Engendering the Sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan: Afiya Shehrbano Zia



The Islamia College in Karachi is the hub of the Islami Jamiat-e-Tulba (IJT) [1]. Last year, the nationalist banners displayed near the college to mark Pakistan Defense Day (6th Sept), were strategically flanked by two complementary gendered messages. One such banner publicized the event (in Urdu) as ‘Hejab Numaaish’ (Parade of the Hejab – 4th Sept) and below it, in English ran the claim ‘Hejab is My Right and Pride’. The other banner declared simply, ‘Afia[2] is our Pride’. Both messages are signifiers and comments on the re-visitation of the themes of religious and nationalist agendas, played out across the body politic of women, in a post 9/11-Pakistan.

This essay discusses the resurgence of a new form of religious nationalism and its impact on the narrative of gendered politics in Pakistan. It also examines the worth of a recent body of Pakistani scholarship[3]that opposes the misguidedness of liberal-secular resistance to religious politics. Instead, such academic work invests hope in something termed, ‘Islamist secularization’.

 Hejab and Sovereignty

Observed since 2004, World Hejab Day[4] used to be a fairly lackluster annual event in Pakistan, until recently. Organized across the country by the Jamaat e Islami’s (JI) [5], women’s wing, Halq-e Khwateen, the event only gained increased visual coverage in the media when it stepped up its rhetoric after 2008 (Zia 2009a). Subsequently, the aims of the hejab movement have clearly moved beyond a simple demonstration of solidarity with European Muslim women who observe the hejab. Instead, increasingly, the JI has been positioning the hejab as an active symbol of resistance against the imagined threat (of anti-Islamic forces) to Pakistan’s very sovereignty.

The hejab has never been prohibited nor enforced in Pakistan. Even in the Islamization period of military dictator Gen Zia ul Haq (1979-1988), the attempt to institute an Islamic dress code on women was strongly and successfully resisted by the liberal feminist movement. Yet, the JI leadership has worked hard to maintain the notion of a constant perceived threat to Islam, as symbolized by the unveiling of Muslim women.  Such themes have been well-rehearsed by religio-nationalists in the Muslim context and are equally well-documented by feminist scholarship on postcolonial nationalisms.[6]

The new wave of religio-nationalism in post 9/11 Pakistan is certainly more sophisticated than before, particularly with reference to Islamist women’s engagement with, and adaption to, modernity. However, whether the feminization of Islamist politics carries any meaningful or transformative change for women or for Pakistan remains contested.

Stepping up the Rhetoric

The theme for ‘Hejab Numaish 2012’ (ironically) borrowed its slogans and spirit from gay pride parades held in Western countries [7]. Country-wide banners advertised the preparation for the Hejab Parade and on the day, hundreds of veiled women held up signs announcing ‘Hejab is My Right and Pride’. This year’s event also stepped up its political rhetoric by more than just a few notches. Using the occasion, for the first time, Jamaat women (Multan) called for making the hejab a constitutional obligation for Pakistani women.[8]  This is not the first ideological shift from a reformist agenda towards more orthodox interpretations of the Quran and/or hardline, right-wing politics that the Jamaat women are incrementally endorsing.

In 2006, the discriminatory Zina Ordinance[9] was tabled for reform under the Musharraf government. The JI women (several of whom were members in the National Assembly) for the first time took a clear departure from their historic prevarications over the Zina Ordinance[10]. Some 25 years later, these Islamist women shifted their strategic position on the law and followed the conservative male dictate, which insisted that any change in this law would convert Pakistan into a “free sex zone.”[11]This was an absolute rejection of modernizing a discriminatory law which targeted women and which compounded rape with adultery. This can be taken as evidence of the success of the agency of Islamist women, which is not merely non-feminist and non-modernist in this case, but is a very radical step towards ossifying Islamist sexual politics.[12]

The demand to make the hejab a constitutional obligation is contrary to the JI’s stated policy, which maintains that the veil must remain a matter of personal choice, although their activism does aim to coerce Muslim women into observing it. So while the central leadership of the JI officially disclaims any tactless, fringe demand to make the hejab constitutional, by the same token, they also object to other broader aspects of constitutional commitments such as the guarantee of women’s right to work. Their ideological base pivots around the concept of complementarity of gender roles and ideally, just as it is undesirable to impose the veil on women, it is equally erroneous to ‘inflict’ on them, the right to work. The choice to work should be weighed by virtue of the necessity of a woman’s conditions and explicitly, with the permission (and regulation) of her husband.

It is often argued that both, the JI and its inspirational archetype, the Muslim Brotherhood, are no longer the genomic progeny of their founders[13]. However, the essence of gender relations is derived largely from the original exaltation, by their leaders, of women in their roles as mothers and wives in their ‘noble’ mission. Further, the language of protection and refraining from ‘unnatural’ duties (which often includes voting and fielding as candidates for office) is derived always from an Islamic reference point.

Islamist women of the JI cannot head nor be part of the Central decision-making Committee. Their women’s wing is however, a semi-autonomous and parallel structure with its own shura (deliberative council) and the members can attend joint sessions with male members if necessary. Article 10 of the JI constitution specifically outlines additional duties for women members as follows;


“All articles of Articles 8 and 9 shall apply on women joining Jama’at-e-Islami, in their sphere

of activity. Besides, the duties of a woman as member of the Jama’at shall be [sic]:


1.      Convey the Jama’at’s creed and mission to her family and circle of acquaintance.

2.      Propagate this to her husband, parents, brothers and sisters and other family members.

3.      Try to kindle the light of faith in her children’s hearts.

4.      If her husband, sons, father, and brother join the Jama’at, she should encourage them

with her enduring companionship, and, to the extent possible, lend a helping hand in their

services to the Jama’at’s objective, and in the event of adversity, bear it with steadfastness

and patience.

5.      If her husband or patrons be victims of ignorance earn by forbidden means or lead a

sinful life, she should try to correct them with persistent patience, try to protect herself from

their illegitimate earning and evil deeds and refuse to obey their orders that amount to

disobeying God and His Prophet.”[14]

Duties, obligations or allegiances as citizens of Pakistan are not mentioned even once in the Jamaat constitution.

