“how can we bring up feminist resistance against our own?”
Amy is joined by Dr. Afiya S. Zia to discuss her book Faith and Feminism in Pakistan: Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy and explore the achievements and challenges of Pakistani feminists.
Dr. Afiya S. Zia
Dr. Afiya Zia is a feminist scholar who has taught Gender Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada, and Habib University in Pakistan. She is the author of three books, has authored over a dozen peer-reviewed essays in scholarly publications, and she’s contributed chapters for over ten edited volumes, including an award-winning publication on human rights. She’s currently a professor at Wesleyan University.
Amy Allebest: Today we’re going to be talking about a book called Faith and Feminism in Pakistan: Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy by Dr. Afiya S. Zia, and I am thrilled to welcome to the podcast the author of this book. Welcome, Afiya!
Afiya Shehrbano Zia: Amy, thank you so much.
AA: Thank you for being here. And I’d like to introduce you professionally first, maybe I’ll just read your professional bio and then I’ll ask you to introduce yourself a little more personally after that.
Dr. Afiya Zia is a feminist scholar who has taught gender studies at the University of Toronto, Canada, and Habib University in Pakistan. She is the author of three books, and her most recent book is the one we’ll be discussing today. Again, it’s Faith and Feminism in Pakistan: Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy. She has authored over a dozen peer-reviewed essays in scholarly publications, and she’s contributed chapters for over ten edited volumes, including an award-winning publication on human rights. And she’s currently a professor at Wesleyan University.
So, again, welcome Dr. Zia. I’d love it if you could just tell us a little bit more about you, where you’re from, your family, your education, and what you bring to the work you do today.
AZ: Sure, thanks Amy. I’ve grown up in Pakistan. I’ve always lived here, I politicked here, and even my career has been here. I have two sons, they’ve both grown up in Pakistan as well. But I grew up in the 1990s, in two different provinces. Pakistan comprises of four provinces, now a fifth one, and Pakistan is incredibly diverse. There is tremendous diversity in terms of languages spoken, in terms of ethnic background, of course, in terms of class. So growing up in two provinces is significant because it means that you’re exposed to very different kinds of political contexts, and I think that enriched me tremendously. And although I went to a private school, I went to an English-speaking sort of, my mode of education was elite. It was certainly a privileged background even though my family wasn’t particularly privileged in terms of, we were not part of a landed elite. But yes, certainly in terms of our education.
And so what that meant is that we were of the 1% or even less of the elite in Pakistan. And the school that I went to was based on a Cambridge system. And most of my colleagues and peers went off to university straight after. It was their plan that they go to university overseas after their basic schooling in Pakistan. I was not sent overseas. My dad was concerned and said that you had to prove yourself, and he didn’t want to send women. There was a certain conservative background in those days, you know, and boys used to be sent off to universities overseas but there was a more protectionist kind of approach to women.
So I went on to do both my degrees, my undergrad and postgrad degrees in Pakistan. And that’s when I moved to another province. And I moved from a co-education, sort of elite private school to public university in both these provinces. And that was a huge exposure, a sort of a de-classing moment for myself. And when I grew up, when I did my post-grad degree in Lahore at College, which is part of Punjab University, what I learned was– Lahore is the hub of political activism historically, and a vibrant left and feminist movement since partition, since 1947 in Pakistan. And that’s where I learned and I think cut my teeth on, or sort of learned my feminist politics from an entire generation of very radical feminists who had launched movements and a strong women’s movement in the 1980s against the military dictatorship, which was prevalent in many parts of the world. But certainly Pakistan has seen its share of several military dictatorships of various flavors, if you like, in different variants.
So that’s the Pakistan I grew up in. Sort of disconnected a little bit or sort of declassified my politics from my class. And there was a huge disconnect then between the people I grew up with and the new colleagues, peers, comrades. We had study groups, we initiated all sorts of things, but also a fairly stunted political youth or time period for us, for my generation. I’ve always called us children of dictatorship, children of Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship, because it was a very ascetic Islamized thing, a period of Islamization that he purported to unleash on Pakistan and for which we are still paying the price.
So we are a very specific generation of a very specific military dictatorship, and I think the next generation is paying the price for it in some ways. By which I mean, Amy, we went in two different directions. Many of my colleagues and comrades and peers went down the Islamic route, their identities were very linked to their religious identities, while a whole bunch of us sought resistance. They found refuge in religion and we resisted that. And there was a kind of a split amongst our generation as well. So there was a lot happening in the 1990s where I grew up.
I did then go for a degree in women’s studies overseas, prompted by my mentors and my teachers and the senior founding members of the women’s movement. I did a degree in women’s studies from England, from the University of York. Came back, was involved in setting up a women’s studies center where we were going to fuse theory and activism in Lahore again. And then four years later, while we were still doing it, I did get married and had both my boys and moved back to Karachi.
