A conversation with scholar Fawzia Afzal-Khan on politics and feminism in South Asia; and on the ongoing continuities between the pre- and the post-colonial
I have known Fawzia Afzal-Khan since 2011 when she came to the South Asia Peace Conference that I organised at a university in Texas and presented a paper on female Pakistani singers.
She is a professor of English and director of Women and Gender Studies at Montclair State University in the US. with a PhD in English literature from Tufts University. Her research interests include Third World postcolonial literature and theory, feminist theory, transnational feminisms, and cultural and performance studies. She teaches courses on world literature, feminist theory, and transnational feminisms. However, contrary to the stereotype of a lonesome professor lost in research, she is also a vocalist, actor, poet, in addition to being a world-class scholar.
As she records in her book, Lahore With Love; Growing Up with Girlfriends Pakistani-Style (2010), Fawzia grew up in a fast-changing society that experienced a civil war, disintegration, military coups, and the surge of religious orthodoxy. It was her upbringing in Lahore that shaped her future course as she elaborates here:
“My father had roots in southern Punjab — we trace our lineage back to Baba Ghulam Farid — so I definitely inherited a Sufi-inspired approach to Islam, an approach that is heterodox and pluralist in its capaciousness. This progressive outlook on religion and life is what was communicated to me by my parents and grandparents. I was also always taught that economic inequality is the root cause of our social and political troubles, that every human is worthy of respect and dignity, and should have the ability to lead a decent life.”
In a conversation with The News on Sunday, she shares candid views on issues ranging from politics to literature: feminism in developing countries, postcolonial literature, South Asian English literature, and religious orthodoxy in India and Pakistan.
The News on Sunday: The emergence of conservative feminist movements in several Muslim societies including Pakistan is a recent phenomenon. How would you differentiate these from progressive feminism in developing countries? Also, how different are the western feminist movements from those in developing countries?
Fawzia Afzal-Khan: This is a complicated question as it is transnational in character and the conservative turn in feminist theory — to me it doesn’t qualify as feminist but rather, we could describe such conservative moves as defined by the term “women’s empowerment”— has also had its proponents in western academia, most notably the work of the late Saba Mahmood on conservative Muslim women’s “agency.” She sees this pietist “agency” as a counter or challenge to a liberal, secular, humanist rights-based feminism which is the most popularly understood version of western feminist movement and thought. But liberal secularist feminist theory has had its critics within other western feminist models, especially the critiques coming from Marxist and socialist feminism and minority/women-of-color feminists as well.
The aftermath/hangover from colonial days is apparent here in both cases: the British recourse to religion as a tool to divide and rule set in motion the Partition during Independence, and the re-invigoration of religious divisions as a stick to beat over the heads of religious minorities in both countries, to prove each country more authentically Muslim or Hindu, respectively.
These latter feminist formations have impacted progressive feminist theory and praxis in developing global south nations, yet as Amrita Basu has also pointed out, not all women’s movements are feminist movements. The conservative religious movements such as those spearheaded by women of the religious right, as, for example, in the context of Pakistan, the women of the Jamaat-i-Islami — I do not consider as feminist. There is also an effort by some secular feminists such as Afiya Shehrbano Zia who is affiliated with Karachi WAF chapter and a longtime Pakistani feminist activist as well as scholar — to counter this conservative religious trend which is allied with regressive political projects seeking to disenfranchise minority and women’s rights in the name of Islamic law or Shariah — by recourse to a modernist universal human rights paradigm. Certain voices on the left have critiqued her latest book for its validation of a liberal humanist project which they see as insufficiently Marxist, but the real paradox here is the bizarre coming together of a certain strain of Marxism and Islamism in the service of a certain instrumentalist critique of a secular and politically progressive feminist project.
TNS: Do you think English writers in the subcontinent have reached a point where they can claim their own identity as South Asian English writers? In what ways is South Asian English literature similar or different from literary traditions in other regions?
FAK: Interesting question. Given the explosion of South Asian literature written in English on the global scene, with writers living and writing in, or part of the diaspora of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, being long- and shortlisted for prestigious literary awards such as the Booker in the UK (Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie from Pakistan among others)and also winning it (Arundhati Roy of India), and winning the Pulitzer in the USA (Daniyal Mueenuddin for short fiction, Ayad Akhtar for drama, both Pakistani American) — I think it is safe to say that indeed, there is now enough of a large (and growing) body of literary work written in English from the subcontinent to count as South Asian English lit.
It is similar to African lit in English in terms of its engagement with themes of colonialism, neocolonialism and postcolonialism and how these have affected the present state of affairs in South Asia, including the rise of dictatorships, corrupt bureaucracies, truncated histories and religious conflicts thanks to Partition. Salman Rushdie’s novelistic techniques owe a great deal to the form of magical realism that arose first in countries of Latin America which have experienced similar political upheavals as our part of the world. But of course, our kind of English language has its roots in a South Asian idiomatic usage — something that helped promote in Pakistan, what the earliest and foremost poet of the English language from Pakistani Punjab called, the Pakistani idiom in English.
TNS: Don’t you think the term ‘postcolonial’ looks weird in the South Asian context where most nations still have colonial structures intact in their legal, bureaucratic, economic, educational, and other institutions?
FAK: As the brilliant postcolonial scholar Ella Shohat pointed out in her groundbreaking essay Notes on the Post Colonial — and as my collaborator Kaplana Seshadri and I also note in the introduction to our volume The Preoccupation of Postcolonial Studies — there are ongoing continuities between the pre-colonial and the post; the post is therefore never really ‘post’...there are continuities that should not be occluded but rather acknowledge and analysed, as such historicities also illuminate the neocolonial and imperialist present we inhabit not just in South Asia but elsewhere in the formerly colonised world and within the imperial centres of the West.
TNS: India, the largest democracy in the world, has successfully established democratic norms and supremacy of civil government over the defence establishment. On the other hand, the establishment has become the most powerful institution in Pakistan. Despite these differences, both nations appear to be on the same boat in terms of growing religious orthodoxy, curbing freedom of expression, and suppressing minorities. How would you explain it?
FAK: I think the aftermath/hangover from colonial days is apparent here in both cases: the British recourse to religion as a tool to divide and rule set in motion the Partition during Independence, and the re-invigoration of those religious divisions as a stick to beat over the heads of religious minorities in both countries, to prove each country more authentically Muslim or Hindu, respectively, so as to justify that initial wound of 1947, has now raised its ugly head with redoubtable force. What is happening in Kashmir is yet another example of colonial hangover; the institutions of secular democracy in India have turned out to be a sham in this regard, exposing the fault lines of yesteryear. Only a postcolonial analytic approach can make sense of what appears to be so bizarre – it’s not!