Afiya Shehrbano Zia

Pakistan’s women are marching against patriarchy, but what is their destination and who is standing in their way? The Aurat March of 2019 faced severe backlash from both conservative as well as like-minded quarters, on account of some hard-hitting slogans and jabs raised against prevalent masculinist social norms. These have brought to the fore some paradoxes within feminist politics, which merit resolution for the sake of the emergence of stronger feminist politics in Pakistan.

The Aurat (Woman’s) March held across many cities of Pakistan on International Women’s Day, 2019 was larger, more intersectional, and more politically bold than its debut in 2018 (Nation 2018). While inspired by an international series of women’s marches and a global #MeToo movement, the impulse behind Pakistan’s Aurat March has been organic in equal measure. A younger generation of men and women in urban centres who had been connecting and politicking online for a few years, converged their anger and creative energies into this offline event and decided to reclaim the streets to march against patriarchy.

But, the severe backlash (Raza 2019) from conservative and even some like-minded quarters (Zahra-Malik 2019), in reaction to provocative slogans (Nizam 2019) and hard-hitting jabs at masculinist norms, were powerful reminders of a deeply entrenched religio-cultural patriarchal privilege that is jealously guarded in Pakistan. The adversarial reaction to these rallies has also revealed some troubling contradictions that have been brewing within the new activism itself. This article explores how the Aurat March brought into focus some pre-existing paradoxes within the feminist politics. These require urgent attention so as to prevent the fragmentation and the possible defeat of an emergent new politics of resistance in Pakistan.

Shock and Awe

The overwhelming outrage against the Aurat March and related rallies in all major and some smaller cities of Pakistan was triggered by a section of bold, creative and subversively humorous slogans (Ahmed 2019) and placards carried by participants. Most of these objectionable posters were challenging male norms of propriety and sexual harassment. Such agitprop ranged from “Apna moza khud dhoondo” (Look for your sock on your own) or “Apni roti khud banao” (Make your own roti) to “Mera jisam meri marzi” (My body, my choice) and “Dic pics apnay paas rakho” (Keep dick pics to yourself). In Karachi and Lahore, some even carried refrains of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex politics.

Conservative critics condemned this kind of feminism as a violation of “our culture” and “Islamic teachings” (Shehzad 2019). Neoconservatives, who make a career of denouncing feminism as “liberal–secular–Islamophobic,” led an almost Freudian choir (Maqbool Jan 2019) on national television, and the provincial legislature of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa even passed a resolution (Hayat and Akbar 2019), demanding an inquiry into the “foreign hands” behind the Aurat March as a plot to undermine Pakistan’s social norms. The anxiety over Muslim women of the subcontinent breaching into public spaces is historic and is best exemplified in the fin de siècle of the Indian reformist primer for Muslim women, Bahishti Zewar, by Ashraf Ali Thanvi. After partition, the modernist project in the Muslim-majority Pakistan, as led by the benevolent dictatorship of Mohammad Ayub Khan (1958–69), resulted in the progressive and pro-women Muslim Family Laws Ordinance, 1961. It was only under the following military rule of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977–88) and his Islamisation project that women’s struggles for rights and freedom had to be waged against a confrontational rather than reformist state.

The accusations against women’s rights activists for hatching subversive agendas against Islam and the conspiracy that they want to turn Pakistan into a “free sex zone” (Dawn 2006) became an integral part of the national narrative since the 1980s. These concerns have often graduated to threats and actual reprisals in the form of kidnapping and rape. In some cases, these have even resulted in the murders of “NGO women” (Tirbune 2013) lawyers who take up cases for women’s and minorities’ rights (especially, blasphemy cases) (Buncombe and Aziz 2014), and those who speak for expanding spaces and freedoms and liberalising gender social relations (Shamsie 2015). To champion such causes even polemically is seriously dangerous business in Pakistan.

