Reconsidering religion’s role | Pakistan Today

Reconsidering religion’s role

“Are secular politics, aims and sensibilities impossible, undesirable and impracticable for Muslims and Islamic states?” is the foundational question of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan. Are secular and Islamic feminism compatible, or if they can at all converge to bridge the gender gap in Muslim societies? Is the latter even a thing, considering the inherently patriarchal nature of religious theology?”

Islamist terrorism in Pakistan is gradually decreasing; at least in intensity, even if the frequency – especially in Balochistan – remains high. However, what remains unchallenged is the radical Islamist supremacy in the country, exemplified by the state’s acquiescence to jihad-mongering thugs like the Tehrik Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) and their ilk.

In this regard, two recent releases address the role of Islam in two varying facets of two contrasting polities. Faith and Feminism in Pakistan by Afiya S Zia and Islam, Race, and Pluralism in the Pakistani Diaspora by Craig Considine discuss the role of religion among two different communities, separated by geography, but united by a common quest to reconcile Islam and modernity in the post-9/11 world.

Faith and Feminism in Pakistan:

With Pakistan sitting second from bottom in the United Nations Gender Gap Index, any book addressing gender disparity would be as pertinent as they come. What Afiya S Zia’s book does, however, is bring forward a debate that first become relevant at the end of the previous century, and will be a burning issue of the Muslim World in the near future.

“Are secular politics, aims and sensibilities impossible, undesirable and impracticable for Muslims and Islamic states?” is the foundational question of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan. Are secular and Islamic feminism compatible, or if they can at all converge to bridge the gender gap in Muslim societies? Is the latter even a thing, considering the inherently patriarchal nature of religious theology?

In discussion the relation between secular and Islamic feminist movements, among many of Afiya Zia’s challenges was addressing the intrinsically western origin – even if not nature – of all secular movements, resulting in a post-postmodernist critique of postsecular scholarship.

The author cites feminist theories and scholars – mostly indigenous – in bringing forth the ideas already constructed in our neck of the woods, and then builds her own ensuing arguments.

“However, the book centers on the conflict between Islamic extremism and liberalism – including taking up the challenging task to define it. And refreshingly, Faith and Feminism in Pakistan is neither an apologia for Islamic theology, nor does it put the entire burden of weaving patriarchal societies on religion.

While book centers on the era defined by the WoT (War on Terror), it frequently revisits the 1980s and the Islamisation of Gen Zia-ul-Haq, wherein Pakistani feminist literature, movements and indeed predicaments originate.

The role of the Women Action Forum over these decades is regularly cited, along with other Non-Government Organisations. The plight of the female workforce, most notably the lady health workers, is also a dominant part of the narrative.

However, the book centers on the conflict between Islamic extremism and liberalism – including taking up the challenging task to define it. And refreshingly, Faith and Feminism in Pakistan is neither an apologia for Islamic theology, nor does it put the entire burden of weaving patriarchal societies on religion.

Similarly, considering the book’s taking up of the ‘post-9/11 era’ and the War on Terror, it doesn’t put excessive blame on foreign interventionist forces for the dire straits that gender equality in Pakistan finds itself in.

The prime task for Faith and Feminism in Pakistan is dealing with Islamic feminism, which the book defines as “an against-the-grain reading of the Sharia and Quran” and “essentially a postmodernist, diasporic scholarly project that does not recognise any single (male) interpretation or dominant narrative of Islam.”

The book is hard on conservative Muslim commentators misusing the ‘Islamic feminism agenda’ to claim that all the rights for Muslim women are granted in Islam – “however, they stop short on agreeing that these are unconditionally equal.”

Simultaneously the book addresses liberal activists and then tendency to celebrate women’s empowerment “through symbolic achievement, rather than material political progress.” However, it is not oblivious to the fact that liberal resistance can be life-endangering for women.

Faith and Feminism in Pakistan incorporates a wide array of characters – Taliban chief Fazlullah, Chand Bibi, Jamia Hafsa, and Farhat Hashmi of al-Huda fame. It also puts forth the cases of Dr Aafia Siddiqui and Malala Yousafzai – even if not as a direct juxtaposition – as critique of Muslimhood and victimhood.

“The prime task for Faith and Feminism in Pakistan is dealing with Islamic feminism, which the book defines as “an against-the-grain reading of the Sharia and Quran” and “essentially a postmodernist, diasporic scholarly project that does not recognise any single (male) interpretation or dominant narrative of Islam.”

The backlash that Malala faced, the book claims, “implied that Muslim women can only either be anti-imperialist passive victims or foreign agents – there is nothing in-between.”

It is the light years in between religious agency and secular autonomy that Faith and Feminism in Pakistan vies to fill.

Islam, Race, and Pluralism in the Pakistani Diaspora:

Craig Considine, a Catholic American sociologist of Irish and Italian descent, has specific focus on Islam and religious pluralism in his writings. In Islam, Race, and Pluralism in the Pakistani Diaspora he too sketches the darker shades of the post-9/11 world, this time to delineate the troubles that Pakistanis have had to face in the West, which has not only been increasingly marred by anti-Muslim bigotry, but also “Pakphobia.”

Considine argues that the media coverage of the developments in Pakistan since 2011 – and what he claims as exaggerations, or at the very least selective storytelling – has meant that the Pakistani heritage has resulted in exclusive hatred in addition to religious prejudices in the West.

The author cites examples of men of Pakistani decent who are citizens of Dublin, Ireland and Boston, US, and incorporates insightful interviews to drive home his point.

The book highlights dialectics of Islam, race, and pluralism in the Pakistani diaspora, arguing that the Pakistani diaspora “should be understood not only from the perspective of cultural reproduction, but also through the spatial positioning that young Pakistani men engage in as a way to reconstitute their sense of self and forge identities for themselves and their communities.”

While the book frequently turns to Islamophobia, which Considine defines as ‘fear of Muslims and Islam’, it goes on to substantiate, through the lived experiences narrated in the pages, the idea that the insult ‘Paki’ is founded upon a deeply ingrained animosity for the Pakistani identity, which those manifesting this antagonism confuse with both racial and religious characters, often misinterpreting – argues the book – both characteristics.

“The book highlights dialectics of Islam, race, and pluralism in the Pakistani diaspora, arguing that the Pakistani diaspora “should be understood not only from the perspective of cultural reproduction, but also through the spatial positioning that young Pakistani men engage in as a way to reconstitute their sense of self and forge identities for themselves and their communities.”

The book put forwards the obvious, that “Pakistani Americans are a diverse group made up of different ethnicities, cultures, races, religions, socio-economic backgrounds, and sexual orientations.” And yet there is the centripetal force that pulls Pakistanis living in the West – often for generations – to a rigid fixated identity that is becoming increasingly tarnished, often through no fault of the individuals.

And just like Faith and Feminism in Pakistan, Craig Considine’s endeavor is to build a narrative that helps reconcile the many shades of that identity, even if he uses a Western lens to focus on his case for the Pakistanis living in the West.



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