The Politics of Piety in Naya Pakistan: Afiya Zia

Guest Post by AFIYA ZIA

A year ago, Pakistan’s national elections brought in a new government led by the Pakistan Tehreeq e Insaf (PTI) and headed by the former-cricketer-turned politician, Imran Khan. Khan had been drifting in the political wilderness for 22 years, waiting for providence to appoint him Prime Minister. As the 2018 elections loomed, this was not looking possible. However, a series of legal cases of corruption started being levelled against the serving PM, Nawaz Sharif, and efforts were made to atrophy others from the major parties of the PML-N and PPP (who had signed the ‘charter of democracy’ to prevent military intervention in civilian governance). The methods of these moves made it clear that the ‘establishment’ was betting on a new horse. Khan was not taking any risks though.

Six months before the national election, he entered marriage for the third time (with no less controversy than his previous marriages) to Bushra Maneka who was also his spiritual guide or pirni. A mother and a grandmother, there was speculation that Bushra divorced her husband for the higher cause of marrying the PM-in-waiting. In the days prior to the summer election, Khan performed Umrah in Mecca with Bushra, and was seen prostrating at a shrine in Pakistan and accessorised with rosaries and amulets in preparation for the polls.

Soon after the oath taking in August 2018, I wrote one of my regular opinion pieces for the Dawn newspaper, on the political relevance of the first lady and how her observation of the full-veil was a departure from all previous practices in Pakistan’s mainstream political leadership. Over the years, Pakistan had seen a steady reversal of the trend as set by the first woman Parliamentarian, Shaista Ikramullah and her experiences of unveiling 50 years earlier as documented in her autobiography, From Purdah to Parliament (1963)[1].

So, I thought this moment was worth a sociological comparison. However, Dawn refused the piece, claiming a liberal effort at avoiding any commentary on the “personal” aspects of the new political leadership. This was in itself a very interesting response but many supporters and those defensive about religious politics generally, agreed to this political correctness. This is historical denial, as if, veiling by politically elite women has not always been a significant way of capturing and influencing the bourgeois imaginary or, is based on some pretense that Pakistan is some post-Islamic nation. By definition, an Islamic republic is not a neutral state and Islamic signifiers like the veil are not insignificant or incidental but thermometers that measure the cultural milieu and so, what women wear is always conformist or resistant and its observation or resistance is political.

A pietist cover

Immediately after forming government, and as post-electoral speculation over rigging, horse-trading, blunders, and absurd appointments and fake claims by the PTI escalated, Bushra Imran broke some of the mystery shrouding her enigmatic arrival on the political scene in a solitary TV interview. In itself, the interview was tepid and pointless but was a promotional piece on the Prime Minister’s alleged piety and simplicity. It became clear that – by design or chance is irrelevant – Bushra Imran’s pietist persona is the cover required to reinvent the PM who is a man with a certain historical reputation as a philanderer, with a child out of wedlock, accused of sexual harassment within his own party, and reputed to be have led a hedonistic lifestyle. His redemption or rescue is dependent not on an Islamist woman in a black veil, as typically observed by women from the lower classes or Islamist women, but an agentive pious woman who chooses a full-face white veil and offers herself as an Erdogan-admiring, Sufi, upper class, politically embedded, Punjabi woman. This is precisely the point I made in my article. Subject-citizens are formed and conditioned by their environment and ethical self-making takes a public, not private route.

Women have always been key in this making of the Muslim subject and society. Faisal Devji in 1991[2] wrote on how the late 19th C Muslim reformist movements focused on converting the zaif Muslim woman in the private realm. The project depended on reforming women through education (Islamic) and preparing them for the outside world as a visible/invisible symbol of Islamic revivalism. Not much has changed. In continuation, Pakistan’s Islamic architecture has been closely tied to the Muslim woman’s appearance and role in nation-making. Under Zia ul Haq’s Islamisation project, women were to symbolise the reversal of modern secularity and re-embed the Islamic gendered order under the policy of “chador and chardewari” (Mumtaz and Shaheed 1987)[3].

