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Interview — Liberals Or Secularists Are Not Confined To Any Single Class: Afiya Zia

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.

This is the second part of the interview. Read the first part.

19. That you “conflate the very specific context Mahmood works in with that of Pakistan’s.”
ASZ – Completely the opposite and repeatedly emphasized in the book. I don’t conflate – those who support Mahmood do. I argue Mahmood’s theory has weak or NO applicability for Pakistan, so should not be a frame for Pakistani scholars.

20. That you “misread” Mahmood’s work and your “categorization of it as apologia (110) is disappointing.”
ASZ – This is pure fiction. The term ‘apologia’ is used ONCE in the book and has NOTHING to do with Mahmood. It’s on pg 111 and in disagreement with the proposal that Pakistan is post-Islam.
On pg 45, I cite how liberal Muslim scholars are termed apologists by Mahmood.
On pg 58, I categorically say Retro-Islamists CANNOT be said to be apologists.
On pg. 145, I make a general reference to those who offer apology or excuses for crimes in the name of Islam.
This duplicitous referencing seems to be forming a pattern…

21. That your “overemphasis on the woman question reinforces the very binaries that Mahmood tries to eschew in her work.”
ASZ – As opposed to overemphasis on the man question?

22. That you position yourself as having “a sense of foreknowledge” (Mahmood, 2005) in relation to “women who do not necessarily agree with [your brand] of feminist politics.”
ASZ – Nowhere does my work deny the agency of Islamist or pietist women. I say the opposite. I clearly say that I totally agree Islamist/pious women have agency but I argue that this piety reinforces and boosts patriarchy and conservatism. It’s so replete in my book that only the deliberately myopic could avoid it.
My ‘brand’ of feminism, with the collectives I work with, is committed to contesting this patriarchy.
I argue against the presumption that Mahmood was the first to discover this ‘agency’. Long before, Pakistani feminists have engaged with and documented such trends. They even debated this with Islamist women in Pakistan and then decided to go the secular route – whatever their understanding – rather than choosing to work within a religious framework. My book also clearly states that not all feminists agree and there are strains, overlaps and contradictions.

23. Your book “engenders a problematic discourse on authenticity” (citing Toor, 2012).
ASZ- Why is my discourse on authenticity ‘problematic’ but the accusations that Pakistani feminism is imperialist, and activists are native informants, liberal aunties, pro-drones and Islamophobic and the accusation that they are “undermining the work of scholars and activists engaged in genuine anti-imperialist and anti-racist work in the West” (Toor 2012, pg 154), not a “problematic discourse on authenticity”?

24. That you ‘criticize ethnography as a “contested methodology”, while failing to present an alternative, and rely far too heavily on secondary research while documenting the resistance of the Lady Health Workers and Okara peasants.’
ASZ – All research methods are contested and are political. For e.g., semi-ethnographic methods on drone warfare in Pakistan have been used to ‘prove’ both sides of the debate around its acceptance and efficacy. So?
Ethnography is not the opposite of secondary research, so the connecting objection is unclear. My case studies (including, the forgotten women councilors) drew from unpublished studies done by feminists that I work with – their field work was in real time and revealed Pakistani women’s other (non-religious) aspirations.

I say clearly, anthro ethnography in post-secular scholarship on women is narrow, limited and nearly all on jihad, madrassas, Islamists and women’s religious identities, aimed at Western readership. Yet these are presented as representative for the entire country or across the Muslim world, for e.g., Iqtidar’s ethnography just in Lahore alone is presented as ‘Secularising Islamists in Pakistan’ (2011) and Saba Mahmood’s study on Cairo and ‘the Islamic revival and the feminist subject’ is referenced as applicable to all of Egypt and for all Muslim contexts and criticism of secularism applies to all contexts. Jamal’s study on Jamaat women is based on their subjectivities and not their time in Parliament (2013)….Maqsood’s (2017) on piety in a certain sub-class of urban Lahore is presented as the ‘new middle classes of Pakistan’. Any method can be ‘rigourous’ or ‘deep’ but their reliability and verifiability of the findings are key – especially if the theses attempt to dislodge, challenge or discredit local feminist strategies and ethos.

