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Who speaks for women?


by Ahmad Ali Khalid on August 6th, 2011

Be not content with stories of those who went before you. Go forth and create your own story. —Rumi

It’s difficult to have a sensible discussion about gender in Pakistan. We become too apologetic and run to the latest tapes by preachers and televangelists seeking cheap assurances. Let us be blunt, Islam or no Islam – Pakistan has a problem when it comes to women – this is the reality on the ground, and so questions have to be asked.

I don’t want to discuss apologetics or to convince the reader about the true ‘essence’ of Islam – but rather want to shed light on some scholarship and activism within Islamic communities that aims to establish an egalitarian reading of Islam. First things first – the notion of ‘Islamic law’ as being the sole cause of gender oppression is wrong – scholar Haider Ala Hamoudi writes in his paper, ‘The Death of Islamic Law’ that Islamic Law is dead, and all that remains is whatever, necessarily limited, remnants of it the state chooses to incorporate into the legal regime.’’

Islamic law as classically interpreted by a hierarchy of scholars and institutions independent of the State and political power is no longer a reality. In the paper, ‘Keeping the State Out’, the author concludes that, ‘By codification and state promulgation, the movements that aim to reintroduce Islamic law through the political power of the state end up changing radically the nature of Islamic law’, to the extent that the internal integrity of Islamic jurisprudence crumbles before political opportunism and manipulation. Today, States use Islamic law as a way to manipulate religious sentiment to protect their legitimacy and in the process women usually suffer.

What passes for Islamic Law today is not a labour of scholarly investigation but selective implementation by politicians tapping into religious aspirations. Marx in a way was right when he said religion was the opium of the masses. But there are other ‘centres of oppression’ to consider – in Pakistan the feudal culture combined with a powerful underlying patriarchal tradition embedded in rural practice and village councils is a great obstacle to any sort of reform.

But one of the biggest issues facing the construction of gender rights is that of authority. It is clear that today Muslim women have been robbed of positions of religious leadership and intellectual authority to rule on matters of critical importance. When the authority of women to rule in matters of State, law or faith has been delegitimised by society at large then any sort of viable reform becomes hard to establish. This is reflective in the fact that calls for gender reform have always come from abroad – the brute facts seem to suggest there is no domestic constituency that has reached critical mass to bring about change from within.

It is this issue that should attract our attention – to rectify the dynamics of authority and scholarship. There are already positive developments, for instance in Britain, Muslim women have campaigned for a new marriage contract and tackling domestic violence by using the scholarship of Islamic liberals like Khaled Abou El Fadl who provide the intellectual legitimacy from within the Muslim tradition. Women such as Asma Jahangir and the Iranian dissident Shirin Ebadi are a fine example of women rising through the ranks and establishing political, legal and intellectual authority to fight for their rights.

Legal reform has to negotiate tricky terrain from religious interpretation to the issue of scholarly legitimacy and authority. Then there is education and economics – but without raising difficult questions that can only go so far. Patriarchy exists in middle class families in Pakistan as well – throwing money at the problem simply doesn’t work, and shock, gasp, horror even engineers and doctors can be cruel. Changing the shape of the house is futile if the foundations are rotten to the core.

But apart from bureaucratic change and legal technicalities there is a real need for an ethic of individual empowerment. The Civil Rights movement was a powerful expression of liberation that incorporated a deep moral sentiment that adamantly believed in the equality of all human beings regardless of race.

In Pakistan, there is no such sentiment or mass movement that can accompany legal reform – in other words, the State cannot legislate morality. Until the gravity of moral authority shifts in favour of women any sort of legal reform will be seen more as a colonial tool of control rather than a means for liberation.

But there is something on the local level and on a more individual scale that we can do within our own families. Men can treat the women in their lives as important equals worthy of respect – brothers looking out for sisters, fathers respecting daughters, husbands enjoying an equal partnership with wives and much, much more. In our own individual families, we can try to confront the patriarchal traditions of our culture that stain our faith and make live hell for other human beings.

It is clear that for women to enjoy equality the issue of authority has to be confronted. The recent appointment of Hina Rabbani Khar is hugely counterproductive for any move towards equality and instead is a victory for feudal politics. The story of Khar is not one that can be told to aspiring, young women wishing to make a change – it is a story of how privilege and feudal connections reign supreme in Pakistan.

The Khar appointment is distasteful and the reception given to her by both Pakistani and Indian media commenting on her appearance rather than the substance of her comments and thinking confirms the lethal patriarchal tendencies of the sub-continent as a whole. Token politics isn’t the way to resolve the problem of authority.

But as Rumi made clear, women must continue to create their own stories.

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Vision 21 is Pakistan based non-profit, non- party Socio-Political organisation. We work through research and advocacy for developing and improving Human Capital, by focusing on Poverty and Misery Alleviation, Rights Awareness, Human Dignity, Women empowerment and Justice as a right and obligation. We act to promote and actively seek Human well-being and happiness by working side by side with the deprived and have-nots.

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