So it was a bit of back and forth and then I got more involved in the academic side and derived my career in terms of writing, researching, and teaching in Pakistan. Wesleyan University, I’ve sort of completed my time period over there. I was just a visiting professor over there for one year, which ended last year in 2022. And I’m back in Pakistan doing research again. And the Wesleyan experience was fantastic, it’s the first time I’d taught American students. I’ve lectured everywhere in Europe and North America, but this was my first full exposure in terms of being embedded at the university. And I had a fantastic time. It was a tremendous growing experience, enriching experience. And it was also post Black Lives Matter, new generation. For the first time I had students who were also either transitioning or identified themselves with the trans community, and that was a huge learning experience for me as well, to have them in the classroom. That is something that was always covert. So that’s a little bit of the big arc of my growing up and my career.
AA: Well, thank you for sharing that. If I can back up just a little bit, and this might be an elementary question, but for some listeners who might need a refresher about Pakistan and its history, could you remind us? You mentioned Partition in 1947 when Pakistan was born, but if you could talk a little bit about that just to give us a feel for the background for our conversation.
AZ: So Pakistan became independent in 1947, independent of both British colonial rule in India, Pakistan was part of India, as was Bangladesh. And in 1947, not only did Pakistan get freedom from British colonial rule, there was a huge nationalist movement prior to that, but also was partitioned from India. And that’s why it’s interesting, it’s called sort of a post-colonial moment when you’re liberated from the colonial oppressors, but you also found independence and partitioned yourself. And the partition word is interesting because it was a very bloody partition. There were millions displaced and millions lost their lives. But it was also fratricidal in the sense that we had been one block and one homeland for centuries, and Muslims and Hindus and Christians to a lesser extent lived together. But after colonial rule, there was a lot of division and animosity, and a splitting up of those identities eventually led to Pakistan gaining independence in 1947.
And subsequently there was an East Pakistan and a West Pakistan on both sides of India. And East Pakistan, then in 1971, won liberation from West Pakistan and became Bangladesh. So we are today part of South Asia, India to our east, Afghanistan to our west, China to our north. And a growing population, the fourth most populous country in the world, so a booming population in that sense. And the women’s movement has an interesting trajectory, because after Pakistan was formulated, it was always formulated with the concept – and this is an ongoing debate, of course, which happened in nation states, it happened in Israel, it happens with us – whether we were founded as an Islamic homeland or a homeland for Muslims of the subcontinent. That’s an ongoing debate. But definitely historically, factually it was a modern nation-state. It was conceived as a modern nation-state. The secularists argue that M. A. Jinnah, who was the founder, always perceived in several of his speeches, discussed the concept of a secular homeland where everybody could pursue their religion as they wanted. The Islamists in fact, were against the concept of a separate homeland for Muslims because their understanding was that this would split the pursuit of a global Muslim community, the umma. And obviously there were more Muslims left behind in India than there were Muslims in Pakistan, just by virtue of population. So that was an appropriate fear. But of course that’s in hindsight, that’s history.
And then the Constitution as it was founded was, what we argue was secular. But as I mentioned, General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977 when he took over via coup in Pakistan, it became an excuse to violate the Constitution. It became an excuse to say that Pakistan is not sufficiently Islamic or Muslim, and I’m going to now institute Islamization, which meant changing the laws, making hybrid certain laws to the post-colonial laws, and sort of giving it an Islamic brush. And this was when the 1979 revolution in Iran was taking place too, so a whole shifting of identities from South Asian, Indian, pluralist kind of history to a more rigid orthodox Islamic state. We moved from a Muslim nation towards an Islamic state, that kind of identity shift. And the women’s movement, which is a modern women’s organization, the All Pakistan Women’s Association was founded in 1949. It was led by the First Lady, the Prime Minister’s wife. And a lot of even business and professional associations, Girls Guides associations, nurses, federations, there was a Democratic Women’s Association, which was a Marxist oriented organization. There was a lot of progress, if you like, and a modernization project you could see in Pakistan taking place in the early years, which then even went into a socialist direction in the 1970s under Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was a populist leader. His wife, the First Lady, was also very, very active in women’s rights.
But all of this kind of collapsed, and many Pakistanis will mark the collapse of Pakistan from 1977 when the military coup did two things. Not only was there internally pursued for this Islamization and changing the fabric of society and state and laws and institutions, of course, but also got engaged in the Cold War in terms of aiding the United States against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. We got involved in Afghanistan. So that’s why, consequently post-9/11 or the 9/11 period makes Pakistan in the eye of the storm again. But it has a longer history.
AA: That was so helpful. I realized I’ve studied enough about Pakistan and India in that region to have kind of a faint sketch, and you just connected so many dots for me and really filled it in with so much helpful information. So, thank you.
So, let’s dive into the book. You’ve mentioned a bit about the feminist movement in Pakistan, and I’m really struck by the fact that it was present right from the beginning. I think you said 1949, so that was right at the beginning of the formation of the country, which is really striking to me. Maybe what we’ll do is start with the way that you open your book, which is the story of the Lady Health Workers who were distributing the polio vaccine. Could you tell us that story and tell us why you chose to open your book that way?
