Ms Mareeha Ahmad is a content and ghostwriting specialist, proofreader and editor, with a deep interest in research and sociopolitical issues. She is currently pursuing her bachelor’s in Psychology and Linguistics from Forman Christian College and University (FCCU).
On March 8, 2020, in the major cities of Pakistan, hundreds of women screamed for their rights in proper protest, perching up posters that stirred controversy around feminism with slogans such as “Mera Jism Meri Marzi” (my body, my choice) that became the basis of the following headlines.
The Aurat March ushers in a radical feminist movement in Pakistan – WWC, 2020
Should feminists claim Aurat March’s ‘vulgar’ posters? Yes, absolutely – Prism, 2020
A bill recently introduced (and withdrawn in the face of backlash) under the KPK government to prevent sexual harassment endorsed ‘Islamic clothing’ such as abayas and shalwar kameez and place a ban on makeup and jewellery for women in educational institutions. In Pakistan, where exists religious fundamentalism with extremist undertones, there also exists a radical secular movement based on democracy.
These two distinct spheres operate independently and clash continuously through movements and laws depicted above. A similar context is seen in post-colonial nations where first-wave and second-wave feminists have reproduced the colonialist and imperialist ideologies, with one strand of feminism, developed to fit into the context of the entire world without consideration to national, religiopolitical sub-contexts of third-world countries.
Islamic & Secular Feminism
Secular feminism is a humanitarian movement rooted in the fact that all Abrahamic religions are patriarchal in nature. The rise of Islamic feminists following Islamic modernism view that Islam, in nature, is not patriarchal, and it is the interpretations of the Quranic text that are, in resistance. In recent times, an urgency has spread in Pakistan for the reciprocity of the state on matters of social justice, especially feminism.
Amidst this misunderstanding that revolved around Aurat March and feminism in general, women played quite a huge role, if not in the advancement of the feminist cause, then in their own subjugation. Passive and anti-feminist sentiments have been a common response of women stemming from the lower, middle, and upper-middle classes towards secular feminism in Pakistan which they suspect pays heed to imperialism.
As a nation once colonised, the outright refusal and disconnect from the movement for being ‘un-Islamic’ make sense. The right-wing claims of the state’s religious modernity have been challenged by secular feminists who seek change from a framework outside one that operates in the country, and by Islamic feminists working to replace the radicalised misogynistic Islamic representation with one that is accurate through reinterpretation.
The public, constantly being thrashed with contradictory ideologies, deserves singularity in the state’s feminist goals. Hence, it is more important than ever to address these distinct schemes, both private and public, and look for reconciliation. To address this concern, feminist movements in Pakistan should incorporate an Islamic modernist framework to assist in the de-privatisation of Islamic feminism and to subdue passive and anti-feminist attitudes adopted by women as a refusal to Western hegemony.
The Interplay of Secular and Islamic Feminism in Pakistan
Feminism had manifested itself in Pakistani women back during the time of colonialism in education reforms and anti-colonial nationalist movements. Although these were not “overtly feminist”, the participation of women in policy reform during these political shifts led to the “women’s awareness of their political subjugation” (Saigol, 2016). These instances were the onset of more defined types of feminism such as secular and Islamic feminism in Pakistan.
Women’s motivation to oppose the tyrannical dictatorship under the Islamization rule and the very birth of the Women Action Forum (WAF) was instigated by the case of Allah Baksh and Femida under the enactment of the Zina Ordinance (Saigol, 2016). A stronger shift towards an interplay of secular feminism and Islamic feminism occurred during the Islamisation period of Zia’s regime.
A debate ensues in the more urban-based NGOs such as WAF on the “issue of religion”, the incorporation of an Islamic framework “both as a contention and as a strategy of empowerment” (Saigol, 2016). While WAF steered towards a liberal outlook and voiced human rights concerns under the lack of a shared religious reality, the right-wing was drenched in extremist ideologies best exemplified by the acts of Jamia Hafsa in 2007, a group of veiled women who kidnapped accused ‘prostitutes’ and forced ‘repentance’.
However, right-wing movements in search of better-defined frameworks stood with the accusations of post-colonial feminists quoted by Kaidi (2018) as calling the first-wave and second-wave feminisms “euro-centric” and “failing to address the complex issues unique to women in the developing world.”
The adoption of political strategies such as the Jamaat Islami’s world conference in 2004 and an anti-obscenity campaign’ (Zia, 2009) alongside the beginnings of a privatised modernist Islamic feminist approach to the reinterpretation of the Quran text was seen. Since then, feminist politics in Pakistan has been faced with the issue of fragmented identities in relation to religious identity.
Multiple interplays of these two feminist agendas occur in the form of protests, state intervention, and NGOs. The switch from Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif’s governments led women to see political gains during Bhutto’s tenure and engage in protests under Nawaz Sharif’s radicalised right-wing support. The gap between secular and Islamic feminists thus further widened as a result.