In General Pervez Musharraf’s regime of ‘Enlightened Moderation’ they were to serve as fig-leaves to his praetorian rule as he dragged Pakistan into the War on Terror (A.S. Zia 2015)[4].  Under Imran Khan’s ‘on the same page’ relations with the military and his purported vision of turning Pakistan into a Riyasat e Medina, the Muslim woman-subject is conceived as one who is a pious welfare-recipient and not an empowered or autonomous one such as, (the late) human rights champion, Asma Jahangir, who was a nemesis to his political career.

Muslim women’s piety revisited

Despite much hand-wringing, it is clear that piety is a political occupation in Pakistan. With regard to Muslim women, Saba Mahmood’s influential book, ‘Politics of Piety’ (2005)[5] resounded in post 9/11 global debates on Muslim women’s “docile agency” and their choice to veil.[6] Considerable scholarship in this genre confirmed how the hijab and other Islamic signifiers are not insignificant or incidental but part of the vocation/career that is piety. But I have questioned the costs and benefits of this discovery of agency in/as piety (A.S. Zia 2018)[7]. I’ve also challenged the suggestion that this piety is always neutral and simply about virtuosity and conservative non-change and questioned what the measurement or accountability of such politics may be. A key concern is the accompanied undermining of liberal/secular feminism in Muslim majority contexts such as Pakistan.

So celebrated has been Mahmood’s work (amongst postsecularists) for its unapologetic reclaiming of non-liberal aspirations and the non-emancipatory ends of pietist women, that any critique about the limits of such theory easily becomes labelled as ‘Islamophobic’ and even ‘orientalist’ – even for pointing out that this agency is also a stabiliser of patriarchy and that it serves the Islamic gendered order with occasional room for dissonance.

Piety is also performance. Mahmood calls it a “performance of Islamic gendered virtue” and performances require props.  Observing women have claimed their choice to veil and acknowledge that they are empowered in their pursuit of piety and, in the case of Islamist women, their political ends. The practices of purdah, virtue and piety are not single dimensional but interrelated –  the veil is associated with piety which in turn is related to sexual modesty[8] – not exclusively – but there is a fundamental and historical linkage.  The physical veil offers dual functions – as an identity marker, or to conceal one’s self. The discursive concept of purdah (or piety as Mahmood’s focus) can be used as a tool of empowerment or, segregation and invisibility.

Clearly, Pakistan’s current first lady deploys piety for political ends and there is no mystery about this. What is clear however, is that the veil signifies gender segregation (of the mind, body or social/political roles) and is not a marker of gender equality – not just as defined in liberal terms but by way of any consistent material, temporal, social or power relations, too. In a nation where the social order has been constructed around Islamic gendered and sexual norms,[9] which permeate laws, judgements, policies and social relations, the apparatus of piety is very relevant, and it is myopic to pretend some disassociation.

The contesting frames of faith-based and secular intersections for women’s rights has been a matter of consistent philosophical and strategic challenges and debated within the women’s movements in Pakistan.[10] The core trouble with a generation that has since depended on critiquing “liberal secular authoritarianism” in Pakistan is that their frames are decontextualised, impressionistic and on the question of woman and minorities, incredibly ahistoric and inaccurate (see, A.S. Zia 2018). It is the conflation of ‘the secular’ with liberal tradition by Asad (2003)[11] and in particular Mahmood (2005) who offers piety as a counter-concept to the secular, that encouraged a host of subsequent post 9/11 scholarship on Muslim piety and discursive tradition and encouraged a misrepresentation about secular efforts or resistance in contexts such as Pakistan where piety boosts patriotism, conservatism and provides a leverage of power for political legitimacy.[12] This has made secularism and sexuality the direct oppositional threats to the Pakistan nation and the Islamic gendered order even more than before.

The War on Terror period (2002-2014) in Pakistan saw the extreme and systemic violence of religious militancy peak and piety dominated the political landscape – even in the news and entertainment industry. Faith-based development policies became defeatist opportunistic routes to deliver even basic services (A.S. Zia 2011)[13]. In the post conflict period, religious-nationalism has settled into a simmering stalemate that seeks refuge in the crevices of piety. The politics of this piety lurks even in the nation’s cricket dressing rooms and has inspired the repentance of several musicians and artists of the entertainment industry. The significance of “moral agency” as expressed through piety is confirmed by the self-transformation and moral worth described by several “repentant” women artists too but stands in stark contrast to those who are dissenting, claiming secular aspirations or attempting to gain sexual autonomy in the Islamic Republic.