AZ: Yes. So what I was looking for is that I realized that there was a generational shift in the feminist movement, in the women’s movement in Pakistan. And it was quite clearly marked. So what I mentioned is the All Pakistan Women’s Association, a more sort of older ladies looking to modernize Pakistan. In the 1980s the Women’s Action Forum was founded – a far more radical feminist resistance, not about women’s rights anymore, but now about feminism – by a generation which included women like Asma Jahangir, who was the well-known human rights champion, lawyer, and she and her sister set up an all women’s legal firm.
So in the 1980s and 1990s, you have poets, you have women in the rural areas, you have women in professions, the trade unions, women coming into their own and resisting and just saying, because Zia-ul-Haq made women the target of his Islamization project, women fought back. So a very clear relationship, women on the forefront of pro-democracy and feminist pursuits and feminist ends. So it was an incredibly exciting time. Zia-ul-Haq shut down dance, cultural pursuits, and women fought back. Art, you name it. Every profession, every discipline, you saw resistance. So that’s the kind of feminism I grew up under. The event of 9/11 took place, and I see a generational shift where globally, particularly in American academia certainly, but in the Muslim world as well, we now get into this exploration of how there are rights within Islam, which there certainly are. But on how to leverage those, and pursuing the idea that there is an agency, and possibility, and options, and perhaps cultural appropriateness in looking for rights within Islam that would be more palatable to the masses as well as to the state, rather than this alien thing called secular Western feminism, et cetera. Now that was interesting because in the 1980s and ‘90s, feminists in Pakistan were breaking down that concept that this is a Western concept or that secularism means anti-religion.
And now I see, you know, in 2001, we’re right back to this place of romancing with religion and looking at women’s empowerment within religion, but these are not feminist ends. And then we see the growth of another proposal, but mainly by the Iranian diaspora, Muslim feminists looking at the concept of Islamic feminism. That created a whole debate globally. So there’s certainly a shift. And the debate then became, should we be following secular strategies and secular pursuing secular ends, or do we shift our strategies towards faith-based strategies and look towards mobilizing those on the right, looking for more space over there? That became a huge debate, academic and strategic. The concern that I had at this time was that it wasn’t just academic, it was a lot of donor and developmental agencies, particularly US aid and the British government all pandered to this. They found this really interesting and it was convenient. It was an opportunity for global patriarchies to merge together and say, “We don’t like this feminist stuff anyway. Let’s not talk about transformative or structural change.” And this kind of palatable, slow, easy Muslim women’s rights within Islam, it has its limitations. It sort of gives everybody their right roles, it doesn’t disturb culture, it doesn’t bother local patriarchs… We don’t want to mess with these sort of radical Muslims anymore. We want to sort of appease them and have their buy-in, so let’s just go this way and give them home-based work rather than coming outside of the house. Let’s teach them rights within, reinterpret the Quran and Islam, and give them a little bit of rights here and there. But this radical stuff is not suiting anybody across the academic, theoretical, developmental, and political world.
So this causes concern to me because we are feminists looking for transformative change, radical change, and looking for sexual autonomy at the same time. And how is that going to happen? So what happened is there was a complete silence on sexual autonomy in the whole 20 years. My argument in the book has been that nobody has been looking for secular strategies, and secular trends, and secular modes of operation. And what I then sought out to do as part of my PhD thesis and research was to look at those women who had always been working class, but had in an uninterrupted way kept pursuing rights and performing their duties and looking for goals and ends and services that were in fact secular in their operation. For secular ends, for liberal rights, and were bypassing religion altogether. Now, this did not mean that they were not Muslim or they were not practicing Muslims, or they did not identify as Muslims. Of course they did, but their politics did not engage or instrumentalize religion.
The reason I know about the Lady Health Workers is because we’ve been involved, so all of these different groups came together in Pakistan and certainly in other parts of the world as well. Women across classes, across religious identities, and across provinces or ethnicities have always come together when we have realized that the state is targeting women or taking away our rights. We always have had this direct resistance pitted against the state because, Amy, if the state is not on your side, it’s a lost cause. It may or may not deliver anything, but it cannot be against us, and particularly not a militarized state like the Pakistan state. It’s a nuclear state, it’s a male dominated state, and anytime you want to make space, it has to be pitted at the state. You need to get a piece of it, right?
And the Lady Health Workers launched their campaign for minimum wage because they were not getting their rights because they were contractual labor. They do incredible work. They go to spaces in far flung areas, which no one else goes to, the state can’t reach them so it employs these women. They also get piggybacked onto doing things like polio work. They administer polio drops because Pakistan is one of the last two or three countries that still is struggling to eliminate the polio virus. And they also were becoming the targets of extreme or radical right-wing Islamist groups who under the suspicion, there was a whole series of suspicions against them. That they were prostitutes going door to door, because they go door to door administering these drops and also giving pre- and postnatal health advice and care to women. So it became extreme because they were being murdered for the work that they were doing. And they were giving contraception, which is also birth control, which radical, even mainstream Islamists have been anti-birth control for the same reason that Christian fundamentalists are. So, for a whole host of reasons, these women became the most courageous women, but also the most targeted. Particularly when the Taliban had come into Pakistan territory and formed the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan.
