Does the Secular-Feminist model need rebranding in the Muslim world? By: Sonia Gulzeb AbbasiRead Now
A few months ago I read an intriguing proposition by Terrell Carver about feminism; He writes “Feminism is a theory of women’s oppression: feminist practices are constructed and pursued in relation to the attested facts through which oppression is understood and experienced. I have put this proposition to a number of small, seminar-size classes, and I have then asked the question- what causes this oppression? Who’s doing it? The answers are remarkably consistent: tradition, patriarchy, culture, religion, social forces, history, attitudes, ideologies, sexism, social structures and suchlike. I have found it really interesting that not one person has ever mentioned the word ‘MEN’ in an answer.”
This inspired me to write about my lived experience of teaching Feminist Theory in a public-sector university based in Pakistan. My undergrad students are predominantly from striving lower middle class- and mix of upper middle class (representing majority of Pakistan’s population) few from the elite, with an equal proportion of male and female. This is perhaps one of the most interesting part of my lecture-series: everyone participates and has a word or two to say, from across a wide social and economic spectrum of society. I observed, contrary to Terrell- that female students quite explicitly hold men responsible for their oppression and would openly- talk about how they have been oppressed in one way or another in their private and public spheres.
I wondered if this implied that Pakistani women’s engagement with feminism is shaped by their personal trajectories and experiences, rather than the state and other institutions. It was beginning to be clear to me that Islam and feminism were not necessarily incompatible for the majority of females which leads them to join feminist movements such as Aurat Azadi March, while also seeking gender equality within the- framework of Islamic feminism. For the majority of males and a few females, feminism is a Western, secular morally suspect ideology that does not fit with the effort to live a pious lifestyle in accordance -with Islamic law; indeed they often criticize language/posters and even dresses of Aurat March organizers. On the other hand, among the elite, secularization of the state is seen as paramount to give women rights. Perhaps most strikingly, all of the students dissect feminism through a heteronormative lens. However, the heated debate on “feminist theory” unlike Terreal’s observation would end up a debate on “Islam vs Feminism”, with the majority talking about Islamic feminism.
I was keen to grasp how students both male and female, connected these ideas. These interactions also underscored a key question for me during my lecture: What new kinds of agency might arise from intersections between Islam and feminism? Does this cross-cultural empirical analogy raise a complex set of questions? Are women’s problems universal? What made men think; that feminism is a white neo-liberal idea? Conversely, what made a few students think that secularization of the state is required to give women equal -rights? How they adopt and synthesize these frameworks in their activism tells us much about their -agency in an age when religion and politics are increasingly intertwined.
In a politicized global context; in the decade after 9/11, the headscarf became a renewed focus of global debate, and nowhere more so than in Europe. In these contentions over Muslim dress, concerns about immigration and assimilation were expressed through the language of women’s right (Bowen 2006; Scott 2007). It has become acceptable to exclude or marginalize Muslims because of their allegedly misogynistic and illiberal gender practices. This discussion is new in a long history of attempts to cast Islam and feminism as opposites, with Islam depicting all that is backward and- traditional and feminism symbolizing the modern and liberal West.
It is an argument that has a corollary -in Muslim society, with many Muslims arguing that feminism is un-Islamic because it is secular and -liberal (Joppke 2009). This holds true in Pakistan, where a grassroot Islamic political party named Jamaat-e-Islami’s democratization has resulted in a surge of women identifying themselves as pious and empowered Muslims- who oppose secular feminist politics in Pakistan. Feminism in Pakistan has nonetheless continued- with pioneering Islamic feminists arguing that Islam provides women with dignity and endorses their self-esteem more than any religion or philosophy including secularism.