Those subjects who resist or dissent against faith-based politics and ethos are increasingly isolated, targeted and have become prime antagonists and sources of religio-nationalist anxieties. No amount of theoretical acrobatics can establish this to be some equal contest or that there is “liberal-secular” dominance on the matter of women’s autonomy or freedoms for minorities in Pakistan or, that these are merely discursive binaries. Too much politics, legalese and power have been historical and irreversible casualties to pretend otherwise and at best, efforts are now made simply for negotiating with religio-nationalism rather than transformation towards some secular neutrality however defined, even at formal levels or constitutionally.

Friendly fire

My recent book, Faith and Feminism in Pakistan (SAP 2018) has attempted to document the historic trysts of feminism and faith-based politics and was written with two purposes in mind. The first was to offer a corrective response to a post 9/11, postsecular[14] trend in global scholarship on Muslim women that privileged their religious identities over and above feminist and class-based ones. The second was to document then, the silenced, dismissed or misdiagnosed liberal/secular women’s movements, or which denied secular trends in working class women’s movements.

Islamists, conservatives (and for that matter, an older generation of feminists who have led or been part of the secular movements and debates recounted in the book) have been relatively indifferent to my English language feminist tract. Faith and Feminism challenges the works (not the persons, as some misguided readings have insisted) of Pakistani scholars who have proposed that the agentive potential of Muslim women’s piety and politics is an alternative to ‘Western’, white, feminist/liberal/secular activism and aspiration. It contests other scholars who have insisted that Pakistani feminism has been elitist, pro-drones, imperialist, tea-party chatter or comprises of NGO aunties and native informants until they themselves arrived on the scene to fix such imprudent feminism.  It is no coincidence that nearly all of the scholars who record such opinions and whose work I critique, happen to be part of the Pakistani (Western) diaspora who have contributed to this postsecular turn.

My book has provoked some readers who would claim progressive, radical, ‘woke’ feminist credentials and belong to a younger generation too, since it is critical of the postsecular trend that has dominated the humanities in recent years (Aamir Mufti 2013)[15]. Conscientised in the post 9/11 period, they are defensive about Saba Mahmood’s influential work on Muslim women’s pietist agency. A virtual universe where opinions, outrage, and fake claims render fact or nuance irrelevant has allowed anyone whose sensibilities are offended by a thesis, article, political statement or published work to personalise their disagreement, often without ever actually quoting the incriminating evidence or supposed offensive words. It’s about impressions and feelings. Readership is no longer passive – the consumer has been infantalised but also agrees to rate products with stars or stab the thumbs-down icon, and the twitterati to circulate allegations based on disagreement or even in objection to some imagined ‘tone’ rather than the merit of the argument. With regard to feminist literature, many defensive responses often portend outrage on behalf of ALL Muslim/black/subaltern women from Manhattan and Toronto, to Karachi and Dhaka.

I’ve been teaching in Pakistan for 15 years now and have seen how books and reading have been replaced over time by the specular. This short-circuit reading culture is something my own students confess with pride not embarrassment precisely because this is now the self-referential norm. I’ve also observed that over the past five years that with increasing choice and access to global literature, theory, lectures and visuals, students are more confident in framing their ideas and writing than any generation I’ve taught before.  Some write more superbly and imaginatively than I’ve read before. They read reviews and watch YouTube talks and skim rather than read books but confess that they decide the value of academic work based on reputation garnered from social media influencers, endorsements and yes, celebrity status, followings and fame. Branding is important in an academia that serves more as “a supermarket of the mind” now and scholarship is driven by the need to fulfill the demands of this industry (Eagleton, 1991)[16].

