As Pakistan becomes world’s third-most dangerous country for women amidst growing dichotomies between the Islamists and secularists, the transformative potential of Islamic feminism has become a matter of urgent concern. Islamic feminism and Islamization have experienced varying degrees of interplay in Pakistan owing to the politically unstable history of the country, yet the common concern of Islamic feminists remains that the Quran and Hadith which form the basis of Shariah (Islamic law), are misinterpreted in an attempt to legitimize the subordination of women. Created as a modern Muslim state in 1947, Pakistan was expected to advance women’s rights; instead, gender inequality was institutionalized through personal and family laws. It was in the late 1970s, however, that the Hudood Ordinance, particularly the Zina (adultery) laws, resulted in severe socio-economic and legal setbacks for all women. Women were restricted to the chador (the veil), and the chardevari (household), and the distinction between adultery and rape was blurred resulting in high-profile cases of female rape victims being publicly flogged for adultery.
When the impact of Hudood Ordinance started to proliferate across the country, it triggered an immense mobilization by women who viewed such policies as blatant attempts to use Islam for legitimizing patriarchy. In an effort to collaborate the growing resistance against the Ordinance, women’s rights activists came together to form the Women’s Action Forum (WAF). Acknowledging that outright opposition of Islamization would be counterproductive in the prevailing Islamist political climate of the country, the secular feminists of WAF sought to reclaim their rights using an Islamic feminist ideology. In addition to resorting to Islamic feminism, WAF members in an attempt to avoid being discredited as ‘anti-religious’ women, reached out to those members of the ulema (community of religious scholars) who opposed the Islamization policies, as well as those women members of the politico-religious Jamaat-e-Islami party who were against the state’s stance on rape. Consequently, an unprecedented demonstration was held in which women activists protested against the Hudood laws. However, despite the persistent struggles of Islamic feminists, Hudood laws remained unscathed for nearly three decades. It was not until November 2006 that the ‘Women’s Protection Act’ mitigated some of its negative effects. The ordinance itself was not repealed and it continues to be incorporated into the legal system.
Moreover, today’s reality is that Islamic feminism is being hijacked by the Jamaat-e-Islami women and Al-Huda institute who in the name of Islamic feminism are further destabilizing the gender regimes. This is the paradoxical effect of Islamic feminism. In the wake of the Islamization of the late 1970s, the right-wing women activists of Jamaat-e-Islami joined WAF in its protest, yet three decades later when the contested laws were to be reformed, these women vehemently demonstrated against such efforts. In fact, prominent feminist scholar Afiya Zia contends that the Jamaat-e-Islami women have been increasingly co-opting the Islamic feminist ideology to spread a non-feminist agenda which calls for a purely patriarchal social system. Whether these women have agency of their own or their mobilizations are mere false consciousness or internalization of the patriarchal norms, their voice hinder the transformative potential of Islamic feminists who are committed to offer progressive interpretations of Islam. Hence, in an attempt to redefine rights of Muslim women through a progressive interpretation of Islamic texts, the distinction between women who are genuinely striving for improving women’s gender interests and those who employ Islamic feminism as a tactical tool to spread an Islamist agenda gets blurred.
With regards to the Al-Huda institute whose founder is a self-proclaimed Islamic feminist, Pakistani-American theologian Riffat Hassan rejects its claim to modernize Islam or even profess a feminist ideology. Instead, she argues that the institution exploits the egalitarian rhetoric of Islam to apply traditionalist interpretations of the Islamic texts. Through the lens of an interest-paradigm proposed by sociologist Maxine Molyeneux, Islamic feminism pursued by Al-Huda focuses on the practical gender interests whereby gender rights are formulated from within the existing gender order and women are expected to adhere to their role of caretakers in the private sphere. Such non-political interests have limited transformative potential as they do not substantially challenge the culturally produced social relations within the existing gender order. In fact, these interests may even perpetuate structural subordination.
While the feminist reading of Shariah remains necessary, because Islam continues to be a legal and political system for Pakistan, the political reality acts as a detriment for those women who are committed to seeking reforms through religious reinterpretation. Whether such developments challenge the transformative potential of Islamic feminism is subject to debate, but evidence indicates that Islamic feminist activists are now incorporating secular frameworks with the goal of pursuing an effective political agenda that has long-term policy implications. In order to fully comprehend Islamic feminism in Pakisatan, there is a need to carry out further research into examining the relationship between Islamic feminism as a theoretical academic ideology and Islamic feminism as a form of practical collective action committed to advancing women’s gender interests.
Written by Afifa Faisal
* A different and edited version of this article has been published in the News International, Pakistan