In 2002, when Gen Musharraf (1999-2008) introduced a quantum leap in reserved seats for women at all tiers of legislative government, the JI did avail of this opportunity and for the first time, the JI women members served in the national and provincial assemblies in a large force. When Islamists embrace such opportunities, much is made of the Islamists’ intention to engage with modernity. Despite their opposition to women’s full citizenship, such pragmatic moves by Islamists have only been possible due to the compulsions of liberal-secular ideals and those achievementswhich are based on the principle of universal citizenship, such as, quotas to ensure gender parlance in the mainstream, at all levels and for all, including Islamists. While it is the right of Islamists to operate an opportunistic politics, it is equally critical that this then be tabled, discussed, and defended in an applied not just theoretical form, to make their case.

The success of Islamists has been in their ability to not reform but reframe their agendas, particularly on the issue of gender politics[15]. The vocabulary of this reframing is no longer prohibitive (such as the one that the women of the JI Multan still seem to be subscribing to) but rhetoric is wrapped in a language of a human rights discourse, that is, Muslim women’s right to protection and to veil. Both may emanate from a wider paternalistic discourse but such patriarchy-boosters are well-disguised when they are drawn from a fashionable discourse of rights rather than, the old-fashioned oppositional binaries of Islamist vs secular or human rights vs religious patriarchy.

In political terms, it does not mean that the Islamists advocate a merging with or borrowing of adversarial ideologies. They are not committed to gender equality or minority rights or a democratization at national levels or within their organisations, nor do they support these at societal levels either. Regardless of how their different democracy, different equality or different ends may be defined, it is the conditionalities that shape these differences that qualifies their strategic politics as, a promotion of the process of Islamization of society from below.

Neither are mainstream Islamists averse to influencing a top-down process of Islamization. This year’s World Hejab Day campaign in Pakistan was also marked by a conference held on 15th September, in Lahore. In a sort of gender political coup, the conference succeeded in getting the wife of the Prime Minister of the ruling (liberal) Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to attend as the chief guest. While not observing the hejab herself, the first lady reportedly supported Muslim women’s choice of observing the hejab and pointed out the significance of this at a time when, Western women were ‘humiliating’ themselves by exposing their skin[16].

Unlike the 2008 World Hejab Day [17] where (then) Ameer of JI, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, presented hejabs to the journalists reporting on the occasion, at this year’s event, ‘honorary hejab shields’ were presented to the guests by the first lady. Token awards were also presented to international activists who advocate the cause of the hejab (such as British journalist and convert to Islam, Yvonne Ridley). One of these awards was presented to honour, in absentia, the hejab observing Pakistani female neuroscientist indicted in the US for terrorist activity, Afia Siddiqui.

The Islamists’ Daughter of the Nation 

The case of Afia Siddiqui, the US-based, Pakistani female scientist indicted and sentenced for suspected terrorism in 2010, is also exemplary of the re-visitation of the symbiotic relationship between femininity, nationalism, religion and now, global Islamic politics. Dr Siddiqui was wanted by the FBI from 2003 until she was captured and extradited by the Pakistani government in 2008, to the US. There, she was incarcerated as a terrorist suspect and subsequent to a legal hearing,a US court indicted and sentenced her to 86 years in an American facility for shooting a US marine in Afghanistan.

Through national campaigns in Pakistan, her individual status was symbolically transformed to that of a global Islamist resistance against US injustice and earned her titular ranking as Qaum ke beti (Daughter of the Nation) or Dukthar e Millat (Daughter of the global Muslim Community). The (predominantly) male nationalist response to the Afia Siddiqui case signifies how the normative femininity of the Islamist woman is continuously re-constructed through nationalist and religious representation [18].

Ania Loomba, with reference to the colonial reception to Sati in India, speaks of “the fascination, the horror mingled with admiration, the voyeurism, the oscillation between regarding the widow as victim or sovereign agent.”[19] So too, Afia Siddiqui has invoked similar response and been pivotal in the political consciousness, imagery, rhetoric, positioning and campaigns of national political parties. This includes primarily, the religious party of the Jamaat e Islami, the conservative and electorally marginalised Tehreek e Insaaf led by ex-cricketer Imran Khan and very recently, the sub-nationalist, urban based, non-religious, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).

The agitprop posters pasted across Pakistani cities glorify Afia Siddiqui as the archetypal tortured Muslim subject but more so, as a symbol of national sovereignty subjugated by the US. This metaphor is best exemplified by the images used in the campaign to ‘Free Afia’, that posit the silhouette of a veiled woman in relief against the map of Pakistan. The campaign is spearheaded by the JI student wing, IJT, and the break-away youth group, Pasban.

Despite her personal achievements and ascribed political status as ‘Daughter of the Nation’, Afia Siddiqui’s agentive role is in fact, static, proscribed and ex post facto. She was never part of the nation’s political consciousness when she was posted on the FBI wanted list in 2003, nor up until the time when she was reportedly captured by the Pakistani intelligence agencies and extradited to the US in 2008. Instead, Afia Siddiqui’s status as Daughter (and not Mother) of the Muslim Nation is a deliberate ascription, since she cannot be used as a live concept to evoke future sacrifice, as is the case of the appeals for future jihadists made to the mothers of the Lashkar e Tayyaba [20]. Rather, Afia Siddiqui is mourned as the martyred but innocent daughter and as one who is not guilty (but therefore also not an agent) of anything other than being a veiled Muslim woman.

The religious parties champion the case of Siddiqui on the basis of her gender and religion and by arguing that her extradition was a violation of her  sovereignty and that of the nation. These same parties have not conducted any campaigns against sexual trafficking of women from Pakistan to Middle Eastern countries, nor do they raise the issue of trafficked women into the country on the same principle of violation of the country’s sovereignty. Neither are Islamists anxious about the sovereignty of the country when women victims of acid attacks or those who marry against the will of their family/community or those accused of blasphemy have to be re-located overseas, due to lack of access to justice and/or the inability of the state to afford them protection.