Today, these two frameworks appear dichotomous, where political movements like Aurat March are based on a secular agenda of the WAF and Islamic feminism retaining the modernist Islamic-feminist perspective (dealing with the reinterpretation of the Quranic text) has pertained to the private sphere in practices such as dars and literature and theory more than in practice.
The Aurat March, a socio-political demonstration occurring in the major cities of Pakistan since 2018 on International Women’s Day, focusing on the human rights debates of constitutional marriage, labour, sexual and domestic violence gets progressively worse criticism of serving a “Western agenda” and of being “un-Islamic.” (Khan, 2021).
Religious discourse marked in the lower, middle, and upper-middle classes of women predominantly by the Huda institution under Farhat Hashmi does not seek to move from privatisation.
Context and Rationale Behind the Field Study
The study conducted was qualitative in nature and the mode of data collection was a survey. The participants were women, the key players in the progression of feminist movements. The demographics of the respondents were noted as follows: 80% of the respondents were university-level women, all Muslim, where 30% belonged to the upper-middle class, 25% in the lower middle, 20% from the middle class, and 10% from both lower and upper class.
Inspired by Anjum’s (2020) qualitative field study that explored the narratives of feminism and gender roles in women belonging to liberal and Islamic organisations that are predominantly women-led through interviews, the objective of the field study was to investigate the reasons for the lack of participation and complete rejection towards the feminist agenda of Aurat March.
Another aim was to find correlations between social class, awareness, and satisfaction with the framework of Aurat March. These correlations were to test the claims of Sultana & Khushbakht (2020) regarding elitism and its inherent connection with secular feminism. Moreover, the suggestions provided by respondents for the change in the current framework were to be compared to Djelloul’s (2018) understanding of the dichotomous nature of Islamic tradition and feminism and its effects on Muslim feminists.
The respondents’ opinions were then held against the opinions of renowned scholars in the field cited and discussed in Seedat’s (2013) comparative analysis. Connections would be drawn between similar opinions shared by the general public in Pakistan and scholars to identify unique suggestions. Their nature is then to be evaluated and used in the arguments detailed below.
Arguments, Commonalities & New Findings
In relation to the country’s nationalist values, a major claim against the Aurat March that often rises is that the secular feminist agenda doesn’t fit into the cultural context of Pakistan. Sultana & Khushbakht (2020) explain that the agenda alienates people from the sphere of “respectability” and is quoted to be “elitist” in nature. Their argument is relevant to the mindset of the majority of the general public and the state that relies on clerics for matters as such as is commendable in bringing about awareness.
From the field study conducted, the suggestions for improvement in the Aurat March validate these claims through comments such as “Choosing of better words to express views”, “...and come up with better slogans”, and “Slogans that even women disagree with should not be used”. The majority of the respondents appear to be an advocate of feminism depicting their support in other ways but are mostly dissatisfied (see Fig.1) with the overall manner the march is held.
Participant satisfaction rating for the current status of Aurat March
This is apparent through their suggestion of improvements in the movement, quoted as:
“Even if a march has to be conducted, it must be in every way peaceful, respectful and in accordance with the wishes of the protesting group at large.”
“Staying within the limits of the law, religion and culture. Accepting men as an important part of society yet speaking up if there’s any injustice or any of abuse done to the girls and women.”
It is then interesting to note the policy claims made against the Islamic framework continue from the early WAF’s arguments; Saigol (2016) argued that “the strategic use of Islamic arguments would be self-defeating,” but it fails to be validated with examples. Backing it up with other relevant reasons, the lack of a “monolithic reality” or shared interpretation of Islam and the dangers of the state’s literal interpretation of Islamic text strengthen these claims.
This argument fails to consider the context that the majority of the lower and middle-class women live in; it’s the lack of implementation of laws and more authority handed to the patriarchal culture (religious misinterpretations add to it) that they’re victims of. If Pakistan were to adopt a secular political regime, it would not be very different from the goal of Islamic modernists; however, where religion comes in, a change is forced onto the strong nationalist majority of people, and they are forced to acknowledge this framework free from “Western influence” as they quote it.
Anjum (2020) explains the results of her qualitative field study that explored the narratives of feminism and gender roles in women belonging to liberal and Islamic organisations that are predominantly women-led, stating that liberals shared religious beliefs with conservatives in regards to Islam guaranteeing equal rights for both men and woman but differed on their support of “religious fundamentalism which follows traditions and customs without even questioning them”, going against the very teachings of religion.