The terrorisation campaign (Dawn 2019) against the Aurat Marchers in 2019 became fast, effective and amplified because that is how trolling works. Some of the younger generation were taken aback, even injured by the level of vicious intimidation, almost as if they were not expecting such a venomous whiplash. The reaction is, of course, a sign of the success of the march—at having exposed the nerve centre of a patriarchal stronghold that relies on gender norms and fragile masculinities, under the preserve of culture and tradition. The Aurat Marchers had irreverently and momentarily pushed aside the gatekeepers of public morality, by subverting and exposing the myth of such man-invented norms of “appropriate” behaviour and by questioning its beneficiaries.

However, a core reason for the disbelief over such a reactionary response is that a post-9/11 generation has never had the experience of going up against a state that relies on the weaponisation of Islamic legal and sociocultural arsenal for its ideological strength. This has been a generation that has seen a state fighting on both sides in the “war on terror” and has been invested in challenging the Pakistan military’s (opaque) operations against militancy in tribal areas. Many amongst this post-9/11 generation are defensive about global Islamophobia (Cheema 2014). They are conscious of the way routine patriarchy works and aware of the failure of state pillars to provide either justice or rights, but they have circumvented the core debate of Islam and culture as a resource and rationale for preserving the gendered order, especially the sexual gendered order in the Islamic republic. Theoretically, they have written theses (Bano 2012) about “engaging” with Islamist politics (Khan 2016), instead of following old binaries of the religious-secular, but pragmatically, they have simply avoided confrontation with religious politics in the post-9/11 context.

Should a younger feminist movement be challenging Islamic laws and ethos when demanding sexual rights and equality, or be looking for complementarity by “working within,” “engaging with” and employing hermeneutics, Quranic exegesis, or exploring the Islamic feminist route? Or, do they wish to experiment in a project, as some have recommended, of some “hybrid” compatibility of secular and faith-based rights?

In the 1980s and 1990s, women’s groups protested in the streets, breaking curfews against military dictatorship, “Islamisation” of laws and policies, and violence against women (Saigol 2016; Khan 2004). Their campaigns for human rights, democracy, provincial rights, pro-women and minority legislation were especially courageous in the most politically repressive period in Pakistan. In the absence of any decent academic base, the same activists found themselves stretched in doing research, writing, advocacy work, raising funds, lobbying with military and civilian governments, fighting cases in courts, and sometimes, even joining the state, in order to realise any rights at all. Over the 1990s, activism became more streamlined, strategic and organised in the form of non-governmental organisation (NGO)-supported research, seminars, lobbying and pressure directed at state and international bodies. The lack of any emergent critical mass of activists, or the revival of left politics in the democratic interregnum that followed (1988–99), was attributed to an apolitical generation fed on Zia’s censored media and the collapse of education and the dismal state of social sciences in Pakistan (Zaidi 2002).

Contrary to some ahistorical and puerile accusations by some newly minted scholar–activists of the new millennium who fling casual accusations against NGOs and mock their activists as NGO-aunties and neo-liberal feminists (Akhtar 2015), in fact, in the late 1990s, there was also considerable debate and self-reflection on the nature of their activism. Feminists anguished over three key emerging contradictions; the depoliticisation of the women’s movement; religious and secular contestations for rights; and the vocabulary, conceptual framing and modes of organising for feminist ends in Pakistan.

NGOs Pushing the Feminist Agenda

In the 1990s, there was far more South Asian collectivism and some sharp political scrutiny of the neo-liberalisation of development and concern over the NGO-isation of the women’s movement. Many Pakistani feminists were privy to Indian feminist critiques of a post-Cold War globalisation and the rising discontent that followed. Regional feminism was undoubtedly the strongest in political and personal terms. It is deeply, almost ludicrously, ironic how some of the newer generation of activists in Pakistan attempt to impeach the feminist activism of this period while actually working for/in the same NGOs. Several others work for international (perhaps imperialist) human rights organisations and/or use their resources regularly. Many of those perched on some high moral ground of contemporary activism also serve as consultants on (neo-liberal) donor-led development programmes or work in private sector universities funded by corporations.