So it was a very tense period but these women never stopped. I mean, it was incredible. They never stopped fighting for their rights. They continued to campaign for equal wage for their work, for minimum wage. And they won their cases because of the courage of their leaders. When I observed all of these, and I would go to some of their protest movements, what I noticed is that apart from lending solidarity, I noticed that they– So what the state does, is it also employs certain religious and clerics and leaders who are pro-birth control and who are more progressive in the area, because it enables the state to send out certain messages by employing these clerics who carry on the agenda of the state. Of course, clerics and Islamists are also of a wide variety, some are both progressive on certain factors, on certain fronts, and others are more regressive or anti-women. So these were the pro-state kind of actors. But the Lady Health Workers were not happy with these clerics. I asked them, “they’re helping you with your polio work, they’re helping you to expand and bust some myths and to help in the campaign for convincing people to take polio drops and to take contraception for birth control, et cetera. So why are you protesting their involvement?” And these Lady Health Worker leaders said, “This is not their work. This is not their mandate. This is our work. We are perfectly capable of doing it for ourselves, and they’re simply transgressing onto our turf. And the issue is that they may be helping us on this issue, but they are adversaries on many other issues that we do. We work on women’s rights so why should we be dependent on these men who change their tune every single day?”
Women across classes, across religious identities, and across provinces or ethnicities have always come together when we have realized that the state is targeting women or taking away our rights.
And I thought, what a fantastic, not just symbolic but actual divergence and departure of what the feminist cause is. It’s precisely this. That men are allies to a certain extent, but they go against the grain of feminist ends. And the Lady Health Workers, the women are fighting for feminist dance. So I thought it was a poignant and very important marker to make my point. It hasn’t always been successful, trust me. I’ve gotten a lot of pushback from younger feminists who are not entirely convinced, who feel thanks to the work of many Muslim academics in the Western academia of saying that liberalism and secularism is all Western universalism, is a Western concept. And it may very well be to some extent, but I was trying to recover the historical connection on how we have seen waves of secular resistance in Pakistan. And I was simply trying to show the continuity of it by looking at these three case studies which included the Lady Health Workers in particular, and they were sort of obviously oblivious to the academic debate. But every time I would observe their work, and continue to observe it today, I maintain that they are a secular resistance movement in Pakistan.
AA: I’m wondering, hearing the story of the Lady Health Workers and how they’re being murdered and they’re being targeted for their work, and then knowing the story of Malala Yousafzai and she was in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, and you mentioned the Taliban coming in. It sounds like there was real danger in speaking out and in trying to advance a feminist cause. Did you feel, I mean, what year did you publish this book and did you feel any danger in speaking out so publicly about feminism?
AZ: No. You know, there’s no comparison in terms of the dangers that women on the ground face on a daily basis, those who interface with institutions, those who are of the working classes and the vulnerable classes. There’s no comparison. I am with my colleagues protected by our class and protected by our education and protected by our privilege. So I have never felt any danger because I am not in danger. I write in a certain privileged language as well. But many of my colleagues, for example lawyers, have seen the backlash just like abortion rights in the United States, for example. Those women who are in the clinics are of course threatened far more than those of my colleagues who write about it in university at Wesleyan or wherever. Same with gun control, et cetera. So it’s a parallel. You know, vulnerability is class-based. The courage of these women who have to deal with it and the interface, like I said, and sort of being in the thick of activism in the forefront, activists are far more under threat than I would be any day.
AA: Okay. Yeah, that’s very interesting. Another thing that you said when you were speaking was, correct me if I misunderstood this, but that a younger generation of Pakistani women criticized this universalist interpretation. What would they propose instead that would be more Pakistani-based, I guess, rather than Western?
AZ: I think that the critique is not dissimilar to the critique we were making, which is about imperialism, which is about American hegemony or about capitalist manifestations and capitalist policies, the IMF, the World Bank Global Structures. So as long as we have these global structures, and pressures, and inequalities, and colonial leftovers, colonial institutions, the argument is that it’s not possible to be genuinely universal. When you have double standards and when the focus is only on, say, one religion or one grouping of people around the globe without looking at the other structures which are connected, and which led us to this point. So it’s a kind of a historical reckoning whether it’s about slavery, about imperialism, about colonialism, which is something that we have also always argued. But I think what the events of 9/11 did is, because the focus was so much on Muslims, the injustices in the War on Terror shaped the consciousness of this generation who saw it then only as persecution for American benefit and sort of capitalist expansionism of the United States in the Muslim world.
And a kind of defensiveness which then puts the woman question always on the back burner, and it is as if, how can we bring up feminist resistance against our own? It’s almost like a betrayal of the Muslim men in our countries who are also being persecuted and demonized and stereotyped, it’s not just a symbolic thing but actually being incarcerated and tortured and punished. So it puts women into a double bind. It puts Muslim women into a double bind.