Secular feminists on the other hand argue that their position is political and is based not on the absolute separation of state and Islam per se, but is rather about separation of religion from the policies of state, the undoing of the Islamic -legal system along with its supporting institutions and clerical organizations. Afiya Shehrbano Zia, a secular feminist, while talking to EPW, intelligently put forth the ideology of feminist politics in Pakistan. She writes, “Women action forum(WAF)- a women’s rights organization, decided to take the identity of a secular movement and pursue secular politics in Islamic Republic of Pakistan, after nearly a decade of debate, dialogue and strategic lessons (injustices against women and religious minorities critiquing Islamic laws introduced during Zia military dictatorship).
This decision wasn’t born out of reaction or some western liberal secular Islamophobia which has become a fashionable - allegation against secular feminist politics in Pakistan, but it was a strategic decision, which was - interested and invested in resisting Islamic Majoritarianism and also political Mullah led national conservatism and all of this was patronize and promoted by the state. WAF consensus of adopting secular identity emerged from the realization that there were lots of limitations to the project of reclaiming feminist rights within Islam, and that it was impossible to strip religious discourse entirely of its patriarchal baggage in any meaningful way that would enable feminist transformation, of-course -religion can empower and give rights but not transformation.
She further added, “If feminism is the resistance against patriarchy, then what is the resistance for religious politics? And that secular resistance, in my observation and examples I have used, have enabled changing and challenging the gendered order and obstacles, that do not allow women equal pay for equal work, and I have seen the results of it. They make women autonomous.” As a response to Aurat March demonstration and protest. Jamaat-e-Islami launched the “Istehkam-e-Khandan” (Protection of Family Institution) campaign to create -awareness and mobilize the public against the western cultural onslaught and the organized conspiracy to destroy the Muslim family institution, Islamic values and the modesty of women.
Let’s examine the intersection between Islam and feminism in the Muslim world through Saba Mahmood’s brilliant work. “Mahmood proposed a critique of white liberal neo-imperialist feminists and anthropologists -who went to Middle Eastern Nations and analyzed/studied Muslim women from a diverse geography within their white-liberal conceptual frameworks. From their perspective, if a Muslim woman was observant , she was oppressed. Accordingly, the less Islamic they were, the more liberated. What’s the -point of anthropology, understanding cultures and societies in their diversity, if you already know -what’s good or bad for groups before-hand, if you can just slot them into an oppression/liberation -narrative?
So Mahmood made her thought more flexible, and researched a group of Muslim women in the ‘Women’s Mosque Movement’ in Cairo after the Egyptian Revolution. Mahmood saw how the way white liberal feminists understood “submission” was, for the Mosque movement, irrelevant. For the -practitioners of this all women mosque movement- , ‘submission to Islamic values was not an oppressive, passive, docile or dogmatic act. Submission meant an active- , intellectual and bodily molding of the self in order to internalize Islamic values and practices until they emerged from the self -and body without conscious effort. Submission was a form of empowerment.
To understand this, Mahmood had to deconstruct dominant European conceptions of agency, the body and freedom and in turn see how much the concepts, applied to the Mosque movement , concealed rather than revealed -something of the culture which Mahmood was studying. Much Euro-American academia (-especially anthropology-), if it doesn’t question itself and its political agendas, it can violently assimilate sociocultural differences to its own terms, hierarchies and views of the world.”
Secular feminists assert that, post 9/11, the framing of feminism in Pakistan was inspired by Talal Assad- and Saba Mehmood’s work on the “Politics of Piety”. This new body of scholarship, which was post-secularist and mostly produced by the Pakistani diaspora or those who choose to pursue academic careers outside Pakistan, largely rehabilitates Muslim-ness as an alter parity source of rights, while another group on the left focuses almost entirely on imperialism, and the war on terror.
Both of these types of scholarship bypassed or suspended the critique and in some cases were even sympathetic to -patriarchal practices of Muslim men, as they didn’t want to reinforce global stereotypes of Muslim men- and -mostly focused on religious identity and pity. Secular feminists believe this body of work wasn’t fruitful for feminist politics, discredited or ignored the liberal secular feminist movements- and downplayed women’s -struggles and oppression- as if Pakistani women were devoid of any liberal desires or secular politics.