Certainly, all projects must be subjected to feminist scrutiny, but there is a problem when the critique is flattened, limited and targeted at women or feminists of a particular era or group. It is also facile to exempt some feminists, including men, of the left or NGO male leaders by overlooking their errors of political commissions just because of their affinity with the critics’ social circle or network. One of the markers of Pervez Musharraf’s (1999–2008) “Enlightened Moderation” masquerade was the corporatisation of causes, which has resulted today in an annual feature of nearly a dozen corporate-sponsored “cultural festivals.” Apart from a few local ones that are genuinely organic (Lahooti 2020) and another that is academic in its bent, the rest are predominantly infotainment-styled drawing room chatter by celebrity-turned-activists and talk show hosts, discussing politics and trivialising discussions on the state of affairs in Pakistan. Many critics of NGOs continue to enthusiastically attend these (neo-liberal) events and sulk if this contradiction is pointed out or if they are not included.

Younger feminists seem oblivious to the fact that many of these “80s” women activists are not ossified parts of history, but powerhouses today. They continue to head several semi-governmental human/women’s rights commissions, or are leading members of political parties, or in the bureaucracy, or indeed, continue to spearhead some of the most influential nationwide developmental programmes in Pakistan. Some of them have even been key organisers and supporters of the Aurat March. A catchphrase criticism by some post-9/11 activists has been over the “rescue narrative” for Muslim women—the kind that has been used to justify the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq by North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies. Some have gone so far as to accuse feminists in Muslim contexts of aiding imperialist ambitions of Western powers and labelled them “imperialist feminists,” “liberal hawks” and “native informants” (Toor 2012). These mirror the kind of allegations made by Pakistani neocons who have maligned rights activists such as Asma Jahangir or Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai—who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban—as traitors and Islamophobes.

However, these scholar–activist critics are not consistent. Their theoretical witticisms do not account for the fact that Pakistani activists “rescue” women and minorities on a daily basis, from patriarchal and majoritarian violence, trafficking, enforced disappearances, blasphemy accusations, vigilantism, forced conversions and marriages, bonded labour arrangements and deprivation of fair wages, besides other routine violations. A younger generation of activists are involved in similar efforts. In fact, in the post-9/11 period, several young women have set up NGOs too, and raise funds from international donors for courageous causes to counter sexual harassment, lobby for digital rights and advocate for the rescue of those indicted under the death penalty. They tend to be applauded for their heroic activism. When is “rescue” a noble mission, and is it merely dependent on the individuals leading the cause?

The answer lies in the treatment of religious politics. As long as activists circumvent any critique of this, their feminism is considered kosher. This raises a discomfiting historical question of when feminists were committed to fighting for the repeal of the zina and blasphemy laws in the 1990s and regularly raised funds from international sources for these causes and for the asylum of victims. Would that historic struggle qualify as “Islamophobic” and “Orientalist” by the measure of today’s aloof critics? The fact that there has been no direct challenge or campaign on these Islamic laws or, indeed, on other discriminatory religious laws and policies for the past 20 years (that is, since 9/11) partially answers this question.

Feminism and Post-9/11 Islamophobia

The Aurat March also raises another unresolved fault line which is to do with a post-9/11 generation’s inability to grapple with the role of religion vis-à-vis feminism in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. This is a historic debate amongst women activists that dates around the time of the Islamisation period under Zia-ul-Haq (1979–88). Those debates recognised the importance of faith for women, and so, feminists strategised on how to depoliticise the weaponisation of Islamic laws and their patriarchal interpretations.

These led to two broad strategic results; one set of activists felt that, so loaded is Islam with patriarchal sourcing and baggage that it is a self-defeating and impossible task to pursue rights in anything other than a secular framing and mode; and those who found strategic value in feminist reclamations of Islam. There were, of course, those who fell between and outside of these stools, including those who have produced path-breaking work on Quranic hermeneutics (Hassan 2013) and/or more anaemic proposals about an untested theory about embracing some hybridised form of Islamic feminism. I have argued that the latter projects reside on a slippery slope and have yielded more benefits to entrenching patriarchy and majoritarianism than offering any liberating results (Zia 2019).