And it’s very difficult to say that, you know, we call out local patriarchy when you are also calling out global patriarchy. Which one do you give priority to more? And I think the older women’s movement was more used to it and they did a better straddling of it, combination of it because of where we were located. But those Muslim women and scholars and feminists of a certain generation who were in Western contexts, were speaking for a different audience. And the problem became when they started turning their critique onto feminists based in Muslim majority contexts and calling them out, saying, you are betraying the cause, or you are too imperialist or you are too enamored by Western feminism, and this is not appropriate. And you should be more critical about drone attacks, about incarceration of Muslim men, and demonizing of the Taliban. Whereas we are looking at immediate, urgent things like polio workers being murdered, girls not being allowed to go to school, and a range of collapsing of women’s rights. Closing down shelters in one entire province, women being pushed back into the domestic.
So they were different battles, right? And they should not have been, but they were. And I think that’s where the generational split comes about. And the disconnect and the lack of solidarity, or the split in solidarity, I think the feminist movement globally split on this. Some of the reasons and some of the criticism was justified, you know, in terms of when the United States occupied Afghanistan, that didn’t do anybody any favors. And we had to sort of retreat, re-strategize, and look for local solutions. It was very difficult then to find solidarity around the world when they were busy occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. So it put all of us into a double bind and a lot of mistrust caused in that period.
AA: Yeah, that makes sense. Something that just came to my mind that’s related to this is a TED Talk, and I’ll have to look up the title after the interview because I don’t have it at the top of my head, but I’ll post it on our website. It’s a Pakistani woman activist who was, just to speak to the complexity that you just described, she was going into very rural villages and trying to make progress with girls and women’s rights and girls’ education. But what she found was that she would go into these villages, and she herself being Pakistani, she still had this attitude of a little bit patronizing at first and looking down on their local customs, because they really were repressing girls and women, but she found that they weren’t receptive at all to her message. And she had to try a completely different approach going into the villages, getting to know them first, recognizing their autonomy, recognizing the beauty in their culture. And she found that she had much, I guess it’s obvious to say this but it’s a really illuminating Ted Talk, to say that going in and respecting the group of people and getting to know them first was a game changer. And they started to have a lot more progress that way. Just to your point of, you know, anytime someone goes into a community and then starts preaching, it just doesn’t work.
AZ: So a lot of the feminists in Pakistan have been involved in development work or in social development or in gender awareness and women’s empowerment schemes. So they are aware, and the connection between the rural community and urban has developed a lot over 25 years.
Yes, new younger people coming into the field would have to go through the rights of passage to discover this, but my take is a little bit different. Based on my experience, it’s just because I’m older than them, but I’ve always said in projects that I do or in research that I do, and I come back sometimes and I speak to the Women’s Commission or Human Rights Commission or to the different departments of the government, and I repeatedly say to them that the people of this country outpace what you think about them and they’re far ahead of what donor agencies and philanthropic societies think about them as well.
So this notion of, you know, people have their culture. The one condition I have whenever I speak to the government or to any donors in terms of projects is, please let’s not discuss this vague thing called culture. In fact religion as well, but culture specifically because nobody has any idea what it is. It’s become a catchphrase and an excuse on both sides, and a very lazy one, intellectually and academically speaking and in policy. Anytime you hit a wall, you want to throw it into the culture dustbin. And actually it doesn’t belong there. Nobody’s culture doesn’t want to educate their daughter. Nobody’s culture doesn’t want them to have some kind of wellbeing and safety and security, and progress, and cell phones, and aspirations.
just like abortion rights in the United States…those women who are in the clinics are of course threatened far more than those of my colleagues who write about it in university
So I really dislike this term of “cultural sensitivity” because very often when you get in there, yes, the male gatekeepers may make it difficult for you to understand or speak a certain vocabulary. But for those of us who have been doing it for 27 years, it’s actually not difficult to connect immediately and say, “Do you have an identity card? Why not? Do you have a phone? Why not? What’s going on over there?” We get to the heart of the problem very quickly because we have that experience and so we speak a different language.
Feminists, if you’re interested in emancipatory ends and you want to get to the bottom of something, I don’t want anything from these women, right? The point is, I’m not going to try and introduce a project for them. I’m going to be interested in knowing what’s happening and what their aspirations are and what their feminist consciousness is, or what it could potentially be. So if I’m not going in with an agenda, then it’s easy for me to have this conversation and find out what’s happening for social transformation. What are they already doing for social transformation? That’s my curiosity. And that’s what I learned about the Lady Health Workers. It’s already happening. It’s a matter of documenting it for me, for academics. Now, if you have an agenda and you want to go and introduce contraception or the state wants them to do something like vote for them, that’s a different ballgame.
That’s not feminist interest. Mine is a feminist interest. Therefore, I will introduce different strategies and connect with women in different provinces according to their priorities, not according to cultural differences. You know, culturally we are the same in many ways as feminists. I’m saying I connect with other women in Pakistan as a feminist would. Always. And that’s my interest. So I see it from a different lens.