Islamist Women’s Agency[21]

One of the leaders of the Women’s Wing of the Jamaat e Islami (Women and Family Commission) in Pakistan, Samia Raheel Qazi, categorically maintains that the hejab should not be made obligatory. She rejects the demand issued by the party members in Multan, calling it a media misquote [22]. Clearly there are differences in views within this disciplined, hierarchical and strictly gender-segregated but multiethnic and cross-generational political party. Such possible indicators of internal dissonance have excited a group of post 9/11 scholars who have launched anthropological inquiries and produced ethnographic studies recovering what they claim are the complexities of religio-political groups. Such reinvention of Islamists, particularly works that focus on performativity rather than their politics, is often well-received in the Western market, hungry for such voyeuristic peep-shows into the world of Islamists.

Such scholarship follows on the heels of postcolonial studies in Western academia, and has resulted in a postmodernist drive to rescue Islamists and Muslims from secularism and western liberalism, feminism and the human rights discourses. ‘The Muslim’ has been framed and reframed, packed and unpacked, feminized, de-radicalised, anthropologised and, cohesive-ised rather than multi-culturalised. Islamists’ subjectivities have been recovered, their Madrassas depoliticized, patriarchal politics rationalized and violent ideologies suspended, in the search for accommodating Islamist religiosities in both Muslim and non-Muslim contexts.

One such Pakistani scholar is Humeira Iqtidar, whose work attempts to unsettle the ‘impositions’ of the liberal-secular project in Pakistan through an anthropological (not socialist, certainly not feminist) enterprise (Iqtidar 2011). She attempts to reveal through ethnographic accounts, a different subjectivity and desire (of the Islamist subject) and to demonstrate how religo-political activism may contribute towards a different secularization in Pakistan.

Farzana Shaikh reads the flaws of Iqtidar’s thesis in ‘Secularizing Islamists? ’(Iqtidar 2011) to be a result of her over-reliance on Talal Asad’s, “Humpty Dumpty-like definition of secularism”[23]. Shaikh is critical of Iqtidar’s fantasy-based, “intellectual endeavor aimed at shoring up a discourse of resistance against ‘the West’ and its attendant evils – in this case, secularism” rather than, a concern to understand Pakistan “in the light of its own history”.[24]

In a recent EPW article, Iqtidar admonishes Pakistani liberals’ inability to “under stand the range of motives and strategies employed by the different [Islamist] groups or the differences between militants and others” (Iqtidar 2012).As a corrective exercise, she offers what she claims is a “localized” historical trajectory so as to allow such differences to be acknowledged. However, despite this promise, the article produces a singular argument, that Islamists in Pakistan are inadvertently contributing towards the secularization of Pakistan, with realms of scholarly critiques of secularism and (non-localised) theories ranging from the Middle East and India, to Latin America.

Copiously quoting the works of Asad (2003), Casanova (1994), Chatterjee (1993), Mahmood (2005), Taylor (1998) and other (largely West-based) theorists, Iqtidar draws the conclusion, based on Casanova’s theory of deprivatisation of religion, that by politicizing religion, it is Islamists who are inadvertently facilitating a different secularization in Pakistan.

In her book, Secularizing Islamists? (Iqtidar 2011) Iqtidar also revisits the hejab question by arguing that rather than functioning as an impediment of mobility or serving as a symbol of gender apartheid, instead, the veil is a facilitator for Islamist women. She also suggests that the practice empowers and enables them to deprivatize their piety towards a legitimate and public, religious politics.

Scholars from Papanek [25] onwards, have discussed how the veil has served as the ultimate symbol that used to divide the private and public imaginary for Muslim women. Still others have discussed how Islamist women are redefining the hejab as an instrument that now facilitates mobility and enables them to participate more confidently in the public/political service. Most liberal feminists in Pakistan would agree. The post 9/11 period has seen a spilling over of pietist practices, which had been incubating in domestic spheres through dawas [26] darses [27] and khatums [28] into the public sphere. Commentators have also noted the contribution of popular female religious preachers such as Farhat Hashmi, towards this deprivatisation (Ahmed, 2011).

Soon after 9/11, the backlash of hostility towards symbols such as the hejab has allowed Islamist parties such as the JI, to activate a sense of solidarity with hejab-observing Muslim women globally. They have done so through a resistance motif that implies that Pakistani hejab-observing women are also victims of an imagined discrimination [29].

Limits of the secularization argument

However, Islamist women leaders such as JI’s Samia R. Qazi, do not seem to be heeding Humeira Iqtidar’s call to act as agents of this accidental secularization. This is because Islamist women leaders are way ahead of rehashed proposals that argue for their agency or defends them from demonization by the liberals. Qazi disclaims and disowns the alleged demands of the JI women’s wing in Multan for making the hejab a constitutional obligation. The leadership of Islamist parties comprises savvy politicians who would not underestimate the importance of expanding rather than restricting constituencies. Populism wins votes. Hence, no mainstream Islamist political party would support what would clearly be a very unpopular move, to demand an imposition of hejab on the women of Pakistan. Similarly, they would not demand a ban on women driving or participating in sports [30]. They also posture as the more moderate face of Islam against ‘fundamentalist’, fringe or militant religious organisations that make such ‘irrational’ and anti-modern demands. However, they would vehemently advocate for Islamizing all such activity by insisting that women should be appropriately dressed or strictly segregated in the realm of the public or, be excluded from ‘inappropriate’ activities. There is nothing accidental or inadvertent in their activism to promote the Islamization of even seemingly innocuous, private, social or political activity.

Therefore, in 2005, a reported 900 armed members belonging to the Islamist parties of the MMA (including the JI) forcibly disrupted a mixed gender marathon in Gujranwala and several female participants were attacked for participating in such un-Islamic activities [31]. A subsequent attack specifically targeted Asma Jahangir, prominent human rights activist, when she led another solidarity marathon in Lahore as a protest against the violence meted out against women who participate in public activity [32]. The long-term impact of such violence is not something that can be brushed away as incidental.

Earlier this year, a splinter group, the Tehreeq e Nafooz e Rasool Mahaz (TNRM), threw its weight behind a campaign to prevent another such government-sponsored sports festival in Lahore, terming women’s participation in mixed-gender events as un-Islamic [33]. The effects of such campaigns in view of the threats issued are such that women who register for such events cite fear as a reason for not participating on the actual day [34].

