for getting away from the postmodernist preoccupation with wardrobe politics, performativity and agency for understanding Muslim women and engaging with material, capitalist, consumerist behaviour and market politics. I argue against the hope in Islamists’ engagement with the market and the emergence of Market Islam as evidence of their ‘secularisation’. Instead, I argue that if anything, this process simply results in creating an Islamist Bourgeoisie and Muslim Proletariat.

Simply making the market ‘Sharia compliant’ does not change the modes of production or who owns them. Similarly, the point of ‘Muslim’ consumer products fits into this market-driven economy and with regard to women, encourages the emergence of a consumer group known as "Muslim Women" whose difference or market essentialism makes them a "logic of profitability" (Gokariksel and Mclarney 2010). My underlying question throughout the book on this privileging of Muslimness for women is, ‘what’s in it for women in terms of material benefits?’ Saba Mahmood’s answer is, Islamist virtue is more important. From a socialist feminist point of view, I necessarily challenge that.

Yes, I do contest that all these post 9/11 texts, novels, comics and scholarship on Muslim/Islamist women panders to a market that depends on voyeuristic insight into the Muslim woman’s world -- reminiscent of the orientalist literature on odalisque harem women -- just replaced by the Muslim anthropologist who is conducting the inquiry and celebrating the subject and glorifying the findings.

TNS: Your book mentions that there’s no formal platform or feminist journal that documents the engagement and exchanges of various stripes of feminists. What does this disengagement say about our society?

ASZ: It’s true that the two sets of political actors in this Venn Diagram of feminism in Pakistan may not be intersecting in academic terms but politically of course, they do. Despite the wrong suggestion that feminists never engage with Islamists, the contest and engagement was most visible during the Musharraf years -- just pick up any parliamentary record over those six years (2002-2008) and you will find a thesis waiting on the engagement and exchanges between the various representatives of a whole range of women’s voices.

Also, as I keep complaining, not enough work has been done on the rule of the MMA in Khyber Paktunkhwa to see the process of "Islamist secularisation" and the value of such ‘dialogue’. The Masooda Bano thesis also makes the point about how all dialogue must be within the religious discourse for Muslim women and how feminist interpretation within Islam is a futile effort (in opposition to the earlier modernist feminist argument by Riffat Hasan, Asma Barlas, Farida Shaheed etc). Bano’s school of thought argues that women Islamic leaders can challenge Western feminism for influence and empowerment but she confuses the goals of gender empowerment (within the status quo) with feminist aims of transforming structural inequalities and challenging masculinist hierarchies and precepts with a focus on class and racial equality.

TNS: What is your advice to students who intend to take up research projects on any aspect of feminism in the Pakistani context?

ASZ: There is more to Pakistani women than their religious identities. Explore them, study them, research these and participate in the processes and movements that drive these identities. Unfortunately, so much activist energy is expended on/through social media that have become substitutes for feminist and socialist practices. The activist part of scholar-activist feminism has remained limited to chat-rooms and cultural festivals.

The children of Musharraf are very much like his short-cut Aziz (Shaukat Aziz) Prime Minister, who parachuted in and out of Pakistan’s political history. Too many of this self-acclaimed "anti-imperialist" generation have no patience for dealing with the mundane and plodding methods of founder members of women’s and human rights groups. However, in the process they have lost the benefit of historical dialectics that they theoretically uphold and their impatience has resulted in sound and fury or really lackluster, one-off, self-centred work.

There is a need to reclaim and repoliticise both activism (especially feminist activism) and scholarship. Both require critique and self-reflection. Unfortunately, the older generation feels they’ve already been through too many rounds of this and the Musharraf generation thinks they’ve studied it all in theory classes in Western universities so they just want to practice radically -- whatever that means.

My hope lies with the current generation of students like you and teachers who seem to have a better grasp of the shortcomings of the previous generational approaches. I get a thrill when I find them open to both sides of the critique without being defensive or enamoured, yet they seem to say, ‘let us decide through our own research…just give us the tools’. In my opinion the tool is secular critique because while Mahmood questions, ‘Is Critique Secular?’, I find that critique doesn’t have to be considered profane. In the context of Pakistan it’s an absurd threat to think some inaccurate hybrid called "liberal-secular" and "khooni liberalism" is anti-Islam and anti-Muslims, and that it is liberal politics that is waging the battle of hate, and usurping spaces and freedoms and ending faith and irrational sentiment and encouraging violence in the name of religion. The evidence of secular resistance is there but is constantly crushed by religious insecurities.

Who’s the winner in this unholy contest then?

"Inherent to secular criticism is a constant unsettling and an ability to scrutinise its own tainted history" (Mufti 2004). Isn’t that a more rigorous approach rather than succumbing to givens and hopes in the Hereafter and the Rumsfeldian ‘It is what it is’ anti-intellectual approach?

Saba Mahmood’s work has triggered off a philosophical debate which will leave a valuable mark on future studies. There should be nothing but appreciation for this, regardless of one’s disagreement. I wish there had been a forum for a debate on this with Pakistani secularists -- it would have enriched the discourse and broadened understanding for all interested. Unfortunately, too many Pakistani upper-middle class activists and scholars fear disagreement as a form of betrayal. We shirk from being critical because we belong to a class that values social acceptance and a misplaced loyalty to persons and think in terms of taking ‘sides’ of colleagues and friends rather than improving ideas, or reinventing political strategies and strengthening systems and democracy.

That can only happen through critique -- the very definition of the secular -- and not through sentimental blind acceptance and loyalty and brushing uncomfortable contradictions away in the hope they’ll dissipate. My book is not for those who seek sentimental or nostalgic memories of past possibilities -- it is an invitation to rethink future strategies in light of the space made by the contributions of women activists and working women today without being apologetic or succumbing to political fads and academic fantasies projected onto our political realities.