AA: I’m just struck even by the sentence that kind of went by quickly, but you said there’s nobody who would say they don’t want their daughters to go to school. Where does that come from then? Because you do have communities, don’t you? Am I wrong that there are communities that don’t allow girls to go to school?
AZ: I mean, where that comes from is just myths and media misconceptions, and a small percentage of incidents that get blown out of context. And also, you know how global media likes to play this up. So it’s sensationalism, but it has no academic or theoretical or actual empirical evidence involved in it. That’s where it comes from. So there is nobody in Pakistan, no community that one knows of in Pakistan that would not or does not send their daughter, forget about sons, sends their daughters now to school.
The complication begins, and because it is a complex issue is– in fact, just to complete that, the problem with girls’ education in Pakistan is on the supply side, not on the demand side. And actually the same is true about birth control or about bodily control, about reproductive rights. Which is why I opened with this sentence that it’s not culture, it’s a very material logistical, practical problem that the country faces. And in fact, I would argue most countries face, right? But we get spun into these ideological problems and the global media and sort of vested interests play that up as well. And we misread and mis-analyze a lot of stuff.
The complexities begin then when the supply does not catch up with the demand and the demand cannot be met. And then people start resorting to all sorts of different means, or there’s a failure in terms of educational ends or reproductive health ends. So the problem in education, for example, is that because there are not enough secondary schools, there are primary schools, but not enough high schools for girls, girls go uneducated. And if you have a supply of those schools, you would meet half the problem. Now, there would always be a preference, because it’s poverty driven. Many decisions are poverty driven in Pakistan because there is a majority of poor people. They would prefer then to get their daughters married off at an early age rather than sending them to some far-flung school where there’s security issues. There’s not enough girls, there’s not enough teachers, it’s too insecure. So of course they’re going to get them married off because it’s an economic decision to get the girls married off.
So, you know, I’m simplifying it, but what I’m suggesting to you is the larger issue is the answer to your question. Yes, there is no community that I know of across Pakistan who would not want to send their daughters to school and would not want a better future for their daughters. If they had an option against getting them married off early, they would certainly pursue it. The social stigma, the social side of it is of course something that needs to be dealt with as well, but you have to do things on two levels. You, of course, have to take care of societal issues, but you have to provide the basic material needs and fundamental rights that people anywhere in the world deserve. That’s where the problem lies. If you like, it’s a secular concern. It’s not a religious, cultural issue.
AA: So, am I understanding correctly, again I think of Malala, the example that most people in the world would know and associate with the Taliban and the Swat Valley, I would imagine you would say yes, that’s a real issue, but that it was perhaps blown out of proportion. And so most of the world has misconceptions about what that actually means in Pakistan?
AZ: Yes. So, the Taliban is not Pakistan. The Taliban was a banned outfit by the Pakistani state, right? So the group or outfit, which every country in the world has banned outfits, people who do things which are illegal, anti-constitutional. In fact, the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan has always been known as anti-Pakistan, which is a big issue in a nationalist kind of fervor. So I don’t even know where that misconception is coming from. The Taliban does not represent Pakistan. Yes, their political expression in terms of blowing up schools, they said they were taking revenge for us siding with the United States in the War on Terror, et cetera, whatever the logic or their politics behind that. But they do not represent Pakistan. Pakistan was not represented by this kind of policy. Pakistan has never blown up any schools, we build schools and don’t blow them up. And Malala was sort of collateral damage in that larger tussle. Islam and religion do not prohibit girls’ education, in fact quite the opposite.
So there’s nobody in Pakistan, ideologically or otherwise, even on the right wing. What they would say to you, even the Taliban incidentally when they were blowing these schools up and targeting Malala, they said they did not target her because she’s pursuing education. It’s because she’s pursuing secular education. She should be going for Islamic education. So there’s a very clear pattern behind what was happening over there and it’s self-explanatory. But the reason Malala became symbolic for us, and sort of a symbol of resistance for us, is because she was attacked. Because she was determined to go back to school despite the threat. And that’s what makes her a symbol for women’s empowerment in Pakistan. But she’s not the only one. There’s a whole history of women going against military dictators, clerics, presidents, prime ministers, police leaders, male leaders. We defy, we are defiant. And we get that this is the backlash, and Malala is just one more member of that defiance, and that’s what she represents.
AA: Mm-hmm. And one of the most touching parts of that story also is her father. And that is emblematic of your point that families do want their girls to be educated, that he was her champion. You have this Muslim, Pakistani man who’s this great champion of girls’ education. So even that, within that story, it’s already apparent.
AZ: Yeah, and they do play an important role. I mean, of course there’s a debate even amongst feminists about the role of men. I’m one of those who finds that it’s important when we say “break down patriarchy” that it has to be within the home as well. And where the patriarch breaks down that dynamic within the home. It makes a big difference in terms of the women coming up, whether it’s women in sports, whether it’s women in dance, cultural expression, and education, or in politics for that matter. Women who come into politics, there is a breaking down of the patriarchy within their house. All women defy that. And despite that become icons, feminist icons in Pakistan.