There’s something to be admired about such instantaneous power at the finger-tips that can name and shame not just violators and harassers but even those that one simply does not feel affiliation with. But this discrediting works both ways and is usually better deployed by the rear guard. It’s a race to the finish line of indignation and no citation, specifics or cross-checks are needed as cautionary measures. In many cases, somewhat opportunistic ‘senior’ academics, who would not risk making unscholarly allegations themselves for fear of being seen as petty and spiteful, will retweet even the most wild and unanchored opinion and shield themselves with claims of the most disingenuous kind – that retweets are not an endorsement. Sadly, many such academics have clearly not even read the text under discussion – not even the ones they purport to be defending! They trust the instincts of their critic-friends rather than ask for some citation or even verification.

Even feminists who tend to reject any reviews or opinions by men on women’s issues because they consider it ‘mansplaining’, are found to be comfortable in snarky social media exchanges with male commentators if it’s about the work of feminists or collectives who they disagree with. Again – this trend is found mostly within diasporic judgement over ‘native’ activists or writings. All scholarly ethics seem to evaporate on the informal medium of social media where even scholars succumb to snide hubris rather than scholarly debate. Increasingly, rather than meetings, street protests or collective debate, tweets serve as political positionality.

However, if a similar observation is made about South Asian diasporic scholars and their secure, social and academic upward mobility in Western academia and the marital or sexual choices, freedoms and mobility that they enjoy, this is considered offensive if, they happen to be friends. If the subjects are not friends, such exchanges are simply considered to be cryptic humour and proof of some counter-cultural intellectualism. As one colleague puts it, “The decision by Pakistani intellectuals about which side of an issue they support is entirely dependent on only one kind of ism – social-circle nepotism.’

Self-contradictory anxiety

Somewhat like the veil, twitter is political costume. There are some ‘public intellectuals’ who work hard at remaining ‘neutral’ in their social commentary but this is usually because they are too anxious about losing social capital with ‘friends’ on either side of contesting opinions.

There is expected anxiety with certain terms used in Pakistan’s political lexicon. It seems that no matter how often feminism, socialism and secularism are defined, explained, translated, unpacked, theorised, contextualised and documented, these are reduced and labelled as ‘western’, orientalist, imperialist, anti-Islam, Islamophobic, and anti-nationalist. Right-wing demagogues like Orya Maqbool have clear oppositional targets by way of secularists, Ahmedis and ‘feminazis’ and demonise and accuse human rights/women’s rights activists as liberal fundamentalists, Islamophobes and traitors. But even those who consider themselves woke critics of liberal/secular elite politics – in fact, live secular, liberal and elite personal and professional lives in and outside of Pakistan – they too, protest any challenge to postsecular theories or arguments that recuperate theological empowerment for Muslim women. Some conflate these tiresomely with ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘orientalism’ – with no supporting citation. There are even some strains of feminist sensibility that seems to be firmly in business with the conservative defenders of Islamic politics who label any critique, even scholarly, as anti-Islam. These feminist and even some left groups claim secular politics in their manifestos or politics but steer clear of explaining what their understanding of this is and recommend an unspecified and untested “engagement” with religious agency and piety.

In the 1980s, feminist movements in Muslim contexts were often challenged as a Western imposition and for their secularist intent (understood as anti-religion or la deen-iyut). Urban women’s groups were criticised for being limited in their cultural resonance with the poor, rural or faith-empowered women of the country.  Post 9/11 postsecularist scholarship also relies on such argument (Jamal 2005)[17] but adds that there is (supposedly) some forced secularisation on Pakistan that has failed (Iqtidar 2011)[18]. Some of this scholarship argues that religion should not only be given a legitimate place in politics and state along with the Ulema and madrassa leaders  but also in mainstream of development and policy itself (Deneulin and Bano 2009)[19] or, that there should be some hybridisation of Islamic and human rights and that women’s rights be situated within Islamic-defined rights and empowerment. In this endeavor, international donor funding agencies have been complicit. I have discussed the consequences of this donor-driven Islam in Pakistan from 2002 (see supra note 13) and been critical of these for the following reasons;

  1. These projects do not involve any discussion of class identities;
  2. They reduce all analyses to be viewed through the singular lens of religious identities;
  3. These ventures are defeatist, as they employ pragmatic methods that call for negotiating rather than demanding rights. The emphasis is on pragmatic necessities, such as ensuring equal enrolment for girls in madrasas as a practical, demand-driven necessity. Or these studies recommend a certain amount of mosque space for women rather than challenging the absence of secular public alternatives.
  4. They even suggest that health for women should be delivered through the approval, involvement and mediation of local clergyman or “Rent-a- Maulvi projects”.