Those who have been privy to the tail end of these debates over the Zina and Hudood Ordinance (Jahangir and Jilani 2003) will recall cases where women were consistently denied justice due to the invocation of Islamic traditions (not just laws) and where Islamist women (particularly of the Jamaat-e-Islami) actively opposed human rights, prescribed strict Islamic gendered apartheid and roles, and blamed women victims as responsible for their own rapes (Brohi 2006). Islamist women in Zia-ul-Haq’s time played a key role in converting blasphemy into an offence that qualified for the death penalty. Islamist women of the eligious alliance of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA)-ruled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa between 2002 and 2008, with a ferocious determination to subvert all constitutional women’s rights—including the right to vote—and repeatedly legislated for a vice-and-virtue police to restrain women’s mobility in public spaces. All the while, they were able to represent an “authentic” politics—one that was for (restricting) women by women.1 Pietist women support similar religio-nationalist political ends through a social pedagogy.

Is it Islamophobic to recall and critique this and should we just pretend that we are yet to discover the “interiorised complexities” of such agentive women? Consistent with their record, after the march this year, the women of Minhaj-ul-Quran and the Jamaat-e-Islami outright condemned (Tunio 2019) and despaired at the international women’s day Aurat March—an event that, otherwise, the women’s wing of the Jamaat has historically supported and celebrated in its own framing of women’s rights. Is the Aurat March responsible for alienating these women by the same token that other “liberal–secular” feminists are accused of doing so?

In her op-ed, Huma Yusuf (2019) connects the backlash to Aurat March to the overall “death of dialogue” in Pakistan. She notes the accusations against the participants for their un-Islamic act and contends that such accusations effectively silence voices and the potential for a much-needed debate on women’s rights. Yusuf (2019) notes how the insinuation of being Islamophobic or unpatriotic leads to blasphemy accusations, intimidation and even death. At best, it leads to the death of debate. What does this say about so-called academics who spitefully reduce any challenge to religious politics in the form of scholarship or practice, in the same manner?

Conceptual Confusions

There are other conceptual confusions found in informalised discussions of feminist theories on social media or blogs. Some Pakistani feminists claim the virtues of post-structural feminism and are defensive about the validity of understanding the “complex subjectivities,” bodily practices and interior meanings as well as the pietist and docile agency as the alterities of Muslim women, which have been proposed by post-secularists,2 such as Saba Mahmood (2011) and her adherents. Some younger women who claim radical left feminist identities, scold other feminists to make room for the invitations by post-secularists, such as Mahmood (2011), in order to devise better feminist strategies.

This reads perilously like an invitation for left feminism to embrace Islamic feminism. If so, this is an interesting revisitation of something already tried in the 1980s/1990s. It is a strange proposal today, when contemporary feminist networks have made gains, prioritising other kinds of “bodily practices,” such as those that labour for wages, resist violence and forced marriages and conversions and for equal sexual rights—the kind that came to the Aurat March. There are deeper inconsistencies too, such as when advocates for post-structuralism complain of the lack of empirical evidence to prove how the success of

several of Pakistan’s working-class women’s movements can be attested to their secular autonomies (Zia 2019).

The vague advice of “radical” activists who bid the need to avoid binaries seems to be missing the irony of how liberal a position this bears. But, in any case, many feminists insist that we must avoid the “either/or” strategic options, and this sounds good on paper or Twitter. In real life, just like there are no neat and clean sources of oppression, there is also little luxury of finding nuanced, mutually agreeable solutions. In other words, will 2020’s marchers be invested in justifying how their demands are not against Islam and “our culture” or, will they take the risk and demand their rights without negotiating their credibility as measured against Islamic and cultural propriety, regardless of who defines these boundaries? Simply saying “we must avoid binaries” does not cut it and is a cop-out for which the price will be high.