25. That you “privilege one feminist researcher’s position over another’s.”
ASZ – What’s the definition of privileging? Some diasporic scholars undermine or challenge secular or liberal feminist work in Pakistan. Others even accuse Pakistani feminists of being westernized, ‘orientalists’, ‘native informants’ and ‘Islamophobes’ for offering secular resistance in an Islamic majoritarian state and context. I respond as a corrective and document unexplored feminist secular political resistance in Pakistan. How many of the latter exist, compared to post 9/11 theses on women in Islam, religious exceptionalism and ‘Muslim ways of being’? What’s the balance of this privileging of knowledge-production?

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26. That your claim that ‘feminist scholarship bears a certain responsibility’ should extend to Islamist/pietist subjects.
ASZ – Another example of misapplying a quote. I say feminist scholarship requires political responsibility and so, any research that says it is ‘just showing’ that Muslim women can be agents of piety is not good enough. It must expand on the political and social consequences of piety and its agency– which is, the reinforcement of patriarchy, and oppressive laws and codes of conduct and conservatism. We have seen the results from male – Khadim Rizvi type of pietist agency, and female led ones. These repercussions must be discussed too, as should be the subjects at the receiving end of such pietist agency.

27. That you “weaponize the politics of authenticity” and “misrepresent the politics of diaspora by focusing on their locality.”

ASZ – Location is incredibly important. (Ironically, recent debates around Kashmir have been stressing this point emphatically). Mahmood’s entire thesis is about language and location and TIMING. There has been considerable research across the Muslim world by women activists and academics before, but it’s the post 9/11 moment that catapulted Mahmood’s work IN THE WEST as an ‘authentic’ insight into the Muslim women’s agentive religious realm.
How is Mahmood’s recovery of Muslim pietist agency and critique of liberal/secular feminisms not ‘weaponising authenticity’, but recounting secular resistance in Pakistani working class movements, is?

28. If location is the basis through which we can critique “the legitimacy of a scholar’s work”, then you “should not be writing about working class women at all”
ASZ – No-one objects to the study of any subjects but yes, working knowledge and intimacy with them is important and class, location (Punjab centricity) and ideological lens all affect the findings and conclusions. This is especially so for feminist studies which stresses on bridging theory and activism.

I find in my case studies that these particular working women’s movements were not driven by religious or pietist agency (I would add the PTM to that today, especially in contrast to the Taliban’s religious politics). I do not say – as misrepresented – that these working women are secular or liberal at any point. I say their methods, modes and goals of resistance are. I also point out, importantly, that liberals or secularists are not confined to any single class in Pakistan but this point is avoided.

29. That pietist movements clearly “unsettle” your “absolutist view of the world”.
ASZ – I do not study pietist movements (or ‘the world’)– I cite the findings of Sadaf Ahmad’s and others’ work on this in Pakistan which find that despite some dissonance, these movements support nationalist, patriarchal conservatism.
By virtue of the same argument, one wonders if these religious movements excite and confirm the ‘absolutist’ views of Iqtidar, Jamal, and the dozen authors on the JI/Al-Huda?

30. That you view “feminists who conduct research in Muslim contexts as apologists for “Islamism”.”
ASZ – Nowhere do I say feminists researching in Muslim contexts (which would include me) are “apologists for Islamism” and so the quote marks are again, deliberately used to mislead and an absolute academic disgrace.
However, Mahmood’s colleague, Aamir Mufti at Berkley did write this in 2013;

“Saba Mahmood’s The Politics of Piety is now hugely influential in this regard [and] is in active agreement with Islamism itself when the latter thinks of itself in revivalist terms as a return to the true tradition of Islam”.
Mufti and other colleagues’ (Stathis Gourgouris and Yolande Jansen) location is in the West and they are diaspora or non-Pakistani but their view is against the grain of Western academy’s celebration of Asad, Mahmood et al. and so, in my opinion, important and useful, rather than the flow-with-the-river outrage at daring to question ‘Giant Scholars’ in the West.

