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Interview — Islamist Politics Have Always Targeted Women And Minorities’ Rights: Afiya Zia

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The second Pakistani edition of Afiya S Zia’s book, Faith and Feminism in Pakistan (SAP, UK, 2018) has just been reprinted by Folio Books. Afiya responds to some questions put to her by a group of students and activists to address some controversy that it has provoked on its core themes.

Question: “While your book Faith and Feminism in Pakistan has been reviewed and well-received in Pakistan (the local edition sold out within the first year), there are some allegations leveled against it in online commentary. It may benefit readers if you respond to the following objections.

I. An objection that you “question ‘post-secular’ feminist scholarship that has purportedly emerged since the September 11 attacks”, and critique what you “term as the “post-secular turn” in scholarship on Muslim societies.”
Afiya Shehrbano Zia: Of course, I don’t ‘purport’ the emergence of, or coin the term ‘post-secular’ – Habermas (2008) does. Mufti (2013) expands on the ‘post-secular turn’ and its ‘near-orthodox’ domination in Western academy, arguing that post-secularism is essentially majoritarian in nature.
The quotes are further misleading. I do not say post-secular turn in studies on ‘Muslim societies’ but specifically, in the “new pedagogy on Muslim women”.

Also, the post-secular scholarship I discuss is NOT all by those who claim to be feminists – many would deny this label. Such scholarship (by Pakistani men and women – predominantly in Western academies or diaspora) that emerged post 9/11 is critical of secular, or liberal, or any feminist possibilities in/for Pakistan. I counter the inaccuracies of these by recounting achievements for women’s rights in Pakistan that are framed in a secular politics. Using 3 case studies, I argue that future transformative progress must be in the same mode of secular resistance.

2. That you call a set of scholars, “Retro-Islamist”.
ASZ – Yes, to identify those who seek a social contract within Islamic tradition and law. I use it to distinguish from previous categories, such as, revivalist or fundamentalist.

3. That you “deconstruct feminist scholarship that focuses on Muslim contexts.”
ASZ – No, that’s hyperbole – only on or in relation to Pakistan.

4. You ‘critique the works of Saba Mahmood, and Pakistan-based scholars and researchers such as Humeira Iqtidar, Farida Shaheed, Sadaf Aziz, Amina Jamal and Saadia Toor.’
ASZ – Actually, more… including that by men. I do not categorise Farida in the ‘Retro’ category and the ones I do, were not based in Pakistan, including Bano.

5. Some resentment that the book has been “praised within Pakistan’s academic and intellectual spaces.”
ASZ- This grievance is accurate. Across the Pakistani public and private sector academy and cutting across classes, the book has been read and debated and yes, even appreciated.
If, like Mahmood’s, it was well received in the West, that may have been more problematic?

6. That you “substantiate a critique of “docile agency” by highlighting examples of grassroots working class movements in Pakistan, namely the politics and struggles of Lady Health Workers, and the landless peasants of Okara, Punjab…”

ASZ- ‘Docile agency’ is Mahmood characterisation of pietistic women, not mine. A third case study of the women councilors is also in my book.
In chapter 3, I cite feminist scholarship to explain that there is a difference between agency, empowerment and autonomy. These differences are especially important for feminist activism in Muslim contexts in contrast to the concept of ‘docile agency’.

7. That you ‘criticize the capitalist cooptation of Islam, as well as the ‘NGO-ization’ of the Pakistani feminist movement, including “donor-driven” ‘Islamic’ work.’
ASZ – Yes, to the first.
No, I do not mention any ‘Islamic’ work – I specifically talk about NGO donor-funded development projects that use faith-based methods and work on religious reform.
Duplicitous quote marks give the impression that I say ‘Islamic’ work when I do not.

8. That you “resort to binarism that pits Islam against ‘secular’ ideas and resistance,” (citing page 62 of the book).
ASZ- Fabricated. Page 62 and that chapter is ALL about Naila Kabeer’s concept of empowerment and work – no mention of ‘Islam’ as a binary of secularism anywhere here or in the book. It’s academic dishonesty to give a page number to make a fake claim.

9. That you “criticize capitalist cooptation of Islam and donor-driven faith-based projects but laud liberal gains such as feminist engagements with the law”.
ASZ- Yes, to the first.
Secondly, are the amendments to the Zina law after 35 years of struggles against the state and orthodoxy, a ‘liberal gain’? Lobbying for laws against domestic violence or any pro-woman law (including, the 1961 Family Laws) are vehemently and consistently opposed by the CII and Islamist parties who blackmail and threaten women activists and politicians.

(Far worse than the reactions to the Aurat March). There seems to be historical amnesia over how women were jailed and raped under Zina accusations, or killed for marrying without permission of the wali, and this allows terming activism against these as ‘liberal’ efforts.
Thirdly, is the campaign to end the death penalty a ‘liberal effort’?

