Governments in a number of Muslim-majority countries are gradually rolling back certain conservative laws that were framed as being ‘Islamic’.
The move is understandably being challenged by segments who, for decades, have been deriving economic and political benefits from the outcomes of the laws. They want to retain the paradigms that were constructed by these laws. Any perceived or actual shift in these paradigms is immediately suspected of being the handiwork of ‘Westernisation’.
But whereas there is a willingness within governments and in sections of the civil society to shift the paradigm, every reaction to this is appeased by beefing up stringent laws which the governments have decided to retain. In Muslim-majority Pakistan, parties such as the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) have legislated some notable ‘pro-women’ laws.
However, such legislation is often vehemently criticised by the country’s Islamist parties and by populist right-wing outfits such as the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). So, whereas the current government headed by the PML-N and supported by the PPP is willing to create more space for women in various fields, and has also agreed to militarily take on the militant Islamists recently, the same government has also strengthened the country’s blasphemy law.
Legislated in 1986 during a reactionary dictatorship, this law has proven to be one of the most controversial in the country. It has glaring loopholes in it, which are conveniently exploited by many to send opponents to jail for reasons that have nothing to do with Islam as such, and a lot to do with settling personal and political scores.
For decades, women in Muslim-majority nations have had their rights curtailed under the guise of religious edicts justifying traditional patriarchal norms. These paradigms are being and can only be challenged by women themselves
In Pakistan, ever since the process of so-called ‘Islamisation’ was initiated in the 1980s, it was women’s organisations that were at the forefront of opposing the process. The paradigm that the process generated provided an ‘Islamic’ justification to the country’s patriarchal setting. This meant that criticising the patriarchy was to be perceived as a criticism of Islam; as could the act of women demanding to function outside the paradigm of the ‘ideal Muslim woman’.
The dictator Gen Ziaul Haq (1977-88), whose project this was, was challenged every step of the way by women’s organisations. In fact, the contentious 1986 blasphemy law was enacted to constrict the activism of a woman. That woman was the late lawyer Asma Jahangir.
During a speech, when Asma criticised the politicisation of ulema, she was accused of defaming Islam. In a National Assembly that was handpicked by Zia, some members of the reconstituted Pakistan Muslim League (PML), and the Jamat-i-Islami (JI), urged Zia to add the death penalty to the country’s blasphemy laws, which the dictatorship had already been tightening from 1980 onwards.
They argued that the death penalty would deter ‘liberals’ like Asma from ‘insulting’ Islam. Here again we see the criticism of figures associated with the so-called ‘Islamisation’ paradigm being treated as criticism of Islam.
Ironically, it was a woman parliamentarian who was the most vocal in castigating Asma. The woman was a former member of JI’s student-wing, who had joined the PML. She also expressed concern that women such as Asma were instigating hatred against ‘pious men’, without whose guidance the women of the country would be lost.
Legislation aimed at curbing social and political rights of women often mutates into becoming laws that eventually begin to impact men as well. Pakistan’s 1986 blasphemy law, though a product of outrage against women criticising the political role of clerics, has triggered mob violence and the jailing of dozens of Pakistanis, most of whom are men. Many of them are clerics as well, accused by other clerics.
A majority of stringent laws in numerous Muslim-majority regions seem to be the outcome of the need to control women. The paradigm formulated in most of these regions reinforced traditional patriarchal structures by fortifying them with ‘Islamic’ rationales, as a way to defend them from the threat of ‘modernity’.
In this paradigm, men are free to pick and choose from the products of modernity what they think will not threaten their faith/‘culture’, and reject what they think will. The picking and choosing is done by them for women as well, who do not have this freedom.
However, as modern economies require increasing input from women, the men expanded the paradigm. But it was still the construct of men, in which women were allowed to join the workforce as long as they remained within the limits set by men.
Some ‘feminists’ perceived this as a promising turn. But others now believe that this has given patriarchal paradigms a new lease of life, guaranteeing their continuation in a world in which conservative paradigms are clearly rusting. Recently, certain movements in various Muslim-majority regions have established that the ‘promising turn’ must now be made to evolve into becoming something more proactive and less apologetic.
Even progressive male leadership has been unable to provide the evolutionary thrust without ‘balancing’ it with something that is entirely contradictory. As mentioned, the current ‘moderate’ Pakistani regime’s strengthening of a controversial law is an example. And so are the frequent examples of some so-called ‘progressive’ male social activists becoming smitten by right-wing forces.
The question is, how can progressives exhibit support for forces that have been instrumental in creating the paradigm that the same progressives are supposedly raging against?
Therefore, it has to be the women to do the needful. And this is already happening.
Iran’s theocracy is under siege like never before because of a powerful women’s movement. One of the central figures of the uprising that toppled Sudan’s Islamist dictatorship in 2019 was a young woman. In Afghanistan, women are risking their lives to protest against the reactionary Taliban regime. In Pakistan, events such as the Aurat March have boldly challenged the paradigm of the ‘ideal Pakistani woman’. And the unprecedented softening of various rigid laws in Saudi Arabia was a move that was partially instigated by women who had decided to go against these laws in public, facing arrest and jail terms.
More than ever, economies in Muslim-majority regions are in need of women who enjoy rights to fully participate in the economic, political and cultural evolution of their countries. Men who are empathetic towards this need should stop ‘balancing’ their acts and aid the women in dismantling paradigms that have become impediments to social and economic growth.
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 29th, 2023
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