How Far Have We Really Come

A manifest marker of the success of Musharraf’s praetorian dictatorship (1999–2008)—and in sharp contrast to the vibrant resistance offered by Women’s Action Forum and pro-democracy groups during Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship—was the absence of organised protest by any progressive movement or, indeed, the left. The only exception came by way of the radical women of the Jamia Hafsa madrasa in 2007, protesting for the enforcement of Sharia codes (Zia 2009) and later, the secular “Lawyers’ Movement” for the restoration of the deposed chief justice and rule of law.

Several of us wrote consistently over this period against the co-optation of those who considered themselves pro-democracy liberals, but then either joined Musharraf’s government (Zaidi 2005), or participated in his many platforms that invited civilian partnerships to lend credibility. At the very least, they muted their critique by self-censorship. However, the rise of a post-secular scholarship in this period, mostly diasporic (Deo 2018), decided to brand all human/women’s rights activism in Pakistan as blind appeasement of authoritarianism. Any critique of religious politics became quickly and lazily conflated as “Islamophobia,” and invectives like “liberal–secular fundamentalism,” Imperialism or Orientalism (Mustafa 2014) were weaponised, with the aim to communalise rights-based activists. The rise of diasporic academic work on the subject of women and Islam in Musharraf’s period (Iqtidar 2011) has offered some powerful and unchallenged analysis that discredits liberal and/or secular feminist movements in Pakistan. Much of it is invested in recuperating or rehabilitating Islamic alternatives, or recommends the inclusion of religious/pietist policies in an already majoritarian Islamic republic (Bano and Kalmbach 2012).

This unchallenged rise encouraged a spate of ahistorical and often long-distant social media and online “analysis” by keyboard warriors who claim political avatars and statuses such as “radical left feminist” and “orthodox Marxist” and end up making a mockery of feminist and left politics in Pakistan. Apparently, their secular politics—as stated on their manifestos or demonstrable in their personal lifestyles at least—is legitimate, while all others’ is Islamophobic. All this work is produced in the English language (always admired by friendly readers as “beautifully written”) and is usually the work of young scholars located in Western academia who embrace postcolonial angst. They protest racism, the whiteness of academia and injustices of Islamophobia, as they suffer the penalty of an overseas graduate or doctoral degree.

When, in Pakistan, these personas lament routine sexism, harassment, the political misuse of Islam, the imperialism of the war on terror and alleged complicity of NGO–imperial feminism (Akhtar 2015). They consider women’s pietist movements and madrasa education to be benign sources of the empowerment of these women (but are silent about male pietist movements).3 Many diasporic activists seem stuck in a political purgatory that is bridgeable by social media and makes them relevant in the echo chamber of online politics.

After the Aurat March, some diasporic observers and foreign male commentators chimed in to disapprove of the culturally inappropriate slogans that demanded sexual rights (Mohydin 2019). They lectured against a placard that suggested that there is happiness after divorce as contradictory to Islamic teachings, which dissuade divorce. These opinions were taken to task by defenders and even mocked for the obvious double standards (Mohydin 2019), but, oddly, if one responds via an academic challenge to diasporic scholarship produced by those located in power bases of western academia, that apparently amounts to unfair “attacks” and unfair locational politics.

In the time period since 2000, there has been no thesis produced by these anti-imperialist radicals on the treatment or impact on women over the decade-long Taliban insurgency in Pakistan, nor of the five-year rule of the religious alliance of the MMA in the frontier province, nor the routine resistance movements that have been secular and paid the price accordingly. There has been no in-depth work on the radical women of the Jamia Hafsa, the women murdered by religious extremists—from Benazir Bhutto, to polio workers, to Sabeen Mahmud. On the other hand, there have been dozens of theses on pietist Islamic movements, such as the Al-Huda (Maqsood 2017), women’s empowerment in madrasas (Bano and Kalmbach 2011; Bano 2012), hybridity of Islamic rights, variations of Islamic laws that can subsume human rights laws (Cheema and Mustafa 2008–09), and reconciliation of blasphemy and other laws related to women’s rights through Islamic exegesis (Khan 2015).