Islamists’ agendas have been successfully absorbed into international development agencies, human rights organisations and domestic policies and development agendas. Effective lobbying by Islamists at international levels has meant that Muslim women’s rights or human rights have been severed from the ‘oppression’ of the universal. Instead, these may now be measured according to alternative, culturally specific benchmarks and standards. This has already affected the narrative on women’s rights ranging from dress-code, inheritance, citizenship, religious political leadership roles and marital rights and right to work.

Some of the defining debates that were considered to have been resolved under the reformed Muslim Family Laws 1961 but have consistently been revisited and challenged by Islamists in Pakistan. Child marriage, divorce rights and polygamy are constantly revisited by religious groups under the rationale of Islamic authenticity and supported by sympathisers as pragmatic and beneficial socio-cultural refuges for Muslim women. For fear of being painted as Islamophobic, there is global caution and silence over cases of stoning of women, blasphemy cases and persecution of minorities in Muslim contexts. Only when the case is very obviously offensive, such as shooting a girl in the head for going to school, will the international community have the courage to speak out. For that too, there is outrage and a backlash over what is supposed to be the uncontested issue of girls’ education. Is this project of narrowing identities and merging them and sealing them off with an Islamic branding, a problem? In the experience of secular feminists, yes,

If feminism is the resistance to patriarchy, and civilian supremacy is the oppositional requirement to military interventions, then even if secularism has not been some successful project or alternative political force to religious governance at the very least, secular resistance is an important interrupter to religious politics and Islamic majoritarian hegemony. This is most visible today with regard to sexual politics or articulations of sexualities – be it in the form of campaigns and movements against sexual harassment and continuing in the political work against honour based crimes or simply claiming sexual autonomy by women like social media celebrity and honour crime victim, Qandeel Baloch and her defiance of the Islamic gendered order.

What is interesting is that Mahmood and the other Pakistani postsecular scholars who take their cue from her work do not even mention sexual agency in the way that Fatima Mernissi and the feminist literature on Muslim women from the 1980s had done. Privileging Muslim women’s virtue and piety over sexual agency and experiences of violence have deflected from any liberal or secular ambitions that Muslim women may politic around. At best, there is some recent interest over the consumption patterns of Islamic products with a focus on middle class Muslim women’s consumerist behaviour but what about other desires? Secular desires. Why has Pakistani scholarship on women for the past 20 years been criminally silent on sexual desire, transgressions, and pretended that this is only a secular subject? Even the secular women’s movement only discusses sex in terms of its violent expression or in the reproductive health framing.

Piety plus capitalism equals Homo Islamicus

This post 9/11 privileging of Muslim women’s religious and pietist agency over all other identities has been channeled within the larger global capitalist efforts to harmonise neoliberal economics with Islamic regimes. Such shifts have resulted in the rise of an entity that can be called Homo Islamicus – the Muslim entrepreneur who, according to Sabahaddin Zaim (1994),[20] “lives correctly, is moral and utilizes his abilities properly” (p. 102). This project involves engineering certain social and ideological process that will allow the transformation of pre-globalisation conditions for a neoliberal world. So, for example, in the case of Turkey, the Islamic legitimacy of the neoliberal transformation meant setting up an axis between the new Islamic bourgeoisie class and the ruling AKP or Justice Party. Merging the Islamic subject as the capitalist subject is very important because it legitimises commercial or business activity as a sacred realm where what is important is not money or wealth – as Bushra Imran reinforced in her interview– but religious knowledge and activity – the rejection of wealth accumulation and focus on spiritual pursuits.