Campaigns against theatre and cultural activities including plays, basant (kite-flying festival), films, music, Indian TV/films and family planning messages are part of the regular activism of the JI women’s wing. These are all instances of where the Islamists’ agendas intersect closely with that of the militants’. It is this nexus that allowed the militants to devastate the social fabric of the NWFP [35] during the Islamists’ rule of the province (2002-2008).  While some defensive scholars tease out the differences between Islamists and militants in Pakistan, they avoid a discussion of the similarities, overlaps and consequences of their shared (secularization?) schemas.

These are examples of the milder, more restrained forms of social activism and public campaigns of Islamists, which are either spearheaded or backed by the vocal support of their women members. These are linked to and equally instructive as the Islamists’ violent politics and welfare agendas. In any case, it is the entire spectrum of such political articulations that reveal more about the promise of Islamist ‘secularization’ rather than limited, de-contextualised, ethnographic excavations of their interiorized subjectivities. They help to understand how, in practical terms, when the MMA formed government in the NWFP, its women representatives (largely from the JI),once in power, worked towards actively subverting all Constitutional women’s rights, including the right to vote [36]. The MMA also proactively legislated for a vice and virtue police to restrain women’s mobility in public spaces. All the while, they were able to represent an ‘authentic’ politics – one which was for (restricting) women by women. These anti-Constitutional proposals were formalized under the Hisba Bill passed by the NWFP assembly but was struck down by Presidential veto twice, under Musharraf.

It is such anti-secular, anti-modern and illiberal practices and politics that should be included in the work of those scholars who seek to make the case that Islamists are culturally appropriate engines or agents of a different secularization in Pakistan. Instead, Iqtidar’s academic challenge to liberal activists and politicians carries little tangible, measurable, identifiable evidence that Islamists are yielding an imaginary secularization.

The reason Iqtidar is able to make a case for what is really, a new Islamization (that she defines as secularization) and imply this would be different from the 1979 experience, is based on the assumption that since it would be Islamist groups, not the state, managing religiosity a genuine secularization is possible. There is however a major, perhaps even deliberate, omission in this invitation. The theory does not match the politics of the Islamists and Iqtidar evades the political in her work.

Recovering subjectivities and untying conceptual knots make for sexy anthropology but such endeavours are not disinterested projects either. When these subjects convert their interiorized desires into active demands and become political actors, surely they deserve to be equally worthy subjects of interrogation and intellectual studies?

Secularization, or More Islamization?

Over the last decade, practically all argument, policy debate, advertisement, morality, legal codes, financial transactions and even products have had to be wrapped in the garb of religion to be successfully sold in Pakistan. This is not to say that people don’t circumvent religion, religious oligarchies or laws. There are many spontaneous rights-based movements (such as the Lawyers’ Movement and the nation-wide Lady Health Workers movement and fisher-folk movements) and routine lives which are neither motivated by, nor take recourse to or draw inspiration from religious sentiment, nor use religious props or support from piety. Some pay with their lives for speaking out on the issue of separating religion from politics or policies.

While there is no state or society that is clinically neutral on the basis of religion, the shrinkage in secular expressions and domains in Pakistan has not always been a voluntary one, as implied by scholars who are critical. Secularism has become a kind of appeal or definition of a method of resistance (either at state, organizational or individual levels) against specific instances and cases, where religious politics has actively targeted and subverted the basic rights of those who do not subscribe to the Islamists’ agendas. The secularists’ demand does, however, go beyond this notion of managing religion and seeks a separation of religion from legislation and state policies. This too is based on the experiences of the Islamization of laws in 1979 under Gen Zia ul Haq and the observation that, decades later, the resulting institutionalization of discrimination against women and minorities at societal levels is sustained and preserved by Islamists.

Iqtidar calls for a conceptual separation of secularism as a (Western, Enlightenment-based) ideology or state policy, from what she considers to be the more plausible project of (accidental) Islamist secularization. This is based on her reliance on Talal Asad’s (Asad 2003) understanding of secularism, not as a separation of state and religion but the management of the latter by the former. It is precisely because of their intent to dislodge secularism as universal that leads Iqtidar to invest hope in Islamist political parties such as the JI (and more interestingly, the Jamaat ud Dawa), as harbingers of secularization. The fierce competition amongst them leads her to conclude that through some kind of social Darwinism, certain Islamist groups can then be contributors of an ‘authentic’ secularization for Pakistan.

The academic leap from the Islamization process that Islamist parties have been consciously engaged in for decades, to be now read as ‘secularization’ for the Pakistani context is difficult to digest, precisely because the political evidence behind such a proposal have not been as ‘oblique’ as Iqtidar suggests. By deliberately only excavating the subjectivities of the Lahore-based Islamist parties, the political records of the MMA, of which the JI was a lead member in the NWFP, have been erased in Iqtidar’s analysis. In her own words, to “divorce secularism from democracy is to deal it a deathblow” (Iqtidar 2012). By her own admission, the aspirations that inform the Islamists’ agenda are based on a desire towards ‘homogenization’ and erasure of internal contradiction (Iqtidar 2012).

The MMA rule in the Frontier Province based itself on a moral imperative to provide social order through vigilantism and remove all visible markers of womanhood from the public and relegate it to the private realm. The hegemonistic intent of religious political parties, and their affiliate charitable organisations, is clearly political rather than merely academic. They instrumentalize faith-based politics or afford agency, to liberate and oppress at the same time. Thus, the agenda of Islamists permits what Iqtidar reads as ‘liberation’, only if the ‘freed agent’ accepts an overall discriminatory or unequal framework (for women, minorities and landless classes).

Such ‘secularization’ leaves little space then for any notion of diversity, individuality, and freedoms associated with sexuality or,material equality between genders and classes. It also does not hold much promise for the fringe voices within Islamist organizations, including those of the Multan women’s wing of the JI, either. It is the political limitations of Islamists and not ‘knee-jerk criticism’ that inspires resistance to their brand of what Iqtidar calls secularization, which is simply, the same side of the same coin, Islamization.