To acknowledge this blatant cavity and imbalance in knowledge production invites a vicious online tirade that pleads victimhood of being “attacked” and simultaneously makes unsubstantiated accusations of an undefined Islamophobia. Even interrogating the limitations or applicability of theories that seek to revive Muslim women’s agency is tediously conflated with Islamophobia and earns personalised insults. It is worth noting, as I have been urging for many years, that the site and scholarship of the landscape described above is overwhelmingly, if not entirely, Punjab-centric.

Moral and Tonal Injury

The Aurat March was not the first attempt by women’s rights activists to reclaim the commons in Pakistan. In 2005, Asma Jahangir, along with other human rights activists, organised a marathon in Lahore to highlight violence against women. There was serious opposition to the idea by the religious alliance of the MMA, who considered mixed-gender events and women’s mobility in public spaces to be un-Islamic. On the day of the marathon, these religious groups set out to obstruct the event, while the police attacked participants with batons, kicking and dragging them into police vans and, in the process, tore the shirt off Asma’s back. The image became a flashpoint and an embarrassment for Musharraf who had pledged to turn Pakistan into an “Enlightened Moderate” Islamic republic. In true political spirit, Asma refused to be either embarrassed or intimidated and used the backlash as evidence of the very cause of violence against women. After the clash, another symbolic marathon-walk was held, this time, peacefully, with Asma leading.

Similarly, women’s resistance against what was loosely called the “Talibanisation” of Pakistan (denoting the growing waves of militancy and especially the vigilantism towards women’s presence in public spaces), resulted in organised protests against the Taliban’s shutting down of women’s shelters, bombings of girls’ schools, systematic murders of women artists, sex and even health workers in Swat. In the wake of the shutting down of girls’ schools in Pathan-populated neighbourhoods and murders of health workers in Karachi, protests and seminars (Baloch 2009) by women’s groups against the spread of this radicalisation became a form of reclaiming women’s rights to public spaces and services.4 The importance of reclaiming the public space cannot be underestimated, neither can the backlash that follows.

Asma Jahangir’s mass-attended funeral on 13 February 2018 in Lahore summarised many of the contentions that she represented over the course of her lifelong commitment to secular human rights. In a show of radical departure from Muslim tradition that does not observe mixed-gender funerals, women activists, colleagues, lawyers and well-wishers participated at Asma’s funeral and last rites, alongside men. It sparked a posthumous controversy (Malik 2018) with right-wingers lashing out on social media at the mourners for warring against god; prominent clerics declaring her funeral to be null and void; edicts and even a legal petition by a lawyer seeking to register a case of blasphemy against Asma’s daughter and others who attended the funeral. Ammar Rashid (2018) observes that in response to these accusations by the right-wing, the naïve defence offered by many liberals and progressives was to offer scriptural reasoning from within the Islamic tradition. But, he points out that this fails to recognise the “dubious interests” behind the Islamists’ “tenuous claims to gender justice,” which is, in fact, simply a ploy to mask its intrinsic interest in gender segregation and to serve as the “perpetual vanguard of patriarchy.”

Like blasphemy politics in Pakistan, social media politics is marked by its own convenient logic. There is understanding and forgiveness for friends and mentors who publicly shame other feminists (Raheel 2019), or gang up with men on social media to giggle at their courageous efforts to undermine or blatantly spread unverified misinformation about women’s groups. It is apparently heroic if naming and shaming is targeted at alleged sexual harassers, but not cool when it is used as a weapon by those who feel (quite genuinely, in many cases) injured by perceived insult to religion. In cases of blasphemy, unverified accusation is an efficient weapon to silence critics and adversaries. In the same manner that anyone questioning nationalism or religion has been painted as a traitor or kaafir, those who question religious politics qualify as Islamophobic, often with no substantiating evidence or even a supportive quote or citation. However, if one happens to be a part of the social circuit of those who accuse others of Islamophobia, then even if there is some incriminating evidence of the guilt of religious irreverence, the offender can qualify as a victim—as in the case of the “secular bloggers” (BBC News 2017) who had to seek asylum.