AA: And one thing that I talk about a lot too that is really important to me is that that’s a project for the whole human family, including men, to break down those patriarchal systems and for us all to work on it together.
So in your book you talk about waves of feminist movement, and we’ve kind of talked about the first two in the 1980s and the 1990s, and then we just talked about 9/11 and then about Malala. But I’m wondering if we can spend the last bit of the episode talking about the third wave that you write about in your book, but even beyond that. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s been going on in Pakistan for the past decade or so, and then what’s next?
AZ: So, a really interesting shift and a new wave of women’s resistance and demands actually. And I think what’s happened since 2018, inspired by the global #MeToo movement, younger women in Pakistan decided to break the mold of the more traditional approach to women’s rights, which was through non-governmental organizations and development organizations. And it had become a kind of a passive and very development oriented, empowerment-led movement. And it had sort of stagnated to a large extent. And when in 2018, the younger generation decided to hold a series of marches, what they call the Aurat March or the Women’s March, the very first one that they held was an incredibly defiant, rude awakening kind of messaging and slogans that identified them as different from the earlier movement, in terms of sexual rights and sexual autonomy and talking about bodily autonomy and bodily rights, and of course about harassment. Which was already a discussion and a conversation because more and more women were registering cases against sexual harassment in Pakistan, and that was creating waves and causing anxiety to a lot of men, and to the right wing as well but to progressive, liberal, left men too.
younger women in Pakistan decided to break the mold of the more traditional approach to women’s rights
So when these protest movements, the Aurat marches began all over the country simultaneously, one of the core slogans at the very first movement march that they promoted in the events was “Mera Jism Meri Marzi” which is “my body, my right.” Now that created huge ripples. I mean, of course the connotation was quite clear about sexual autonomy, sexual freedom, and the moralists and purists, even more liberal feminists to some extent had a huge problem in exactly what we were discussing earlier. Is it appropriate to talk about sexuality in an Islamic Republic? So all of those earlier debates came to a head on this platform. And it was a moment of reckoning. It created a debate, there was a huge backlash. And social media erupted at the same time, became a mode of activism. But when it went offline and came onto the streets, when you start capturing the streets, that worries patriarchs a lot. So there was a big backlash.
And in the last four or five years there has been growing not just a backlash, but growing opposition to these Aurat marches and to these women. And the tensions peak every single year. And the last year, these women and the organizers even had cases of blasphemy registered against them. And they’ve had opposition by an alternative movement called the Haya March, or the Modesty March, which is taken out in opposition by the piety movements, women’s movements in Pakistan. The veiled ones, the ones who promote the veil, who promote Islamic rights and who want to talk about women’s Islamic duties. And their slogan is, “My body is Allah’s right, not my right.” So kind of a pious messaging over there.
Now, as you’ve seen in the book, this is something that I’ve been forewarning even since my book, which came out at the same time in 2018 and I’ve been writing consistently on this. There’s been a reluctance and a cause of criticism of my critique of these movements, or a forewarning or a cautioning. You know, Amy, I’ve always argued that for feminists, you have to understand and acknowledge there is patriarchy and that’s the opposition. In a democracy, you have to understand that for Pakistan and democratic struggles, the military hegemony is always going to be the opposition and it’s going to be an obstacle. For us, for socialists, capitalism is always going to be that. And for the same reason I keep telling them that for religious hegemony or religious politics, you have to offer secular resistance, right? I mean for me it’s quite clear that if you want transformative change, then these are the kind of avenues you have to pursue. You have to acknowledge them, you have to embrace them, and then you have to have strategies to overcome them. But if you start sliding down and sort of compromising, and looking for something appropriate, or negotiating with patriarchy, then you’re going to get caught in the middle somewhere. And my critique of the younger women’s Aurat movements has been that if you don’t face up to these obstacles, and if you try and circumvent it, there will come a time when it’ll be in your face.
And I think that that’s what’s happened. And last year, one of the chapters had to retreat. They say it’s not a retreat, we saw it as a retreat when they held their event in a park rather than a street protest. And that’s triggered a debate on what is the mode and what is the end and who’s more liberal and who’s more radical. And, you know, this kind of splits in the academic conversation around us. However as I said earlier, when things are tough and when women see the patriarchal head rear itself in different forms, they come together on many platforms. And I think this year, next month, we will see how strong the comeback is and how we can gather our energies again and give weightage to this new wave that has sort of taken the lead in promoting the feminist cause. It’s not like they don’t discuss other issues, and only sexual rights or sexual autonomies or LGBTQ rights. It’s just that that’s an add-on or it’s been a neglected area and they’re rightful to bring that back onto the agenda. It has to be tied onto the agenda. You can’t say wait for economic rights like the socialists do, or wait for legal rights and then one day we will deal with trans community rights or LGBTQ rights or bodily rights. It has to be woven into the feminist cause.
