the reinvention of feminism in Pakistan

Research paper by Afiya Shehrbano Zia

Indexed on: 06 Mar '09Published on: 06 Mar '09Published in: Feminist Review


This article argues that there has been a significant turn in the discourse of feminist politics in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The author suggests that the rise of a new feminism – rooted in Islamic discourse, non-confrontational, privatized and personalized, whose objective is to ‘empower’ women within Islam – is not a post-9/11 development but rather a result of unresolved debates on the issue of religion within the progressive women's movement. It has been due to the accommodation of religion-based feminist arguments by the stronger secular feminist movement of the 1980s that paved the way for its own marginalization by giving feminist legitimacy to such voices. The author argues that the second wave of feminism may have become diluted in its effectiveness and support due to discriminatory religious laws, dictatorship, NGO-ization, fragmentation, co-option by the state and political parties in the same way as the global women's movement has. Yet it has been the internal inconsistency of the political strategies as well as the personal, Muslim identities of secular feminists that have allowed Islamic feminists to redefine the feminist agenda in Pakistan. This article voices the larger concern over the rise of a new generation of Islamic revivalist feminists who seek to rationalize all women's rights within the religious framework and render secular feminism irrelevant while framing the debate on women's rights exclusively around Islamic history, culture and tradition. The danger is that a debate such as this will be premised on a polarized ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ Muslim woman, such that women who abide by the liberal interpretation of theology will be pitted against those who follow a strict and literal interpretist mode and associate themselves with male religio-political discourse. This is only likely to produce a new, radicalized, religio-political feminism dominating Pakistan's political future.