Celebrating women academics

22 Jan 2018


BARRING a few notable exceptions, recent scholarship by academics on Pakistan in the social sciences and books by scholars of Pakistani origin writing not necessarily on Pakistan are almost all by women. Most of these women are Pakistani, but some are of other nationalities. Not all — in fact, just a handful — write about women’s issues and on feminism. Most write on issues which are not defined or constrained by the authors’ gender. This implies that most women academics are not writing simply as ‘women academics’ on women’s issues, but as competent and able scholars, where gender does not define or restrict their work.

In order to gauge the scale and nature of what Pakistani women academics have been writing, a short list is essential.

Probably the most celebrated academic of Pakistani origin, one who has ironically not written on Pakistan, is Saba Mahmood, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Saba Mahmood’s highly controversial work on women and Islam has made her a global star, much reviled and much celebrated by academics working on Islam, as well as those working on women and gender. She is the first Pakistani scholar to acquire global fame, as well as notoriety, after sociologist/anthropologist Hamza Alavi, albeit with very different ideological and theoretical perspectives.

The list in this article is just a powerful indication of the breadth, scope and depth of the scholarship of Pakistani women academics.

Pakistan’s most well-known and prolific historian Ayesha Jalal has written 11 books on numerous themes related to South Asian and Pakistani history, while Masooda Bano, at Oxford University has a number of books looking at madressahs, and at women and development using Islamic frameworks.

Earlier work by defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa on the Pakistani military’s business interests has already become a classic, while historian Farzana Shaikh has written two books — one a classic on the history of South Asian Muslims, and another well-received one on Pakistan’s political history.

Other, more recent, scholarship, comes from the likes of Sadaf Ahmad on al-Huda, Sadia Saeed on the politics of de-secularisation in Pakistan, Saadia Toor who offers a radical perspective on Pakistan’s political history, and Saima Zaidi who has without doubt edited the most valuable and comprehensive, unparalleled book on a cultural understanding of Pakistan.

One must, of course, mention Vazira Zamindar’s exceptional book on Partition, and Sana Haroon’s examination of clerics in the Frontier.

Humeira Iqtidar, a political scientist, has edited a number of books, with her own tract, the highly controversial work on the Jaamatud Dawa, in which she argues how Islamist political praxis in Pakistan actually ‘secularises’ Pakistan, a thesis which has been highly contested and rubbished by numerous scholars, including many mentioned here.

Mariam Mufti, another political scientist, has a new book on political parties in Pakistan out soon, while Ammara Maqsood, has had a recent book published on Pakistan’s new middle class. Non-Pakistani women scholars would include Christine Fair, Naveeda Khan, Anita Weiss and Sarah Ansari, who have written books on Pakistan — on the military, Muslim identity, women and Sindh respectively.

Probably the most anticipated of all is the recently published book Faith and Feminism in Pakistan by radical feminist scholar Afiya S. Zia, which is already being heralded as ‘indispensable’ to our understanding of faith and feminism and secular alternatives in Pakistan. This book, in fundamental ways, critiques much of the scholarship which frames Pakistan, especially by those women scholars who reduce all social processes simply to an Islamic paradigm.

There are numerous other women scholars writing on Pakistan as well, and this list is just a powerful indication of the breadth, scope and depth of the scholarship of Pakistani women academics, although, as one expects, the quality varies.

There are two aspects which are striking about this collection of writers. The first is that most of these women academics live and work in the West, and their intellectual worldview is much determined by their location in Western academia. Many academics based in Pakistan have emphasised that location is critical to one’s perspective and understanding of Pakistan, and one can see the difference in the scholarship of those Pakistani academics, both men and women, who live and suffer in Pakistan, unlike the diaspora which has acquired numerous privileges on account of its location.

The second striking fact is that most of these women academics have been writing on some aspect of Islam, a revisionist Islam, an Islam only imagined from the West rather than from Pakistan. This, again a locational paradigm, affects their work accordingly.

One celebrates all academic scholarship in a country where the social sciences were once considered to be ‘dismal’, but especially the academic and scholarly work of women writing on Pakistan. There are numerous reasons why there is a revival in the social sciences in Pakistan, related mainly to the social and structural transformation in the economy and society. Women may perhaps be one of the main beneficiaries of such developments.

Given the very large number of Pakistani men and women undertaking graduate work in the social sciences at universities in Pakistan and abroad, one expects an even greater field of scholarly research and output. In 2018, one expects a rich feast of some new scholarship by both men and women academics in the social sciences whose books are about to be released.

This trend would seem to be an oddity, for some Pakistani journalists have framed their arguments and concern about women in the more mundane manner of looking at women’s social position in Pakistan. Some have told us that there is a ‘gap’ between women in Pakistan and those in almost all other countries with regard to social and gendered indicators. Other journalists lament the ‘failure of women’. No one, man or woman, would deny that these facts exist and need to be urgently redressed. Yet despite numerous constraints and severe discrimination, the success of these women is worth much celebration, where women academics have put their male colleagues to shame. More power to them.

The writer is a Karachi-based political economist.

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2018