Just like with the blasphemy politics amongst the clergy in Pakistan, so too with scholar–activists, criticism and accusations depend on perception, patronage and friendships, rather than any real moral injury or intellectual differences. The consequences of such irresponsible blasphemy accusations have led to threats and even, in some cases, lynching of the accused (BBC News 2017a). Casting accusations of Islamophobia against those one disagrees with is aided and abetted by a Twitterati mob that applauds the intrepidity of accusers, but who shield themselves from responsibility by claiming that retweets need not be seen as endorsement.

Social media (and too many online magazines) do not require peer reviews or fact-checks or even citations to substantiate claims. For some odd reason, digital rights activists take any critique of the mode of social media activism personally. Even though such criticism is the same that would apply to online supporters of the ruling party of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or even Donald Trump—that is, the limits of armchair politics or activism. Some of these armchairs rock in Western countries, from where diasporic opinions are dedicated to routinely condemning Pakistani feminists for their politics. When they cannot find supportive, citable evidence, they object to the “tone” of feminist scholarship. The trouble with injury is that it is a double-edged sword and it is competitive. Who decides which tone is appropriate and where the bounds of propriety lie? The usual markers have been “our religion” and “our culture,” but as Babar Sattar (2019) points out in his op-ed on the Aurat March:

The tone argument is the most flexible weapon one can employ as a bully. If you accept its logic and legitimacy, it works like a nuclear option. “It’s not what you said, but how you said it”—this sure was conceived by one creative mind. Basically, you claim the power to determine when the tone redline gets crossed and once you determine that it has, you are liberated of the need to respond to the merit of the argument logically.

The ‘C’ Word

The unwillingness of the coming-of-age activists to confront the contradictions between religious/pietist politics and their own aspiring feminism poses a serious challenge. It is not just religion, but the intersectionality of class and gender too that has challenged sexual harassment politics in Pakistan. The #MeToo movement motivated several younger activists to formulate their own separate feminist collectives. Even prior to the international movement, some of these were committed to reclaiming public spaces in Pakistan, but most of these groups were far more active online than offline. Over the past two years, several cases of sexual harassment have divided opinions amongst feminists, especially over the strategic use of naming and shaming alleged harassers and over the limits and unwillingness to fight these cases in the legal arena. The treatment of this subject requires more detailed discussion, but two important features may be pointed out here.

The first is that some sexual harassment cases exposed the unresolved place of class and feminist politics, when the accused men happened to be part of some left group and/or a privileged social collective. While the sexual harassment law had been methodically prepared and implemented with supportive codes and campaigning, it was only a matter of time before this intersectionality of class and gender was going to be tested. The second challenge has been the unwillingness to acknowledge the class politics within feminism in Pakistan. Some have called out the power bases commanded by an older generation of feminists, with their access to the state and donors and the advantage of being based in provincial urban centres, but refuse to acknowledge their own equally privileged positions, embedded in the ivory towers of elite academic institutions, or their own advantageous social class. While feminist resistance can be found in every corner of Pakistan, the majority of those invested and benefiting from and engaged in feminist knowledge production are English-speaking, belong to the upper middle classes, and this is definitely not limited to an older generation only.

The Women’s Action Forum’s chapter in Karachi took note of some of the generational splits emerging in the wake of a series of sexual harassment cases, which were outed on social media last year (indeed, lessons from India’s debates prompted the need for these). In an effort to prevent obvious misunderstandings and splits noticeable amongst feminists, a series of cross-organisational and intergenerational dialogues were held. These have been valuable in bridging some of the mistrust and distancing between feminists in Karachi and belying the gossip and competitive cliques encouraged by some slighted feminists and their attempts at self-created relevance from a distance. Following on the heels of such a healing process, the Aurat March swelled in solidarity across groups, generations and genders.