Given that Iqtidar’s development of her thesis overlapped almost completely with the five years of the MMA rule, her aversion to using such live examples of the political engagement of Islamists and their ‘secularization’ of the NWFP, is strange. The exemplary performances of the Islamists in the provincial and national assemblies between 2002-2008 would have provided for rich evidence of the consequences of ‘Islamist secularization’, particularly when they had replaced what was previously a patriarchal, conservative but non-theocratic, secular governance system led by the Pukhthun leadership, prior to 2002. Surely, such a living, rather than theoretical, illustration would have better proven her case over how Islamists fuse the personal and political to engineer the supposed secularization of society?

In her article, Iqtidar (Iqtidar 2012)[37] quotes the defenders of her thesis, who however, take their cue from her omission in her own work, of the experiences of Pakistani activism during the Islamization period of the 1980s [38]. In fact, the problem with the thesis lies precisely in its politics of omission [39]. For a younger generation (particularly those studying anthropology in Western countries) this omission is appealing because it becomes possible to believe that all objective, indigenous, complex studies on Islam and Islamists began only after the birth of their own, post-9/11 collective consciences.  Those who have lived in Pakistan and studied the socio-political and legal impact of the Islamization of Pakistan (1977-88) and the role of Islamists, have (apparently) not offered informed, material based, documented insight, but just “knee-jerk”, counter-intuitive criticism. The history of a whole body of scholarship is thus erased.

‘Liberal’ is not a Class

It might have been instructive for such scholars to have looked equally closely into the complexities among liberals, not just among Islamists in Pakistan. Such an exercise would have revealed that all self-proclaimed liberals in Pakistan are not secularists and neither are they all enthusiastic supporters of drone attacks. (It is also simplistic to believe that the drone attacks are not supported by the Pakistani military, which surely can be described as anything but liberal or secular).

For that matter, many liberals do not support neo-liberal economic policies that engage in US/IMF/WB funding for civilian projects or those that sustain Pakistan’s bloated military budget – all of which, many Islamists may in fact support. The choice of naming two prominent advocates of liberal policies by Iqtidar in her EPW article is understandable, since both are well-known in India but is entirely unhelpful in terms of painting a representative picture of all liberals as advocates for drone operations in Pakistan. It’s a sweeping generalization that has become fashionable amongst several scholars working on Islamist identities, in order to justify their critique of liberal-secularism. By extending the appraisal of the failures of secular projects in the Middle East to Pakistan, such scholars tend to lump together liberalism and secularism even though many liberals in Pakistan do not support, advocate nor campaign for a secular state [40]. And on the other hand, many secularists (in Baluchistan and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa) are certainly not liberals.

In any case, the constant reference to Gen Musharraf’s ‘Enlightened Moderation’ as anything more than an abstract justification for instituting himself as the appropriate buffer between the militants and corrupt civilian democratic leaders, is completely counter-intuitive to the lack of reception or substantive influence that the slogan held in real terms during his rule [41]. The international community (including some Indian liberals) and some opportunists from the Pakistani political and cultural elite, may have been thrilled by such statements but the General was always challenged and mocked for such abstractions in popular discourse and the opposition parties in the country at the time.

In most cases, liberals in Pakistan do not, as Iqtidar suggests, ‘denounce the religiously political’ as ‘unmitigated evil’  (Iqtidar 2012) in abstraction but usually despair over the political abuse of religion as a materialist power tool, wielded by Islamists. Such mistrust has bred over many years and arises from the experience of innumerable instances in which Islamists have lobbied and assisted in the institutionalization of discriminatory state laws and societal restrictions. Some of these include the aggressive pursuit and successful ex-communication and disenfranchisement of the Ahmedia sect; legislation of rigorous punishment for adultery and homosexuality; legal prevention of land reforms on the basis of Islam; reduction of women’s worth in legal testimony and their diyat (compensationor blood money) compared to that of men’s and resistance to reform of the Blasphemy Law and complicity towards a social vigilantism against minorities accused of committing blasphemy [42]. The fact that some of these were passed by secular leaders who were pressurized to appease the religious lobbies is a criticism of liberal/secular politicians that is well-documented by liberal feminists in Pakistan (Shaheed 2009). Undoing these at state levels is virtually impossible and resisted by Islamists [43]. Meanwhile, the reverberations of such laws at the societal level is evident in the accelerating acts of religious vigilantism.

Iqtidar’s allegations (Iqtidar 2012) that Pakistani liberals consider the ‘secular as always imperial’ (my italics) and therefore, do not condemn ‘state terrorism’ against militants, is also inaccurate. Most political liberals have made careers out of condemning ‘state terrorism’, long before the drone operations. In return for such historical activism, these same liberals were/are accused of being RAW agents, traitors and Westernised, precisely because of their challenges to the state’s jihadi activism [44] in Kashmir and Afghanistan and before that, to the state’s military operations against East Pakistan as well as in Baluchistan. Specifically, these same liberals have even held a longstanding demand to disband the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) and bring the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) under the legal framework of the federation, to avoid routine and unregulated tribunal punishments and human rights violations against its citizens under the prevailing tribal discourse [45]. All this was long before the War on Terror (WoT) and continued after. The idea that drone operations/WoT are the first acts of ‘state terrorism’ demonstrates that the consciousness of state formation for these new scholars begins with 9/11 and despite contrary claims, that theirs is a politically truncated project.

It is in such historical specificity that the contest between liberals and Islamists must be founded, not in the broader moral competition of issuing statements of condemnation or support of drone operations, as an indicator of something called ‘liberal vs Islamist’ politics. Neither is it accurate to allege that all Pakistani liberals equate Islamists with terrorists or suicide bombing militants [46]. In fact, Musharraf’s government in the past, as well as the current one (both purportedly liberal regimes), have repeatedly attempted to coerce the reluctant Islamists to condemn suicide bombings, not on the basis of Enlightenment ideals or secularist principles but emphatically by invoking the notion that suicide bombings are un-Islamic and therefore, Islamic militancy is profane.

Musharraf’s liberals were constantly engaged in an effort to disentangle the knots between militant and, some hopeful entity called ‘moderate’ Islam. Iqtidar’s proposal to untangle the secularism and secularization knot is even less convincing than the Musharrafian formula, precisely because her apolitical bid has no takers, not even the Islamist women whose subjectivities she attempts to recover and convert to agents of secularization.

