Sovereign Attachments: Masculinity, Muslimness and Affective Politics in Pakistan
By Shenila Khoja-Moolji
University of California Press, US
ISBN: 978-0520336803
288pp.

The takeover of the Taliban in Afghanistan, in the wake of the United States’ exit from the country after two decades, inspired rallies in Pakistan in support of the Taliban. It also inspired several other rallies protesting the Taliban around the world, including one in London where slogans denouncing the takeover were chanted.

Alongside the chants were placards calling for sanctions on Pakistan. Curiously, it was Nato, the US and the United Kingdom that were being called on to sanction Pakistan. Such calls were abundant on social media as well.

These instances of public contestation over the Taliban’s claim to sovereignty, as well as the public’s appeal to discipline Pakistan, clearly depict that sovereignty is a contested notion, plays out in public culture and has an emotional dimension. These are the claims of Shenila Khoja-Moolji’s new book, Sovereign Attachments: Masculinity, Muslimness and Affective Politics in Pakistan.

While we often think of sovereignty — the right to govern and engage in legitimate violence — as a given property of the state, Khoja-Moolji theorises it in her book as a form of political attachment or relationship between the people and the claimants of sovereignty (be it the Pakistani state or the Taliban) that must be nurtured in the public and cultural sphere.

An academic discourse on the Pakistani state’s and the Taliban’s constructions of legitimacy argues that sovereignty is a contested notion, plays out in public culture and has an emotional dimension

In other words, sovereignty has to be established, and the media and emotions play a key role in this process. Khoja-Moolji uses the case of the Pakistani state and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan to illustrate her argument. Through a close examination of magazines, songs, artwork, speeches, autobiographies and televised dramas produced by the Taliban and the Pakistani state, her book shows how gender and Islam are mobilised to harness the relationship of sovereignty.

Khoja-Moolji is an assistant professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies, and her award-winning book has received acclaim for scrutinising the idea of sovereignty as it evolves and is negotiated in the cultural and public spheres, beyond the realms of geopolitics and traditional statecraft. My aim, therefore, is not to provide a summary of her arguments.

Instead, I want to focus on what, in my view, is the book’s biggest accomplishment, one that sutures all six chapters together as if the book were a body and the chapters its limbs. This surgical thread is the author’s analysis of masculinity.

Khoja-Moolji coins the term “Islamo-masculinity” to examine visions of masculinity put forth by both the Pakistani state and the Taliban. She defines the term as “masculinity that is tied to a version of normative Islam” and a “specific modality of masculinity that criss-crosses with normative Muslimness.”

Whether it is Gen Pervez Musharraf with his “military masculinity”, Benazir Bhutto with her “female masculinity”, Imran Khan with his “athletic masculinity”, the army with its jawaan-Talib (a term the author uses to signify how the army distinguishes between an army member and a member of the Taliban) dyad, or indeed the Taliban with their construction of the mujahid [a person engaged in jihad], each performance of manhood derives its claim to normativity from a vision of Islam that, by virtue of its “authenticity”, affords each the chance to perform sovereign acts.

In other words, the sovereignty claimed by the Pakistani state as well as the Taliban is a function of masculinity and militarism, powered by — as the author notes — ideas of Islam that are both traditional and modern.

Masculinity, however, relies on femininity to become recognisable. In the latter half of her book, Khoja-Moolji inspects the femininities that appear in public culture. These femininities — of the muhajira [displaced woman], the mujahida, the army woman, the beti [daughter] and the behan [sister] as well as the “unruly daughter” and the “wayward sister”, and finally the mourning and melancholic mothers — are figurations that either legitimise or resist the power of the state or the Taliban.

Put differently, if sovereignty is derived from masculinity, then the femininities that Khoja-Moolji aptly examines confirm the need for the patriarch, masculine sovereign. To be sure, the femininities as well as the masculinities produced by the state and the Taliban have gradients of difference between them, while their similarities are thrown into sharp relief by the shared religio-cultural repertoire that they draw from.

It is this shared repertoire, implied in the term “Islamo-masculinity”, that allows the Pakistani state and the Taliban to claim the right to demarcate who is included and who is to be excluded from the ummah. They each therefore curate an ‘Islam’ composed not only of what they deem to be correct ideologies, but also of ideal performances of piety. This enables both to delineate, although differently, aberrant masculinities as well as configure subservient femininities.

Yet, as Khoja-Moolji reminds us, sovereignty “remains an ongoing and contingent project, never fully accomplished.” It is this contingency that enables figures — such the mourning and melancholic mother who appears later in the book — to forge an alternate politics that lays bare the fragility of this masculinity as well as the order it begets.

Such a masterful takedown of Pakistani visions of masculinity — both state and non-state — makes Khoja-Moolji one of the clearest and most original scholarly voices working at the intersection of politics, South Asia, Islam and cultural and gender studies.

The concerns raised by Khoja-Moolji’s book are global, and her analysis of the masculine sovereign potentially extends beyond Islam, the Taliban and the Pakistani state. An academic sequel, if there ever was one — her first monograph, Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia, traced the development of ideal femininities in colonial India and postcolonial Pakistan — Sovereign Attachments is a crucial read for all interested in understanding how emotion is both produced and managed in Pakistan, as well as for those that seek insight into the global crises of national sovereignty vis-à-vis extra-state actors.

An essential read for anyone interested in imagining more hopeful and generous futures.

The reviewer is a PhD candidate in Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter. He studies Muslim, particularly Shi’i, engagements with the occult and tweets @uzairibrahim_

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 13th, 2022

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