Some analysts have already touched upon the middle class nature of the PTI support and the rise and induction of the real estate interests, smaller businessmen, the petty bourgeoisie. The promise of delivering a fusion of an alternative modernity/democracy where the poor masses will be integrated into the neoliberal model is materialised by convincing people that it is past corruption and not capitalism that is the root of economic inequality. The focus on individual politicians, failing provinces and crushing parliamentary opposition and dissent through crippling censorship while firewalling institutions like the military and judiciary is the policy of Imran Khan’s Riyasat e Medina.

Since nothing is an ungendered project, nation-building, fighting wars, justifying wars, justifying peace talks, colonisation and decolonisation, revolution, reforming societies, preparing or educating future generations, governing, voting – all these require careful gender planning. The engineering of very specific roles for men and women involves convincing them that their allocated roles are not just their patriotic duty but a favour to them- for their protection, for their betterment and the strength of the nation will securitise their betterment too.

It is not enough to make this connection between gender identity and the economic project – because after economic engineering, the project requires making the (female) Homo Islamicus economically active in the neoliberal or new capitalist order. With reference to Muslim women’s religious identities, the market forces of capitalist consumerism necessarily compete against any limiting, purist notions of inner, spiritual, non-material desires. Instead, the market seeks to tap into and reify, re-inscribe and reinforce (therefore, profit from) Muslim women’s outward identities, external lifestyles and public belonging, in relation to their beliefs.

In other words, it is very important to emphasise the essential independence of the Muslim subject – cultural and religious. Why? Kwame Appiah (1991)[21] explains this as the need to “clear the space” in order to reinvent and market (or in his term, commodify) a cultural product. This cannot happen by rejecting the capitalist system so instead, the Muslim woman’s market needs are accommodated by redefining and reframing it as ‘sharia-compliant’ capitalism. This is similar to how the 19th Century Muslim reformists wanted to clear the space for the rise of the emergent class of the shurafa as a distinct class and the pietist reformed Muslims played an important role in this project.

The pietist turn also requires a deliberate contradistinction from liberal or secular artistic and consumerist sensibilities. Islamists and secularists may consume and produce different products but this does not challenge or change the means or control of production. In the Islamic industry, the opportunity to promote Islamist conservatism is much wider. The essentialising and creating of a “Muslim woman” in the singular [then] stands for global Muslim society” (Gokariksel and Mclarney 2010, pg. 5).[22]  So, two things – globalisation convinces us we all are the same and equal consumers– have the same needs – for luxuries, for entertainment, for profit but that we are different ideological identities and must respect and celebrate diversity and religious or non-linear agency as long as this does not challenge capitalist relations.

Muslim women’s difference becomes a “marketable product, a logic of profitability”(Ibid, pg 6). But this is not just a one way process – other spin-offs take place. Essentialism creates competition – between the Good Muslim woman and the Bad One. Good is who fits into the patriarchal frame of the nation – in our case Muslim, obedient, accepting of lesser inheritance and who reject Indian culture and western values, are submissive, virtuous, sexually abstaining or active only in the service of their lawful husbands, not self-pleasure and again, piety allows for some dissonance and circumscribed freedoms.

Academics, who I note (2018) as postsecular scholars, especially from the Lahore University of Management Sciences, have invested the post 9/11 years to contribute towards this literature that argues for this harmonisation, hybridisation and delegitimises liberalism, secularism, CEDAW, etc. In the end, the result has been such that the Muslim subject can either be a liberal/secular citizen, complicit with Western philosophy, committed as s/he is to the notion of equal rights for women and minorities or, a good Muslim/docile (capitalist) theologian.

My concern is not to say Muslim women are bigger dupes of capitalism than other women and men– just that piety and scholarship that attempts to reify religious identity and attempts to firewall it from critique needs to be challenged and to do so, is not subscribing to Islamophobia or being complicit in any imperial rescue of brown women from white men. These clichés need to be replaced by a closer attention to the consequences of attempt to ‘harmonise’, ‘hybridise’. ‘contextualize’ or adapt/compromise feminist goals.

The success of both Islamists and postsecularists has been in their ability to not deliver governance or rights but simply reframe their politics or scholarship about egalitarian rights and gender politics. In other words, there is no accountability or discussion of the consequences of their theory or policies, respectively. While this discourse has dominated Pakistani conversations, secular possibilities and resistance have been ignored, undermined or demonised.