Feminist Futures

The immediate response to the backlash against the Aurat March has resulted in a show of solidarity by nearly all rights activists and importantly, the liberal-leaning Pakistan Peoples Party (Pakistan Today 2019) and the Awami Workers Party (Peoples Dispatch 2019). Many of the defenders against the abusive trolling and even threats of death and rape of participants have been men. But, under the current of this important moment is a realisation that we require deep reflection and reckoning before the next march.

The first lesson is that it was not the offence of simple impropriety, but the serial objection and the far more serious hostility to the Aurat March was because for the first time, sex and sexual rights were made part of a public agenda. As we know, these rights are not going to be delivered merely by the benign goodwill of woke men or flow from attitudinal or behavioural changes in society. These will require uncomfortable confrontations over male sexual and class privileges across institutions. More importantly, the demand for sexual equality will require strategies that will fall outside Islamic rights and pietist, and Islamist women are not likely to be allies in this struggle.

The second learning is more complicated. To build its feminist rationale, the organisers of the Aurat March (Jabeen 2019) issued a manifesto (Courting the Law 2019), which included structural, material, legal and economic demands as part of its agenda. This was in response to a criticism that lingered from 2018, about how the march focused on personal freedoms, such as the right to mobility, dress, and against sexual harassment, but it did not connect the protest to state-level political, legal or economic challenges. Personally, I am not one who agrees with this criticism, despite being reputed as a feminist who is rigidly invested in material and political analysis and “dismissive” of post-alities. A feminist movement or collective should be able to pursue any strand of oppressive patriarchal practices, and in Pakistan, sexual rights have been a neglected aspect of the feminism originating from the 1980s.

Part of the problem of taxonomy is that too many Pakistani feminists in an already small pool have indulged in weaponising labels like “liberal feminism” in order to distance themselves from other feminists and create identity politics that claims some radical uniqueness. Ironically, the critics of Aurat March used the same tactic to politically slur all feminists (including those who identify as socialist or radical feminists) as “liberal” and “burger” feminists for focusing on performativity rather than “real” issues.

Historically, activism around the Zina law and honour crimes has tended to focus on wrongful accusations and the victim narrative predominated in the defence rather than the pursuit of justice based on the principle of sexual autonomy. The Aurat Marchers’ protest against patriarchal attitudes is a provocative one, but it is not directed at the state. If their demands for sexual freedoms, mobility and equal rights of social relations are going to be directed at the state, then the precoded and even the universal understanding about the limits of Muslim gendered social relations will have to be tackled. If the Aurat March intends to challenge these boundaries, it will mean taking on fundamental differences of views on the place of sexual rights and even legal reasonings ofIslamic laws.

These will require strategic thinking and agreements. It will also mean that those who argue for “engagement” with piety and for understanding religious women’s “valid way of being” will have to get to work in order to pacify the current backlash that is coming from some Islamist women’s organisations today (Minhaj-ul-Quran 2019). It means that those who have lectured on the need to understand and engage with the supposedly benign politics of pietist or Islamist women, must ensure these sectors are not offended or excluded. Otherwise, these feminists may invite criticism of doublespeak because they have accused other secular feminists of being guilty of Orientalism. Worse, they should be prepared to swim in the pool of accusatory arsenal that casts casual accusations of Islamophobia and to which they have contributed themselves.

In anticipation of 2020’s Aurat March, are Pakistani women activists going to retreat, or are they going to engage and negotiate with the cultural and religious context, or will they unapologetically keep pushing the boundaries of patriarchal propriety to recalibrate the gendered order in the Islamic republic? The posters they carry next time will partially answer that, but meanwhile, there is a lot of conceptual and strategic clarity for feminists to work out.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia (afiyaszia@yahoo.com) is a feminist scholar based in Karachi, Pakistan and author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan: Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy? (2018). She has taught women’s studies at Habib University and the University of Toronto. She is a member of the secular rights group, Women’s Action Forum, Pakistan.

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