Pakistani women

Author Aneela Zeb Babar, in her book We are All Revolutionaries here: Militarism, Political Islam and Gender in Pakistan, co-published by SAGE and Yoda Press, introduces us to an in-depth narrative on Pakistani women and their political participation. The trajectory of this political participation is traced from the creation of Pakistan in 1947 with more focus on the time span of two decades between 1988 to 2008.

What stands out in this narrative is that it stays far away from the overused and tired rhetoric around Pakistani women. That of stereotypes about women who are “oppressed” ( the favourite word used in association with Muslim women), who stay home and wear the hijab. On the other end of this spectrum of stereotypes is the celebration as well as condemnation that follows Malala Yousafzai, her experiences and her work. In short, it deviates from the divide between the ‘good’ Muslim and the ‘bad/oppressed’ Muslim.

Babar brings to us stories of Pakistani women in all their complexity. These are women involved in the political frame of Pakistan and directly/indirectly engage with the nexus of governance in Pakistan that entails the military and the religious community. The women in the narratives are religious, orthodox, progressive, angry and fierce. No binary of characteristics operate here.

In short, it deviates from the divide between the ‘good’ Muslim and the ‘bad/oppressed’ Muslim.

A volatile political atmosphere, the presence of religion in governance and military governance has a direct impact on the lives of Pakistani women. We are given an insight into the Pakistani education system. Women run religious seminaries and run Islamisation campaigns. With Zia-ul-Haq in power and catering to the religious clerics in Pakistan, madrassah education began to have the same importance as formal schooling.

Babar does some extensive research on the hijab in the third chapter of the book and what it means to Pakistani women. We gain an insight into organisations Al-Huda which demand that women completely cover themselves. The aim of this chapter is to recognise and accommodate differences beyond the binary of the orthodox vs liberal women who does or does not wear the hijab.

For example, it does conceal women while engaging with the patriarchal notions of modesty. However, one cannot also ignore the fact that the hijab represents an equal and transnational identity for Muslim women. The author weaves in narratives of women who feel empowered, safe and dignified in wearing the hijab. But also does not refrain from highlighting the patriarchal politics of Al-Huda and public figures such as Farhat Hashmi (founder of Al-Huda).

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The author weaves in narratives of women who feel empowered, safe and dignified in wearing the hijab.

While assessing the social transformation of Pakistan and its impact on gender identity, a primary example that was emphasised upon was the siege of Lal Masjid (Operation Silence). The Pakistani government under Pervez Musharraf was embroiled in a confrontation with radical fundamentalist students from Jamia Hafsa (madrassah for women students). The starting point of the siege was when women students of Jamia Hafsa raided a brothel, a massage parlour and DVD shops, condemning them as immoral.

Babar brings in narratives of the survivors of the operation who survived the government retaliation. The background presented to us by the author is the resentment of students against the demolition of mosques sanctioned by the Musharraf government, Pakistan’s abrupt move towards a secular and liberal domestic and foreign policy that alienated and upset a lot of its people and that the primary participants of this unrest were women. Another abrupt break that came about in Pakistan’s social transformation with Operation Silence was the split in the solidarity between the religious community and the military.

To conclude, We are All Revolutionaries Here is not here to take a moral standpoint on Pakistani women or paint them in a one-dimensional portrayal of those who suffer. It acknowledges and accommodates difference, on the transnational level as well. A difference that simultaneously operates on a social, political and theological level.

Also Read: Why Must Pakistani Women Suffer To Be Heard?

Featured Image Credit: News 18

You can buy the book here.

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