Time to Convert

The timing is right for scholars such as Iqtidar and others to come out of their political nunneries (Zia 2009b). These anthropological efforts, to (re) construct an ideological framework for a political alternative to liberal notions of secular modernity, stop short of contextualizing the political articulations of the agency that they recognise or ascribe to Islamists. In other words, when this agency converts into political articulation, there is no discussion of the implications, outcome or effects of such agency.  In the experience of Pakistan, these have been vociferously anti-women, anti-minorities and anti-secular at worst, or silent and hence complicit, at best [47].

Over the last five years of the rule of the civilian democratic government of the liberal PPP, the perception that Pakistan’s cultural and particularly, religious identity and indeed, its very sovereignty is under existential threat, has gained neck-breaking pace in the media, political opposition and even in academia.

The sources blamed for such attacks on our sovereignty range from drone attacks as a counter-terrorism strategy in the tribal areas, perceived threats against Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, aid assistance such as the Kerry Lugar Bill, the Raymond Davis case, the indictment and sentencing by a US court of Afia Siddiqi for terrorism and the availability of Indian satellite TV channels in the country. The frenzied response to these events has resulted in a flood of overnight Islamist organizations, movements and councils for the defense, protection and recreation of Pakistan, Islam and Muslims, and particularly,their women [48]. The consequences are likely to asphyxiate any space for politics or conducting social practices that may be deemed anti-Islamic in sympathy or sentiment. Islamic vigilantism is increasing and minorities, women and even middle-class liberals are foremost targets.

Significantly, when scholars such as Iqtidar reprimand liberals for not condemning the ‘state terrorism’ against militants or the people of the tribal areas in the WoT period, they do not extend their sympathies or theories to the simultaneous and systemic disappearances of activists in Baluchistan, over this same time period. Such convenient oversight fails to mention that, in its ‘terrorist’ pursuits, the state does not discriminate between secular Baluch separatists or Islamic militants in FATA.

What’s in it for Women?

With reference to the WoT and Pakistani women’s religio-political identities, it seems that rewards such as martyrdom, pride, nationalism, spiritual duty, iconography, paradise and piety are not going to translate into any material terms of engagement or deliver any individual or collective rights for Pakistani women at all. Muslim woman’s piety has become interpreted as a limited commodity, only to be employed for sacrificial purposes and to facilitate holy war, or if it is to be channeled for personal empowerment, it is one that is destined to maintain a male-dominant status quo.

Competitive forms of Islamist mobilisation and a wide repertoire of action by nationalist and non-state actors are gaining ground in Pakistan. Their efficacy depends upon their ability to usurp women’s agency, which may then be directed towards producing and reproducing an Islamic religio-cultural order over which Islamist men compete.

With reference to the notion of rights, the women’s movement in Pakistan has consistently struggled to work out a formula whereby religious identity finds complementarity with universal and individual rights. The attempt to substitute or replace universal minimal human rights with abstract conceptions of Islamic nationalism and culture, simply serve to reinforce patriarchal traditions. They end up confirming that male-dominated, post-colonial historical values are viable sources of authenticity. For the survival of their identity, Islamist men depend on the cultural capital provided by the entity that is, ‘The Muslim Woman’. A culture of recognition, even when it unveils women’s agency, can also serve as a sealant of otherwise transformative possibilities for women as individuals or as feminine collectives.


The most hopeful prospect for retaining some neutral spaces for public expression and some form of egalitarianism, lies in an equally defeatist proposal that Pakistan may someday, turn towards some sort of post-Islamic (rather than secular) sociology. This may likely be due to a range of other, non-theocratic, competing forces. Some are already observable and include the compulsions of opening up its market economies, which will require cordial relations with previous enemies and hence, the retreat of the military’s influence over governments; media freedoms and a high pace of women’s entry into the public realm with state support.

All these are forces that Islamists ideologically resist, actively impede and wilfully prevent. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Pakistan’s Islamists,while conceding to modernist forces and harnessing them towards theocratic, conservative political agendas and social relations, will serve any role towards secularization or post-Islamism. What is certain, however, is that they will continue to fasten the ‘fatal knot’ that ties culture and politics between femininity, nationalism and most of all, religion.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia is a feminist researcher based in Karachi, Pakistan


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Newspapers and Sites

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[1]The student wing of the Jamaat e Islami, Pakistan, notably exempted from the comprehensive student union ban under Zia ul Haq’s Islamization rule (1979-88).

[2] Dr. Afia Siddiqui has become an icon for religio-political parties in Pakistan since she was wanted by the FBI and captured and extradited to the US to be tried for terrorism in 2008. In 2010, she was sentenced to 86 years in prison by an American court and is serving her sentence in a US facility. Since then, she has proved iconographic for religio-nationalism in Pakistan.

[3] Like much postmodern sociological and anthropological research, the work of such Pakistani scholars too is committed to problematizing the association of the secularization theory with modernity, democracy, and the triumph of reason over sentiment and belief and, to uncovering the teleological presumptions of secularization as an inevitable and uniform process. Several of these scholars are diasporic Pakistani scholars located in Western academia who undertake ethnographic accounts of Islamists in their native Muslim contexts, while critiquing Enlightenment ideals and secularism. Some scholars I include in the broader category are, Humeira Iqtidar, Sadaf Aziz, Masooda Bano, Moeen Cheema, Abdul Rehman, Faiza Mushtaq; for a host of other scholars (mostly based in the private, USAID-funded, Lahore University of Management Sciences), see http://baytunur.blogspot.com/. See bibliography, below.

[4] The declaration of such an event was made at the World Assembly for the Protection of the Hejab in London, organized in reaction to the banning of the veil in France in 2003. It is observed on the 4thof September.

[5]The Jamaat e Islami was a reformist movement for Indian Muslims formed in 1941 which later went on to become a right wing Islamic political party in Pakistan. Its mass base includes an educated middle class and despite its ideologue for a gradual Islamization, the party has not done well in national elections. For the 2002 elections, they allied with 5 other religio-political parties to form the Mutahida Majlis e Amal (MMA) and subsequently, formed government in 2 provinces.

[6]Kumari Jayawardena (1996), Deniz Kandiyoti (1991) and Shahida Lateef (1990), are some regional examples.