Working class secular resistance – renewed challenges

Working class women’s movements in Pakistan, like the Lady Health Workers, the Women Councillors Networks and Union Council levels and women in the Okara peasant movement, women of Sindhiani Tehreek, tribal women’s association (see, A.S. Zia 2018) – all have deployed agency, not towards Saba Mahmood’s gendered Islamic virtues but very much for emancipatory ends, political power, provincial autonomy, using a liberal vocabulary, lay legal aid and secular means towards social transformation. But, these have been directly opposed by religious fundamentalism, Islamist politics and men of varying faith. Several non-governmental organisations working on women’s issues have given rise to a community of social leaders across Pakistan. Whatever the critique of neoliberal agendas carried by these organisations, their struggle against local patriarchies and organised religious power-brokers at local levels has yielded a women’s rights consciousness in the most unexpected sites across the country.

The Women’s Action Forum is a non-funded pro-democracy women’s rights lobby group that has been active for 35 years and is consistently faced with the challenges to women’s progress and witness to women’s resilience against religious politics on a daily basis. To deny this local routine challenge in order to make a grand narrative against imperialism and liberalism and accuse these efforts of being anti-Islam in some selective manner is a disservice to the women’s movements.

In just one year of Imran Khan’s government, the politics of piety and its agentive forces have only spilled over in one clear direction in Pakistan. The rise of the Jamia Hafsa women in 2007 is said to be regrouping at the site of the Lal Masjid at the time of writing this.  As part of the momentum against the previous government led by Nawaz Sharif, the politicisation of Khadim Rizvi’s Barelvi piety resulted in the overnight, electorally successful party of the Tehreek e Labaik Pakistan which took to the streets against Imran Khan’s initial decision to appoint an Ivy League Pakistani economist who happened to be an Ahmedi, Atif Mian, in the government’s Economic Advisory Committee (and was later removed due to this pressure). The Al-Huda movement and other pietist leaders completely tow and promote the patriarchal, statist, Two Nation Theory-based status quo (Ahmad 2009). Under Imran Khan’s government, piety is closely wed with a conservative, welfarist, ‘Riyasat e Medina’ vision and is committed to retaining the exclusionary status of Ahmedis as heretics.

As a new generation of activists in the ‘Naya Pakistan’ grapple with the contradictions of the past decade and the unresolved place of religion, piety, feminism, sexual freedoms and secular resistance, there is a serious challenge looming. If their demands for sexual freedoms, mobility and equal rights of social relations are going to be directed at the state then the pre-coded and even universal understanding about the limits of Muslim gendered social relations will have to be tackled. If the supporters of the controversial Aurat March of 2019 intend to challenge these boundaries, it will mean taking on fundamental differences of views on the place of sexual rights and even legal reasonings of Islamic laws.

These will require strategic thinking and agreements. It will also mean that those who argue for ‘engagement’ with piety and for understanding religious women’s ‘valid way of being’ will have to get to work in order to pacify the current backlash to feminism and sexual politics that is coming from some Islamist women’s organisations today. It means that those who have lectured on the need to understand and “engage” with the supposedly benign politics of pietist or Islamist women must ensure that these sectors are not offended or excluded. Otherwise, these feminists may invite criticism of double speak because they have accused other secular feminists of being guilty of being native informant or orientalist. Worse, they should be prepared to swim in the pool of accusatory arsenal that casts casual accusations of Islamophobia and to which they have contributed themselves. Clearly, the lessons from old Pakistan are not yielding lessons even to younger activists in a pietist Naya Pakistan.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia is a feminist scholar and author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan (SAP, 2018). She is based in Karachi, Pakistan. 


[1] Ikramullah, Shaista Suhrawardy (1998) From Purdah to Parliament. Pakistan: Oxford University Press (first published 1963).

[2] Devji, Faisal (199) “Gender and the Politics of Space: The Movement for Women’s Reform in Muslim India, 1857–1900.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 14.1: 141–53.

