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Feminisation of faith

THE lady cooking a new version of chicken curry is wearing a mint green hijab. In the midst of adding spices and emptying out bowls of beaten yoghurt and thinly chopped ginger, she pauses to narrate a hadith.

Within the hour, viewers have been provided with an endearing combination: a new recipe with which to dazzle the family’s palate and religious instruction. The act of cooking, a dull chore that can be trying for the most creative of domestic divas, is thus given greater significance, providing sustenance for the stomach and solace for the soul.

This coalition of faith and food preparation is more than just an inventive way to boost the ratings of Pakistan’s television channels. In it are the visible clues of transformations that have taken place in the public sphere over the past several decades.

Over three decades ago, when Islamisation first appeared in Pakistan, it came via a combustible mix of militarism and dictatorship. A bastion of laws labelled Islamic and presented as Sharia made their appearance on the law books of a mangled Pakistan still coming to terms with its disturbed democracy. The Zina and Hudood Ordinances of 1979, followed by the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance and the Qanoon-i-Shahadat made the project complete with an injunction requiring all women appearing on the then single television channel to cover their hair.

Those laws were not digested whole. Groups like the Women’s Action Forum agitated against them through campaigns in the media and marches that defied military injunctions. Their struggle continued through dictatorship and on to democracy and through not one but two tenures of a female prime minister. But the laws remained and with age came the legitimacy that eluded them at their inception.

Wave after wave of secular, male and purportedly liberal male politicians tolerated their presence, eager to sideline the gripes of women insisting on their rights and unwilling to take on the censure of religious groups. But while legal Islamisation provided a focus for campaigns against dubiously ‘Islamic’ laws not ratified by a duly elected legislature or affirmed by Islamic scholars, cultural fronts were largely ignored by secular women’s civil society groups.

Drawing largely from upper middle-class and elite cadres, the organisational arrangements of these groups failed to penetrate the grassroots or seep into existing cultural arrangements, focusing less on the world women inhabited and more on the egalitarian, empowered society.

At the same time, religious groups often the offshoots of religious parties, pursued a contrasting strategy. Instead of public marches, they targeted the private spheres best known to females, sending gaggles of women, duly veiled, to the homes of their neighbours and friends and inviting them to tafseer sessions and prayer meetings.

In urban environments, with weakening extended family structures and the close proximity of teeming slums and apartment buildings, they filled a social vacuum with faith.

In contrast to secular women’s groups, religious revival movements focused on emphasising and highlighting women’s traditional work as central to society and as the integral building block of faith. Adhering to their precepts did not require abandoning what women were already doing — raising children and caring for the home — for some remote vision of empowerment or a march down a public street.

Instead of positioning empowerment and progress as an abandonment of femininity as understood by the ordinary housewife, it allowed the housewife to see significance in her actions that went beyond the limited meaning of laying out an adequate spread on the family dinner table.

Being ‘modern’ as they imagined it meant a rejection of these roles and of all that was familiar. It was tainted with the influences of the hated West that subjugated men and women through its imperialist policies. Conversely, religious revivalism, embodied in the mechanics of faith-based groups both evangelical and political, insisted that a willful embrace of the household under the umbrella of religiously defined duties and obligations possessed both ethical and spiritual significance.

The transformation of Pakistani culture did not end there. While the Islamisation of Pakistani femininity may have initially prodded housewives to attend tafseer meetings or pray and fast regularly, its next generation suggests far more than a benign avowal of cooking and cleaning.

Women leaving the home to participate in faith-based activities discovered, by experience and example, that faith could provide a compelling argument for leaving the home for reasons such as further education and employment. Duly veiled and covered, they had an argument for entering the public sphere without the moral aspersions that a patriarchal culture cast on women leaving the home.

The overtures of Islamist groups to Pakistani women began as a project to Islamise Pakistani culture and to thwart ‘modern’ ideas by a revival of faith; and as a celebration and heightening of the existing roles of femininity.

However, to the extent that such revivalism has been successful, it has also produced a congruent and possibly unexpected feminisation of Islamist movements, with all of these focusing more and more on women within their cadres.

If women were initially attracted to local Islamist rhetoric by the affirmation provided to their existing roles within the family, their persistent presence in many Islamist groups has produced a feminisation of an Islamist revival that is just as marked as the cultural transformation.

Perhaps the question of who conquered who — faith or feminists — is not the right one. Maybe the muddying of boundaries between feminism and faith, the language of choice mixed with the language of submission, is the recipe that will deliver the change that has so far eluded Pakistani women.

A cooking show with a hijab-clad woman offering creative recipes and religious wisdom may not seem like much. But within its parameters is a growing ease with the idea that women can define and perhaps even reform what they believe in.

The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.


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Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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