So I think this is an interesting moment where the merger is happening in a stronger way. The economics situation in Pakistan is very, very challenging. There’s an economic collapse at the moment. But I think that that does not mean that we forfeit the other issues of violence, of legal rights, of sexual rights, and put them onto the agenda as well. So the women are determined to hold this march next month. And I think if it sends out a strong message, if they don’t retreat, I think that means that the future is going to be one of continuity of feminist challenge. The debates will go on, and Pakistani women and feminists have never given up. And I think that it’s important that they maintain this momentum. And my only concern is that the class issue should not be suppressed. And my bias is towards putting class onto the agenda again and putting secular resistance onto the agenda and not losing that. And there will always be some who will be with me on that agenda item.
AA: What does it look like to have class not on the agenda? I mean, do you have people really explicitly excluding people of different classes from the movement or is it more subtle?
AZ: No, you can’t exclude, well, it’s just where we give priorities. So if we are focusing on violence or if we’re focusing on reproductive rights, on education. Yes, all of those are tied to labor rights, et cetera. But my argument has been that we haven’t developed a feminist economics in this country. We have not foregrounded the class issue. There is no one movement that can be associated or identified as something that looks at women’s class identities and foregrounded as the one main identity. It’s always been merged with other things like violence, or hidden or connected. And yes, we need a holistic feminist movement, but we also need one that promotes and looks at labor rights, looks at economic rights, and gives women of the working classes the lead and leadership. That is something that is lacking in Pakistan, I feel, and we need to pay more attention to that and put up energy behind that.
You know, we’ve looked at religious identities, we’ve looked at violence, we’ve looked at feminist identities from legal perspectives and from political leadership. But really we’ve got to look at working class leadership from women. And they are there, working class leaders are there in all the movements that I mentioned in my book. And there are far more, but we need to give them a better and a higher platform and give them the lead and be their wings, you know, in terms of the future. Because I think that that’s a neglected area.
AA: Beautiful. Okay, off the record, is there anything else you’d like me to ask you or anything else you’d like to say as we wrap up? Just so I make sure?
AZ: No, Amy, I’ve been talking a lot! There is nothing more.
AA: It’s wonderful!
AZ: What I will say is that one of the reasons that I wrote this book, the idea was that it had been 20 years since the previous book that tried to encompass and document what the women’s movement and what feminist movements and threads and thinking was. And for 20 years, all I saw was literature that was looking at religious identities, that was looking at violence, that was looking at development and even legal rights, political rights to some extent. But there was no holistic documentation of what was happening and the debates happening in the women’s movement. And therefore there were people sitting in Western universities writing about us. And I felt the need to document our experience and our debates. It’s not conclusive, it’s not authoritative, it doesn’t pretend to be. But it was challenging the literature that was coming out in Western universities by my colleagues and by our peers, and saying, “This is what our debates have been, and they do not fit into the mold that you are looking at from the Western academic perspective. And can we question that? Can we offer our voices and our debates?” And ironically that was being seen as a Western feminist agenda. And I found that quite ironic.
What I’ve tried to offer is, you know, there was a young woman who was interviewing me for this and said, your sources and your bibliography is perhaps one of the most helpful things. You know, forget the thesis, this is one of the most helpful things. Because where do we start? And every time young women in Pakistan attempt to write, the pushback we get from academia is, “oh, your sources are not academic, they’re not scholarly.” And it took me a long time to break through the ideological, because I was writing about secular resistance at a time when everybody else, the authoritative thesis being produced at Yale and Columbia was about women’s religion. So I was not getting publishing space or a voice. It was not a popular theory or document or proposal to come out at that time. And secondly, of course the pushback was I was located here. I was not in a Western academy. So I find it really ironic when people attempt to pin this notion, oh this is Western Orientalist feminist, you know, it falls into universal patterns, I find that hilarious. Because they have no idea how difficult it was to break through those stereotypes, the myths and the compulsions and the constrictions of what a feminist sitting in Pakistan can write about. If you could talk about sexuality in Pakistan, surely I could speak about secularism and secular resistance in Pakistan.
So that was a strange kind of generational turn. But I think we’ve taken that turn and there is a younger generation that has a very different understanding of it. And I’m really glad for this book and for the thesis because they connect and discuss it in a very different way. So I think you have to challenge your own generation and you have to speak across them and speak to another generation, a future generation. And I think, at least I think the feedback that I get, and because I work with them now, I think I’ve made that breakthrough. And that is the one thing that I’m proud of, that I manage to make the connection. I’m the bridge, good or bad is not the issue, I’m the bridge between those two generations. And I think the book fills that gap in or positions itself as that. That’s all it is.
AA: That is a contribution to be proud of. And I certainly learned so much from your book. I’m very glad that I read it, and so grateful to you for all the wisdom that you shared today on our episode. Thank you so much, Dr. Afiya Zia, for being with us today.
AZ: Thank you, Amy. It’s a pleasure and it’s been great speaking with you as well.
Mera Jism Meri Marzi
My Body, My Right
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