[3] Mumtaz, Khawar and Shaheed, Farida (1987) Women of Pakistan: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back. London: Zed Books.

[4]  Zia, Afiya S. (2015) “Faith-based Challenges to the Women’s Movement in Pakistan.” In Contesting Feminisms: Gender and Islam in Asia, (Ed.) Huma Ahmed Ghosh. New York: SUNY Press.

[5] Mahmood, Saba (2005) Politics of Piety; The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

[6] Scott, Joan W. (2010) The Politics of the Veil. New Jersey: Princeton University Press; Alvi, Sajida. S., Hoodfar, Huma, McDonough, Sheila (Eds) (2003) The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates. Women’s Press.

[7] Zia, Afiya. S. (2018) Faith and Feminism in Pakistan: Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy? Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.

[8] This is acknowledged by Mahmood who confirms piety is an ethos which operates by disciplining the body and becomes the necessary ‘means through which the virtue of modesty is both created and expressed’ (2005: 23). She also argues this piety is political and that it speaks back to the humanist and secularist legacy. Her core criticism is the dependence on secularist discourses and conceptual frameworks that motivate the urge for ‘reform’. In that sense she is not just troubled by secular Muslims but equally critical of liberal hermeneutical Muslim thinkers.

[9] Jahangir, Asma and Hina Jillani, (1990) ‘The Hudood Ordinances; A Divine Sanction?’ Lahore: Rohtas Books; Zia, Afiya. S (1994) Sex Crime in the Islamic Context; Rape, Class and Gender in Pakistan.’ Lahore: ASR.

[10] Mumtaz and Shaheed, see supra note 3; Saigol, Rubina (2013) The Pakistan Project: A Feminist Perspective on Nation and Identity. New Delhi: Women Unlimited.

[11] Talal Asad, ‘Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity.’ Stanford University Press, 2003.

[12] See the excellent critique by Aamir R. Mufti  Mufti (2014) “Talal Asad on ‘Violence, Law, and Humanitarianism’: A Response.” A Public Seminar on Humanitarian Violence by Critical Inquiry, 16 May, Chicago., and

Jansen, Yolande (2011) “Postsecularism, Piety and Fanaticism: Reflections on Jurgen Habermas’ and Saba Mahmood’s Critiques of Secularism,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, 37:9:977 – 988.

[13] Zia, Afiya. S. (2011) ‘Donor-driven Islam?’ opendemocracy, January 21.

[14] Some misinformed readings have suggested that I have coined this term as a riposte levelled at certain scholars – the term is of course, best known as Jurgen Habermas’ contribution.

[15] Mufti, Aamir. R. (2013) “Why I Am Not a Postsecularist.” boundary 2 40 (1): 7-19.

[16] Eagleton, Terry (1999) “In the Gaudy Supermarket.” Review of A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. London Review of Books 21 (10): 3-6.

[17] (2005) “‘Feminist ‘selves’ and feminism’s ‘others’; feminist representations of Jamaat-e-Islami women in Pakistan.” Feminist Review 81: 52-73.

[18] Iqtidar, Humeira (2011a) Secularizing Islamists? Jamaat-i-Islami and Jama`at-ud-Da`wa in Urban Pakistan. Chicago & London: Chicago University Press.

[19] Deneulin, Severine with Bano, Masooda (2009) Religion in Development: Rewriting the Secular Script. Zed Books.

[20] Zaim, Sabahaddin. (1994). Ekonomik Hayatta Müslüman İnsanın Tutum ve Davranışları. In Hüner Şencan (Ed.), İş Hayatında İslam İnsanı (Homo İslamicus) (pp. 101–112). İstanbul: MÜSİAD.

[21] Appiah, Kwame Anthony (1991) “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” Critical Inquiry 17 (2) 336-357.

[22] Gökariksel, Banu, and McLarney, Ellen (2010) “Muslim Women, Consumer Capitalism, and the Islamic Culture Industry.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 6 (3): 1-18.


One thought on “The Politics of Piety in Naya Pakistan: Afiya Zia”

  1. Many thanks Prof AFIYA ZIA for this well researched, well articulated and very informative article on ‘Naya Pakistan’ . More power to your pen.


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