KARACHI, Pakistan — On Feb. 12, 1983, 200 women — activists and lawyers — marched to the Lahore High Court to petition against a law that would have made a man’s testimony in court worth that of two women. The Pakistani dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq had already promulgated the infamous Hudood Ordinance, which reflected his extremist vision of Islam and Islamic law. Now, it was clear to many Pakistani women that the military regime was manipulating Islam to rob them of their rights.
General Zia’s days are over, and parts of the Hudood laws pertaining to rape and adultery have been superseded by less objectionable clauses inPakistan’s Protection of Women Act of 2006. But Pakistani women have yet to achieve what Madihah Akhter, writing in The Feminist Wire, an online magazine, identifies as “political, cultural and economic equality for women and a place in the constant struggle to define their nation.”
The reality of Pakistan’s women continues to confound easy categorization. They have been going to school and university, holding down jobs and earning money for several generations now. Yet they still live with widespread gender-based violence, society’s acceptance of women as property, and a widespread belief that they don’t deserve education, jobs or an existence outside the domestic sphere.
Neither Pakistan’s laws nor its social codes nor its religious mores truly guarantee women a secure place as citizens equal to men; such attitudes are preserved by patriarchal tribal and cultural traditions, as well as the continued twisting of Islamic injunctions to suit the needs of misogynists. Could feminism be the best antidote to this male chauvinism ingrained in modern Pakistani society?
Feminism has been alive in Pakistan since the country was born. During partition of the British Indian Empire in 1947, a Women’s Relief Committee, which oversaw refugee transfers between India and Pakistan, was founded by Fatima Jinnah, the sister of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father. Then Begum Ra’ana Liaqat Ali, the wife of Pakistan’s first prime minister, founded the All-Pakistan Women’s Association in 1949; that organization worked for the moral, social and economic welfare of Pakistani women. Ms. Jinnah ran in the presidential elections in 1965 and was even supported by orthodox religious parties, but lost to the dictator then holding the office, Gen. Ayub Khan.
In the 1980s, the Women’s Action Forum used activism to oppose General Zia’s myopic vision of Islam; today, Pakistani feminist collectives continue to protest violence against women, raise awareness about women’s education and political and legal rights, and lobby policy makers to enact women-friendly laws. The groundbreaking Repeal of Hudood Ordinance, the women’s empowerment bill and anti-honor-killings bill were all moved in Parliament when Sherry Rehman, a former ambassador to the United States and a renowned feminist, held the portfolio of minister for women’s development in the last decade. These and the anti-sexual-harassment bill were all eventually codified in Pakistani law over the next several years.
But many Pakistanis cling to the idea that feminism is not relevant to Pakistan — that it’s the preserve of the rich and idle or, worse, that it’s a Western imposition meant to wreak havoc on Pakistani society. Many Pakistani men and women believe that women’s rights need go no further than improvements Islam brought to the status of women in tribal Arabia in the seventh century. Men in Pakistan are not yet ready to give up their male privilege, and many Pakistani women, not wanting to rock the boat, agree with them. The Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal calls it the “convenience of subservience” when elite and upper-class women marginalize women’s movements in order to maintain their own privilege.
The scholar Margot Badran has identified two threads of feminism in the Muslim world: 19th-century “secular feminism” and 20th-century “Islamic feminism.” Islamic feminism, pioneered by scholars like Riffat Hassan, Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas and Fatema Mernissi, seeks to reclaim Islam from male interpretations by using passages in the Quran to combat institutional misogyny. Islamic feminism as practiced in Pakistan is accessible to the middle and upper middle classes, who enthusiastically attend Quran classes held in Urdu, where they analyze verses and learn about the rights that the religion affords them. It also inculcates solidarity with Muslim women around the world. But with its emphasis on academic learning, it can limit empowerment to educated women, marginalizing the unschooled and the poor.
Pakistani feminists like Shahnaz Rouse, a Sarah Lawrence College professor, and Farida Shaheed, a sociologist who heads the Shirkat Gah women’s resource center in Pakistan, have done vital work in the field of Pakistani gender identity and class analysis, while Fouzia Saeed has been instrumental in raising the issue of sexual harassment. But their work, and that of other theorists and activists whose primary basis for feminism is not Islam, is often dismissed as favored only by an English-speaking elite with little relevance to greater Pakistani society.
Yet secular feminism has a more democratic scope; its proponents agitate for the rights of all women in Pakistan, non-Muslim as well as Muslim. It links to other feminist movements worldwide, not just Islamic ones, and is more pluralistic. By appealing to secular nationalism as well as Islamic modernism, it is not restrained by the need to base all thought in Islamic scripture, although secular feminists also use this powerful tool when necessary.
A feminist movement can succeed only when it mirrors the makeup of the women and the society for whom it operates. Pakistan needs a feminism that elegantly marries both strands of feminism — secular and Islamic — because that’s how Pakistan was formed: on both Islamic and secular principles.
The clinical psychologist Rubeena Kidwai said this about the status of women in Pakistan today: “Pakistani women are like bonsai trees, clipped and pruned and weighed down by the expectations of Pakistani society.” And Pakistan’s feminists are the only ones who can undo that destructive process, so that Pakistani women can flourish and grow to the heights of their human potential.
Bina Shah is the author of several novels, including “Slum Child,” and short-story collections.