[7] Islamists in Pakistan condemn homosexuality as un-Islamic and unnatural. Homosexuality is a criminal offense in Pakistan.

[9] Islamic law criminalizing adultery which was part of the Hudood Ordinances promulgated by President of Pakistan, Gen Zia ul Haq 1979. It has been amended in 2006 under Gen Musharraf’s regime and was contested by Islamists in the Federal Shariat Court. The amendment stands under the Women’s Protection Act which has introduced reforms including, the criminalization of rape under the penal rather than Islamic law/Hudood Ordinances.

[10] Islamist women had protested against the excesses of the implementation of this law in public protests during Zia ul Haq’s regime, alongside other liberal women’s groups such as, the Women’s Action Forum. However, they would part ways when the latter demanded the repeal of all religious laws.

[11]“Pakistan Votes to Amend Rape Laws”, BBC News, 15th November, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6148590.stm. Also see a response to the debate on this issue by Afiya Shehrbano, Zia, A State of Suspended Disbelief’, in Economic and Political Weekly, Issue : VOL 43 No. 23 June 07 – June 13, 2008, www.epw.org.in.  For JI resistance to the reform of the law see,”Laws Victimizing Pakistani Women Seen as ‘Divine’ by Hardline Supporters”, The Daily Times, May 3, 2004. www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=story_3-5-2004_pg7_24

[12] The case for a complete rejection of any reforms to this (and other Islamic laws) may be found in, ‘Hudood Laws and NGO’s; Facts Behind the Propoganda’, Institute of Women and Family Studies, (JI), Mimeo, Undated, publisher uncited, Lahore.

[13] Abul Ala Maududi and Hassan al-Banna, respectively.

[14]Jamaat e Islami Pakistan, Constitution, http://jamaat.org/beta/site/page/5 .

[15] For an insightful discussion on this, see, Mariz Tadros, “The Muslim Brotherhood’s Gender Agenda: Reformed or Reframed?” in Tadros (2011).

[16]“There’s no shame in wearing a hijab”, Express Tribune, 16th September 2012, http://tribune.com.pk/story/437401/celebrating-culture-theres-no-shame-in-wearing-a-hijab/

[17] Afiya S.Zia (2009a).

[18] The movement is led by her sister, Fozia Siddiqui but the support is predominantly from male nationalists and conservative parties.

[19] Ania Loomba, “Dead Women Tell No Tales: Issues of Female Subjectivity, Subaltern Agency and Tradition in Colonial and Postcolonial Writings on Widow Immolation in India”, [pgs. 241-262], in Lewis and Mills, 2003, pg. 243.

[20] For details on gender and jihadist agency see, Farhat Haq (2007).

[21] Saba Mahmood’s (2005) study of the Egyptian women’s piety movement interprets the interiorized subjectivity of believing Muslim women as a legitimate form of Muslim agency. Based on Mahmood’s recovery of such ‘docile agency’, this leitmotif has become the basis for a body of recent (Muslim) scholarship which looks for a viable alternative to western libertarian feminism for women in Muslim contexts. It is often extended to apply to Islamist women too, by some scholars.

[22] Personal communication with the author, September 2012.

[23] Farzana Shaikh (2011).

[24] Ibid.

[25] Hanna Papanek, “Purdah in Pakistan; Seclusion and Modern Occupations for Women”, in Gail Minault and Hanna Papanek (Eds) (1982).

[26] Missionary preachings.

[27] Islamic lessons.

[28] Literally, the end. Reference to collective funeral prayers.

[29] The JI website carries caricaturized images of hejab clad women whose veils are being pulled off by a large arm bearing all the logos of various TV channels.

[30]Historically, the JI had campaigned vehemently against Benazir Bhutto (late Prime Minister of Pakistan), on the premise that it was un-Islamic for a woman to head an Islamic state. Since then, theymaintain a calculated silence on this issue in view of the rare and unlikely possibility of such an occurrence repeating any time soon.

[31] See footnote 5.

[32] Editorial, The Express Tribune, 7th March 2012, http://tribune.com.pk/story/346361/running-away-2/ and, “Pakistan’s moderates are beaten in public”, Ali Dayan Hasan,The New York Times, June 15, 2005,http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/14/opinion/14iht-edhasan.html.

[34] See, editorial, The Express Tribune, 7thMarch 2012, cited in footnote 32.

[35] Renamed as Khyber Pukhtunkhwa in 2008.

[36] The 2005 Local Bodies elections in Lower Dir and in a by-election in Malakand.

[37] In footnote 5.

[38]Report of the Court of Inquiry into the Punjab Disturbances: Munir Commission Report (Karachi: Government of Pakistan, 1954), multiple essays, mimeos, reports, documentaries and biographies by liberals, activists of the left and even fiction that documents the experiences of the Islamization period.

[39] While making the point that liberals do not distinguish between Islamists and militants, Iqtidar fails to mention that several Al-Qaeda operatives have in fact, been members of the JI student wing or associated with JI and/or some of the other members of the MMA at some point (see,“Pakistan Asked to Explain Islamic Party Link to Al Qaeda Suspects,” Agence France-Presse, March 3, 2003; Muhammad Anis, “Faisal Asks JI to Explain Activists’ Al Qaeda Links,” Dawn (Karachi), August 17, 2004; “Terrorists Have Individual Links With Some

JI Leaders: Shujaat,” Daily Times (Lahore), August 18, 2004; editorial, Daily Times, 17th August 2004). This is not directly relevant to the discussion in this essay but points to the politics of omission that some scholars on this subject engage in.

[40] Perhaps the best exemplar of such confused political amalgams is cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan, who was recently condemned for his self-acclaimed liberalism by the Taliban (“Taliban to discuss Pakistan’s Khan March”, Al Jazeera, 9th August, 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia/2012/08/2012891471380547.html). Khan is, in political terms, a conservative who advocates for an Enlightened Islamic Pakistan. In 2006, as a member of Parliament, while the Islamists boycotted the session in protest, Khan along with the conservative Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz group), abstained in the Parliamentary vote to reform the Zina Ordinance. It was due to the votes of the opposition party of the PPP that the Musharraf government managed to pass the Women’s Protection Bill.

