Feminism and a people’s perspective

How religion-secularism debate is affecting women’s political participation

An interesting question some people ask is how feminism and a gender perspective – which they see as a Western agenda - can work in Pakistan. Some students are clearly interested in knowing about political and religious parties that have women’s wings and claim to be fighting for women’s rights.

It is encouraging that our young people take interest in these subjects and want to know more about them. It is better perhaps to discuss a couple of examples without going into technicalities. Afiya Zia is a feminist academic and activist who has written extensively on these issues. She has spent over 25 years discussing and participating in women’s rights movements in Pakistan and is an accomplished author on gender and politics in Pakistan. Currently, she teaches at a university in Canada. Starting with her Sex crime in Islamic context: Rape, class and gender in Pakistan (1994), she has come a long way.

Her 2009 paper, Faith-based Politics, Enlightened Moderation and the Pakistani Women’s Movement - published in the Journal of International Women’s Studies— debunked many of the myths prevalent about faith-based politics. In that paper, she presented an insightful critique of political and religious dynamics of Pakistani society in which women members of faith-based parties and outfits were being eulogized. She did not accept such women as agents of change; rather she repudiated such claims. In the same paper, she discussed how women’s movements in Pakistan had drifted ideologically and that their changing positions showed a different strategic focus.

She also wrote on the religion-secularism debate that had affected women’s political participation. Her discussion of Islamic and secular identities removes much confusion on this topic. But here I would like to refer my readers to her recent book, Faith and Feminism in Pakistan: Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy? The book is an example of how a feminist and a people’s perspective come together. A people’s perspective on history and society is more interested in the battle of ideas than the battles involving great personalities.

Though both kinds of battles go on simultaneously and inform each other, a people’s perspective disentangles the two and focuses more on ideas and interests behind confrontations in a society. Zia’s primary focus is the battle between Islamic and secular feminists in Pakistan. As secular spaces in Pakistan are much narrower, now secular activists find themselves in a dangerous situation. This is borne out by the murders of Rashid Rehman, Sabeen Mahmud and Salmaan Taseer. The attack on Malala and her treatment in Pakistan is another case in point.

In the 21st century, a point of departure being the post-9/11 scene in Pakistan, intellectuals found themselves in a climate dominated by the cacophony of the so-called war on terror. Suddenly, many academics and activists started looking for a new narrative and ended up demonizing secular feminists and calling them allies of the Western imperialism. The new thinking accused secular feminists of isolating themselves from Muslim women. We need to remember that in the last two decades of the previous century, the secular feminist trends were predominant in women’s activism.

Such activism was reflected in the Women’s Action Forum (WAF). But that view was eclipsed by a new narrative that equated secularism with the West and called it a corrupting influence. The allegation is baseless as American interests had coincided with Gen Zia’s military dictatorship in the 1980s and with the so-called Mujahideen in the 1990s. For the uninitiated, post-secularism is a term believed to have been coined by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas who advocates a reconciliation between faith and secularism.

Many post-secularists now think and propagate the idea that Islamisation in the 1980s was a natural evolution of Pakistani society and that it has become a social force now that leads an anti-imperialist onslaught. Such thinking implies that all talk of women’s freedom is essentially an attack on religion by the West. We need to counter this argument as this approach is inherently anti-women. There is a whole body of dubious scholarship that has emerged during the past 20 years that tries to attack secular feminists as imperialist agents.

Let it be clear that women’s movement must be democratic, liberal, and progressive. The traditional approach tends to stereotype women as submissive and tries to accommodate conservative and patriarchal mores by circumscribing women’s freedoms. In this kind of advocacy, the room for women’s emancipation is rather limited.

Zia also questions the frequent use of terms like Islamophobia whenever conservative and rightest tendencies are challenged. Muslim women are subjected to honour crimes and torture and some religio-political parties become complicit by either keeping silent or by justifying such crimes as cultural issues.

It is like whenever you criticise Zionist ideology, you are accused of anti-Semitism. The behaviour is not limited to the far-right in Pakistan. The pseudo-intellectuals who rationalise and repackage essentially misogynist creeds and denominations are all part of it. Any intellectual work in this matter must be based on solid research.

Using three important case studies of lady health workers (LHWs), women’s participation in the Okara peasant movement, and the role of women local councillors, Afiya shows that a non-denominational approach to women’s rights produces more desirable results than faith-based ones.

The LHWs were first recruited in 1994 and have played a significant role in promoting family planning and maternal health. The agency was entirely secular in the sense that they did not use any caste or creed instruments for women’s decision-making about their bodies. Later on, their success was hijacked by male managers who decided to use religious leaders and celebrities to promote family planning. That’s how some of women’s initiatives are usurped not only by the patriarchal forces in society but also by a consumer society which relies more on celebrity charm for behaviour change than through women to women communication.

A conservative and creed-based approach to women’s rights, as propagated by some political and religious parties - and supported by some self-proclaimed scholars — is not going to change much for women. It will merely allow the mice to take a circular ride on a wheel that may give an impression of movement, but actually confines them to the same circles.


The writer can be reached at [email protected]

Feminism and a people’s perspective: How religion-secularism debate is affecting women’s political participation