In this case, if protests based on an Islamic modernist framework challenge the state’s implementation of the religion, there are benefits for both secular and Islamic feminists as Islamic feminists’ reinterpretations and the state’s literal interpretation would be distinct and would distort misunderstandings such as the above; the anti-Islamic connotations from these marches would be removed and would negate the concerns of the general public such as one revealed in the field study: “The anti-Islamic stigma attached to Aurat March needs to be removed but I’m not entirely sure how that could be done productively.”
Moreover, it would assist in the de-privatisation of Islamic feminism and prove to the more right-wing aligned public the necessity of the protests. The third point here exists to dispel a common understanding of ‘spreading awareness of women’s rights’ through conferences and dars visible through comments in the field study such as: “I think coming out on the road and supporting women rights isn’t enough. A lot of the people don’t know about what exactly our Islam says about women so I guess having a conference where we discuss women rights as mentioned in Islam and highlight them would be a better option with people coming from both genders as well as from different generations”.
Mahmood (2005), as quoted by Zia (2009), challenges the ‘presumptiveness’ of the West movements explaining that assuming that “piety movements don’t confront the state” is a “mistake”. Zia (2009) appears to agree with Mahmood stating that this “presumptiveness” allowed for “modernist Islamic feminists to invest a progressive political possibility in a redefined culture and religion.”
She stands with secular feminists, however, explaining the radical future that will fall ahead if feminists rest their agenda in the state’s rhetoric plays the same underlying card as Islamic feminists: religion. Secular feminists often question Islamist feminists for their deviance from one of the foundational spheres of democracy, secularism; however, as Djelloul (2018) points out that secular feminists fail to take into account the need of Islamic feminists, who use Islam as their core tool, to question religious laws. This is especially valid in a country like Pakistan that enforces Sharia law.
The current-day immobility of Islamic feminism to the political sphere is where Islamic modernists fail; they seek a movement that has gained momentum but are often considered right-wing extremists, or of those Islamic institutions that share fundamentalist beliefs. The entire objective of such a proposal is not to eradicate an existing framework but to thread together a more fitting framework with the current.
Shah (2014) states that Pakistan needs feminism that “elegantly marries both strands of feminism — secular and Islamic.” The inability to categorise both secular feminists and Islamic feminists into categories denoted by Khan (2021), “those who understand Islam but not modernity, and those who understand modernity but not Islam”, proves that these parties have blurred the distinct lines and can be headed towards reconciliation.
While it is clear that an Islamic framework might not appeal to all religious groups, the urgent need for a shift in the public’s motivation, more so, women, cannot be ignored. Targeting the religious-cultural makeup of the population and the state’s manipulation of religion, reconciling with Islamic feminism brings not only common ground but a quick route to accomplishing feminist goals.
Moreover, Islamist modernists were to be more readily accepted by the fundamental Islamists and consequently by the people under them. With the current state of matters of law and women, we only fear a radicalised religiopolitical nation that has taken the reliance of the population on religion to its advantage. It is only long before we see another Allah Baksh case where innocent citizens fall victim to the extremist legal implications of the state.
Survey Questions and Results
- Anjum, G. (2020). Women’s Activism in Pakistan: Role of Religious Nationalism and Feminist Ideology Among Self-Identified Conservatives and Liberals. Open Cultural Studies, 4(1), 36–49. https://doi.org/10.1515/culture-2020-0004
- Djelloul, G. (2018, March 8). Islamic feminism: A contradiction in terms? Eurozine. https://www.eurozine.com/islamic-feminism-contradiction-terms/#footnote-8
- Kaidi, Y. E. (2018, December 19). Feminist Thought in the Muslim World: From Secular to Islamic Feminism. Inside Arabia. https://insidearabia.com/feminist-muslim-world-islamic-feminism/.
- Khan, A. (2021, March 17). Pakistan: A Rising Women’s Movement Confronts a New Backlash. United States Institute of Peace. https://www.usip.org/publications/2021/03/pakistan-rising-womens-movement-confronts-new-backlash#
- Khushbakht, S. M., & Sultana, M. (2020). The Women Activism in Pakistan: An Analysis of ‘Aurat March. Al-Milal: Journal of Religion and Thought, 2(2), 50–69. https://doi.org/10.46600/almilal.v2i2.144
- Mahmood, S. (2005). Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (0 ed.). Princeton University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctvct00cf
- . Saigol, R. (2016). Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Pakistan Actors, Debates and
- Strategies. FES. Retrieved from https://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/pakistan/12453.pdf
- Seedat F. (2013). When Islam and Feminism Converges. The Muslim World, 103(3), 404-420.
- Shah, B. (2014, August 20). Opinion | The Fate of Feminism in Pakistan. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/21/opinion/bina-shah-the-fate-of-feminism-in-pakistan.html.
- Zia, A. S. (2009). The Reinvention of Feminism in Pakistan. Feminist Review, 91(1), 29–46. https://doi.org/10.1057/fr.2008.48
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