IF Gen Ziaul Haq hijacked Islam to justify his military rule, then Gen Musharraf did the worst injustice to liberalism by using it as camouflage for his praetorian rule. Both generals benefited personally but have confounded Pakistanis about religion and liberties alike, pitting citizens into an unresolved search for a core national identity and a stable political model of governance.
Representing the combined confusion caused by their military regimes, Imran Khan’s limited understanding of religion and political theory only fuels the legacies of both generals.
There are two specific misconceptions about Pakistani liberals. The first myth is that all liberals are elite or from the upper classes and ‘Westernised’. However, most members of our privileged classes are rigid in their determination to not liberalise but conserve the economic and political status quo because they would be the first losers in a more equal or upwardly mobile society. There is no such thing as a ‘fake liberal’, an attempt by some ignorant commentators to coin an insult — instead, this kind of a person is called a conservative. Further, all progressive-minded people are not ‘Western’ or English-speaking but can be found in all classes and cultures.
When it comes to gender, new tensions arise.
Secondly, in Pakistan, just as secularism is deliberately misrepresented as anti-religion, liberals for some reason are assumed to be secular and anti-religion. This is especially ironic because by definition a liberal occupies the ideological middle-ground and would be the average Musharrafian ‘moderate’. Many liberals would identify as progressive Muslims and are not at all anti-religious but very invested in saving ‘peaceful’ Islam from the extremist or fundamentalist version.
Quite correctly, it has been pointed out that liberals are over-credited in Pakistan as some radical and effective species when, in fact, they are mostly a vacillating, politically anaemic and socially distracted lot. The best prevention against any unlikely liberal uprising in Pakistan is to never ban social media.
Yet more disturbing is the consensus of both critics and defenders of liberalism regarding the Pakistani ‘liberal woman’. Conservatives may consider the male liberal as a socio-political threat, but when liberalism speaks in a female voice, new tensions are raised.
For many, the atypical liberal woman is interchangeably defined as ‘modern’ or ‘Western’. She is stereotyped as the one who does not wear traditional clothes, works in non-traditional professions, supports women’s/human rights or is an NGO activist, independent, single by choice, challenges male norms, or intrudes in and occupies public spaces. The most common unspoken consensus is, however, that the liberal or liberated woman is sexually ‘free’ or ‘available’.
While the male liberal is suspected as an agent who wants to turn Pakistan into one big economic free-trade zone, the liberal woman is feared for wanting to turn it into a free-sex zone. The male liberal may exercise free-will in professional, political and personal choices but if a woman does so, she is sabotaging the Islamic gendered order. Socially, the single liberal male is ‘eligible’, regardless of his age or status but the single liberal woman is a constant threat — to men, women and that abstraction called ‘culture and tradition’.
Professionally, the mobility of a man has no bearing on his person and is considered an asset, but if a woman demonstrates a competitive streak, or is available to travel for her career, it can mean she is greedy, ‘fast’ or of a ‘loose’ character.
The contradictory gendered terms of Pakistani liberalism are best represented in the film and fashion fraternity. A male actor or model can simultaneously be successful, respected, capitalist, sexy, flirtatious, desirable, pious and a patriot. With complete confidence and fans’ blessings, his decision to liberalise or trade his skills, even with enemy India, is celebrated as a successful venture. But when women entertainers do so, the entire nation is thrown into crisis and censor boards prepare to save the collective honour of the Islamic Republic from these treacherous creatures.
Similarly, male film directors who make films that portray women’s victimisation are praised for their liberal sensitivity but if female filmmakers document Pakistani women’s resistance, they are betrayers of the Islamic Republic who cannot keep dirty secrets.
The danger of leaving definitions and categories loose and unhinged is that they can become weaponised. Political liberalism has become a euphemism for anti-Islam, and social liberalism has become a reference to the arrangement of desire as defined by discriminatory gendered values.
The weakness of the liberals’ project lies in their own limited and non-economic understanding of liberalism. More critically, they have not managed to remove their gendered prejudices in order to appreciate the political value or the difficulties of being a liberal and a woman in Pakistan.
The writer is author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2018