10. That you ‘condone Pakistani feminists who practice a “politics of accommodation” and present legal achievements made by them as being neutral, objective and entirely pro-women.’
ASZ – In all my works on the subject, I have maintained that despite accommodation at different times (and I give examples, not vague accusations like ‘Pakistani feminists are all pro-drones, welcomed Musharraf, or cheered Zarb e Azb’ kind of babble), these women activists have brought about tremendous gains for women’s overall rights (not just legal), especially, in comparison to other Muslim contexts.

A more nuanced analysis is needed to understand why young feminists have the spaces and gains that they do (including ‘liberal gains’ that resulted from resistance against Zia ul Haq’s attempt to impose an Islamic dress code). I have, in fact, been critical of this ‘engagement’ approach in all my work.

How do these critics argue that feminists must accommodate religious agency, piety etc. but then criticise other feminists for their “politics of accommodation”?

11. That you “do not question the role of the state machinery enough, particularly its instrumentalization of religion, and increased involvement in the regulation of people’s lives…”
ASZ – Only since 1994 with my first book specifically on this issue, dozens of articles in between, and this book that repeatedly refers to the state collusion with men and culture and Islamic law……I specifically make the point on how the tool of religion as policy and law is available to the state which it uses constantly, as opposed to others’ suggestion that it’s some empty “ideological toolbox” (Toor 2011).

12. That you “portray Islamist movements negatively.”
ASZ – There never seem to be any supporting quotes offered with such allegation. I cite multiple studies on how Islamist politics have targeted women’s and minorities’ rights. Is this ‘negative portrayal’ and what is the positive way to document these? (As an aside, were the many rejoinders to the critics of the Aurat March also a case of ‘negative portrayal’ of those conscientious objectors?).

13. That you present “a one-sided understanding of secularism and fail to question the role of Western knowledge production in shaping conceptions of secular thought that are vehemently opposed to Islam.”
ASZ – I repeatedly argue that what’s observed by the working class movements in my book is NOT “western secularism” and I don’t use the term or notion secular, just secular resistance and explain how as a strategy, it is used routinely in working class politics. The variants of secular models beyond the West are referenced, too. The secular imagination for Muslim contexts emerges from a very different impulse and project from those of Western secular politics and history.

Also, what’s the explanation for ‘vehement opposition’ by Muslims to each others’ Islam?

14. That you “fail to realize the implications of imposing Western ideals of secularism in Muslim contexts such as Pakistan’s.”
ASZ – This is scrapping the barrel and is also not supported by a single quote.
What ‘imposition’ is being referred to? This allegation is very similar to the way Trump accuses non-white congresswomen of trying to impose Islamic sharia on America by stealth.

15. That you ‘privilege a particular form of secularity that “regurgitates the language of the West”.’
ASZ – Where exactly, and what is this language that is allegedly in my book? A review presumably quotes, rather than charges. My views on variations of secularism are referenced throughout the book and elsewhere.
I repeat in the conclusion of Faith & Feminism; “These secular identities are not always or routinely in contest with something called ‘Islam’ or religious violence, but faith-based politics are a permanently available ‘divine’ resource in male-dominant communities, as well as in the layers of State juridical and political discourse “(pg. 183).

16. That you “question the positionality and credibility of diasporic feminist intellectuals.”
ASZ – Most of the scholarship I cite does not claim a feminist perspective but regardless, I question their published views and arguments and quote their unstudied criticism of Pakistan’s women’s movements from their location in Western academy. Then I respond by citing examples from Pakistan. Western academy and anthropology in particular, has been invested in studying ‘other’ cultures and claiming authority of knowledge through their findings.

17. That you do not question your own “privilege and position cas an urban Pakistani feminist…and by [location-based] logic, do not represent the Pakistani masses either, and should therefore forego the claim to speak on behalf of the women in Pakistan, particularly working class women.”
ASZ – Nothing in the book suggests that anyone represents a class or religious struggle other than the leaders of the movements who have been named in my book. I cite the movements, name their leaders and frame the politics of the case studies as secular resistance. This research is not just mine – it’s by other feminists too, who are not attempting to speak or represent their subjects either.

In contrast to such crude allegations, I do not accuse Mahmood or Iqtidar of attempting to ‘represent’ pious women, or the Islamists – I argue that their findings are not applicable/misapplied in the case of Pakistan.

18. That you ‘negate the work of all those Pakistan-based scholars who have followed Mahmood’s direction and documented the struggles of Muslim women in Pakistan…’
ASZ – Who are these unnamed ‘followers of Mahmood’? What is it, “to negate”? Can women who put up secular resistance not be Muslim?

Is challenging the influence of Mahmood’s work and citing how its trickled into development work and is used to counter feminism in Muslim contexts, to negate?

To cite the consequences of religious politics – the Hisba Bill, Nizam e Adl and the concerted policies and laws passed by Islamists (including by women leaders) in the KP – is not to negate the scholarship that celebrates religious agency. Quite the opposite. It’s to confirm the strength and unmitigated success of Islamists who “struggled” to decimate the KP province and crushed women’s rights at every opportunity (Brohi 2006, Haroon 2008 and others cited in book).

To be continued..

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