[41] The references to such doubts can be found in many critical reports by Pakistanis writing for foreign journals and international agencies and newspapers including the International Crisis Group, the New York Times, Amnesty International. Also local NGOs and activist groups in their reports, monographs and particularly newspapers, are replete with such criticism of Musharraf’s ‘hoax’ for international consumption.

[42] This colonial (Western) law sits well with Islamists, as it serves as a useful tool of religo-political leverage in contemporary Pakistan.

[43] In 2010, the ruling (liberal) Pakistan People’s Party passed the controversial Nizam e Adl which effectively surrendered judicial authority to the militant group, Tehreek Nifaz e Shariah Mohammed (TSNM-Movement for Shariah Justice), in the Malakand Division (Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, previously, NWFP), as part of a peace deal brokered with them. The TNSM instituted Qazi courts for ‘swift Islamic justice’ in place of the lay courts that run the judicial system of Pakistan. The peace deal broke down a month later and a military operation ensued against the militants but the government has not repealed the new ‘swift’ justice system. The liberal women’s groups called this deal “constitutional suicide” by the Parliament where there was no debate nor dissenting voices on record, with the single exception of woman Parliamentarian, Sherry Rehman. The myth of an elite liberal resistance to the power of religiosity in Pakistan is overestimated in scholarship that attempts to critique ‘liberal-secular’ sentiment.

[44] It is unclear whether Pakistani anthropological scholars, such as Iqtidar, would consider the training of jihadists by Pakistan’s military and their engagement as proxies in wars against these countries, as ‘state terrorism’.

[45] The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has also maintained a log that is released in every annual report (prior to and) since the launch of the WoT, on human rights violations during counter-insurgency operations and warned against the impact of extra-judicial killings in this context.

[46]HRCP, often a target of Islamist hostility for its liberal stands, has consistently upheld the legal and human rights of terrorist suspects and lobbied against Anti-Terrorist Courts as extra-judicial and against principles of the human right to due legal process.

[47] For a list of the policies and campaigns regarding women, of the MMA during their governance of NWFP see, Nazish Brohi (2006).

[48]Difaa e Pakistan Council (Pakistan Defence Council), is one recent conglomeration of jihadist, Islamist and conservative parties, http://dawn.com/2011/12/21/rally-in-lahore-sends-alarm-bells-ringing/ . Also, nuclear scientist Dr. Qadeer Khan has recently founded a political party called,Tehreeq e Tahfuz (Movement for Protection of Pakistan).

One thought on “Engendering the Sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan: Afiya Shehrbano Zia”

  1. This is disappointing analysis by Afiya Zia, and I am a bit surprised that Kafila published this. Her attack on Iqtidar is comprised of the following “arguments” (I am here appropriating Zia’s “style” of putting every word that deserves emphasis in inverted commas):
    1. That she relies on Talal Asad’s work on secularism and secularization. This is considered problematic only because Farzana Shaikh apparently critiques “Talal Asad’s ‘Humpty Dumpty-like definition of secularism’”. Here is where Afiya Zia’s liberal use of quotation marks gets her into trouble – Farzana Shaikh (no fan of Talal Asad’s) did not actually say this in the piece Afiya Zia referenced. In fact, Shaikh begins her review with the comment that Iqtidar’s resignification of what we mean by secularism and secularization reminds her of a quote from Humpty-Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland.
    More importantly, Afiya Zia does not build on this “so-called argument” any further. What is the problem with conceptualizing secularism as the management of religion by the state? We do not hear a counter argument from Zia, only sarcasm accompanied by the refrain (paraphrased here) ‘Islamists are not feminists! They like wearing the hejab!’

    2. Iqtidar is a diasporic scholar. It must be noted here that Zia is obsessed with the question of location – diasporic versus local. What is fascinating here is the fact that Farzana Shaikh is writing for the Royal Institute of International Affairs is not something that is discussed either by her or by Afiya Zia, both of whom make a big deal out of the fact that Talal Asad and Partha Chatterjee are “US based” scholars.

    3. Iqtidar’s use of West-based scholars.
    “Copiously quoting the works of Asad (2003), Casanova (1994), Chatterjee (1993), Mahmood (2005), Taylor (1998) and other (largely West-based) theorists…”
    My own memory of reading the book is not that the quotes are copious but strategic. Nonetheless, one would hope it hardly needs pointing out in a space like Kafila that quoting ‘West-based’ scholarship hardly means succumbing to Western ideology and politics. Indeed, the entire aim of postcolonial studies (which Afiya Zia implies is only a Western concern or phenomenon) is to counter imperial narratives and Western representations of people from developing countries. Are we also going to call Edward Said a neocolonial scholar now? What about Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Catharine MacKinnon? Does all of this work belong in the dustbin of the Western academe?

    4. Iqtidar’s secularization thesis. The above quote continues “Iqtidar draws the conclusion, based on Casanova’s theory of deprivatisation of religion, that by politicizing religion, it is Islamists who are inadvertently facilitating a different secularization in Pakistan”.
    Yes, and none of the “evidence” Zia provides under the ‘Limits of the Secularization Argument’ section – Islamists politicizing the issue of women’s participation in sporting events, basant, the distribution of Indian films and television drams – contradicts Iqtidar’s thesis. In fact, it makes it stronger. Islamists are brining religion more and more into the public sphere and under the jurisdiction of state authority, which is in line with Jose Casanova’s secularization thesis. If Afiya Zia had actually read Casanova’s work instead of stealing references from Iqtidar’s book to enhance her bibliography, she would know that her own analysis shares the Eurocentric definition of secularism that Casanova outlines
    See http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2007/10/25/secular-secularizations-secularisms/#.UTPuEzlq7ok

    The last section ‘Secularization or More Islamization?’ just brings the point home that Zia has not really engaged with the work of Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, which problematizes severely an understanding of the two as binary opposites.

    5. Iqtidar does not criticize the Pakistani state’s persecution of Baloch radicals. Yes, and this is not her project! Her project is to interrogate the categories of secularization, secularism and Islamism. Her focus on the practices of two Islamist groups in Pakistan allows her to make a specific and sound argument. Although Zia has a lot of advice and recommendations for Iqtidar, in this last respect the former would not be amiss to take a page from the latter’s book, literally or figuratively.


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