31. That you “over-rely on terms such as “Retro-Islamist” and “diasporic” to gloss over feminist scholarship that shows theoretical and methodological rigour and depth.”
ASZ – One wonders if Habermas’ and Sara Ahmed’s and Stuart Hall’s body of work on “diaspora” over-relied(?) on these terms that ARE theory. I have explained that;

“Diasporic theory attempts to study how diasporic communities create or attempt to recreate coherent or collective memories for their fractured or displaced experiences and subjectivities which may have been denied or erased or appropriated in their foreign contexts. In the case of Pakistani diaspora, their production of post-9/11 scholarship, literature, and art clearly stresses on the leitmotif of Islam, or nostalgia for some radical Left politics that may never have existed or indeed, some other sanitized cultural memories.”

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32. That your critique of “young activists who rely on social media also displays ignorance and a complete lack of will to engage with those who are attempting to engage meaningfully with the feminist movement in Pakistan.”

ASZ – The book discusses social media activism in the time of the Lawyer’s Movement and refers to the tail-end of Musharraf’s regime when younger activists wanted to strike deals with Telecom companies to sponsor the people’s resistance. They were young grads fueled by the idea that the revolution could be technologized and several of them later associated themselves with the PTI…which explains a bit about the roots of PTI social media politics.
As a university teacher who advises and politics with all classes of students and women across Pakistan and abroad– for now two decades- I won’t respond to allegations of ignorance or lack of engagement, except to say that my long-term and continuing involvement has been and continues to be real, not virtual.

33. That you ‘accuse “younger feminists of resorting to millennial activism” and that this is “a disingenuous and counter-productive way to dismiss an entire generation of feminists.”
ASZ – The objectionable phrase is “resorting to millennial activism”? Is this an ‘ad hominem’ accusation or attack like say, “philistine, anti-intellectual, orientalist, native informant, Islamophobic” and other such unsubstantiated, uncited accusations leveled in some blog reviews? But, to say that online activism has replaced in-person collectives, street politics and encounters with the state, is to be ‘disingenuous and dismissive’?

Recently, 8 high profile cases of sexual harassment in Pakistan have all been countered legally with defamation cases. No-one, barring a few older activists turn up at these hearings or draft legal responses or support these IN PERSON or attempt to change the law itself. Those accused of defamation are being legally and otherwise supported by activists from older collectives in person, as are many other cases in and out of courts, weekly. To dismiss engagement with law or the state as a liberal endeavor is one thing but to invert the argument and claim injury is a weird form of hubris.

34. That your work “does not challenge alternative conceptions of secularism that could potentially coincide with Islam.”
ASZ – What is that alternative, exactly? The ‘non-binary’ way that the military establishment ‘coincides’ with civilian politics, or feminism ‘coincides’ with patriarchy, or some successful experiment that I haven’t mentioned in my book but which these commentators don’t mention either?

35. Your reliance on scholarship and involvement in activism for 25 years comes “at the expense of conducting ethnographic fieldwork” and makes your “rebuttals” weak.
ASZ – The implication that rigour comes only with ethnographic fieldwork and that I or other feminists don’t study or work with Islamist women or working class women, is not worth responding to. The movements I discuss were studied in real time by the feminists who I cite. I analysed and compared the cases with other movements and events taking place during the ‘War on Terror’. The findings present a clear contrast. The suggestion that documenting this is to create binaries is just daft.

The LHWs and councillors are members of WAF and we meet, politic and speak (across provinces) all the time. More importantly, on the bottom of the SAME page where I make the point about methodology I also say this;
“The point here is not to make a case that Enlightenment, modernity and secularism are the literal panacea for Pakistani secular feminists. Rather, the argument offered is that the patriarchal collusion of religion and local customs and the actors who enable these make it unviable to rely on either of these as sources of emancipatory or progressive politics.” 

36. Lastly, the complaint that you ‘have not actively delved into the lived realities of the working class women’ that you document.
ASZ – Surely, these working women’s lived material realities that I outline, discuss and analyse in detail across 2 chapters – fighting for wages, land, and against violence and for state access – are real, not imagined? As my friend from the tribal areas says, ‘do you researchers always need a token tribal woman’s focus group discussion to make your thesis ‘authentic’?

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