Finally, we must examine from where the heteronormative idea of feminism emerges. The marginalization of transgender people in South Asia dates back to the colonial State’s creation of a “new public order”, which was a redefinition of masculinity in accordance with the colonist’ ideology, the British man represented the pinnacle of masculinity. This heteronormative approach was introduced to the sub-continent through Victorian law, with women being excluded from the public order except under the protection of their respective male partners.
The colonial State attempted to control and ultimately obliterate gender diverse people and communities as visible social categories by “criminalizing” them under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, thereby, this pattern of control continues to this day. Paula Sanders work showed us; “Strategies of medieval Muslim jurists worked to preserve the gendered integrity of the social world, which was founded upon a strict binary opposition of two true sexes, male and female. One of the most important conclusions resulting from this body of work is that male/female was not the only gender dichotomy in medieval Islamic societies; there was also male/not male”.
The Transgender Persons -(Protection of Rights) Act, 2018, was a bill passed in Pakistan which was endorsed by the Council for Islamic Ideology (CII). The law accords citizens the right to self-identify as male, female or a blend of both genders, or neither, regardless of the sex they were assigned at birth, and to have that identity -registered on all official documents. Moreover, number of laws that are -often regarded as oppressive to women and LGBTQ Arabs (Muslims) were introduced to the Middle East via the "French Civil Code of 1804" (Napoleonic code) and the severe hollowing - out of the sharia in modern history.
Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and Human Rights Watch have long been involved in the creation of normative heterosexuality and heterosexual - families, for example a few days back an advertisement by USAID- US Agency for International Development- appeared in Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper, Dawn, which depicts the institutionalization of gender stereotypes, i.e. Women seen doing all domestic/household work. The media, curriculum in schools and literature have a mitigating part to play too which doesn’t reflect the reality of a two-income household. Instead, they still show women as being in the domestic space -as the primary caretaker- (not that there’s anything wrong with this)- which doesn’t reflect the reality of a lot of working women in Pakistan.
Saba Mahmood’s and Lila Abu Lughod’s scholarly work have clearly showed us; liberal feminism`s assumptions and binaries as to what constitute “feminist politics” or “feminist causes” are based on fallacious argument. According to secular feminist Afiya Zia, the secularization of the state is a prerequisite to give women rights in Pakistan. To counter this proposition, it is necessary to address the question of women in the Western secular world who are facing similar pattern of oppression, as well as, those Muslim, Christian and Orthodox Jewish women who don’t seek gender equality outside their religion.
When the domestic abuse of women by men in the Muslim world and in the Western secular world is scripted in radically different terms, with the connotation of Islam and its assumed oppression of women, the reader should pause and realize that they are not reading about Islam, but are rather reading within a discourse -about Islam. As to why women in Pakistan directly hold men responsible for their oppression, I reckon -women here are free thinkers and Islam as a religion has empowered and liberated them vis-à-vis white institutional structures which are intrinsically oppressive to women. The conclusion I draw from this cross-cultural analogy is this: women’s problems are universal but the thought process behind their ideas are -shaped by male centric/dominated institutions- systems- laws, culture, religion and what is fed to them through literature and the media.
There is a need for the creation of more theoretical space to unpack and comprehend- feminism in a religious and socially conservative society, also to create frameworks and safe spaces to accommodate hermaphrodites and nonbinary gendered people. Its practices, demands, and outlook might be different from the Western approach, but its aspirations are equally revolutionary and transformative. Perhaps we must look to build an inclusive Eastern feminist model which derives its inspiration from both Islamic and secular feminist politics?
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Carver, Terrell. 2019. “The M-WORD.” Critical South Blog
Joppke , Christian . 2009 . Veil: Mirror of Identity . London : Polity Press.
Mahmood , Saba . 2005 . The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject.
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Zia, Afiya. 2020 “Who's Afraid of Pakistan's Aurat March?” Economic and Political Weekly
I am Sonia Gulzeb Abbasi, originally from a superb village of KPK Province in Pakistan, also I
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