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Faith and Feminism in Pakistan

Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy?

Afiya S. Zia is a feminist researcher with a doctoral degree in Women and Gender Studies from the University of Toronto. She is author of Sex Crime in the Islamic Context (1994, ASR) and has contributed essays to several edited volumes including, Contesting Feminisms: Gender and Islam in Asia (SUNY Press, 2015) and, Voicing Demands (Zed Books, 2014). Her peer-reviewed essays have been carried in Feminist Review and the International Feminist Journal of Politics. She has taught at Habib University, Karachi and is an active member of the Women's Action Forum.

Are secular aims, politics, and sensibilities impossible, undesirable and impracticable for Muslims and Islamic states? Should Muslim women be exempted from feminist attempts at liberation from patriarchy and its various expressions under Islamic laws and customs? Considerable literature on the entanglements of Islam and secularism has been produced in the post-9/11 decade and a large proportion of it deals with the “Woman Question”. Many commentators critique “the secular" and “Western feminism,” and the racialising backlash that accompanied the occupation of Muslim countries during the “War on Terror” military campaign launched by the U.S. government after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Implicit in many of these critical works is the suggestion that it is Western secular feminism that is the motivating driver and permanent collaborator – along with other feminists, secularists and human rights activists in Muslim countries – that sustains the West’s actual and metaphorical “war on Islam and Muslims.”

Faith and Feminism addresses this post-9/11 critical trope and its implications for women’s movements in Muslim contexts. The relevance of secular feminist activism is illustrated with reference to some of the nation-wide, working-class women’s movements that have surged throughout Pakistan under religious militancy: polio vaccinators, health workers, politicians, peasants and artists have been directly targeted, even assassinated, for their service and commitment to liberal ideals. Afiya Zia contends that Muslim women’s piety is no threat against the dominant political patriarchy, but their secular autonomy promises transformative changes for the population at large, and thereby effectively challenges Muslim male dominance.

This book is essential reading for those interested in understanding the limits of Muslim women’s piety and the potential in their pursuit for secular autonomy and liberal freedoms.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-916-6
Hardback Price: £50.00 / $69.95
Release Date: February 2018
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-970-8
Paperback Price: £25.00 / $34.95
Release Date: January 2019
Page Extent / Format: 224 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


Secular Possibilities
Waves of Influence
Postsecular, Retro-Islamist Recoveries
Chapter Organisation

Chapter 1. Islam, Feminism and Secular Resistance
Islamic and Secular Feminisms
Islamic Feminism
Secular Feminism
Islam and Feminism in Pakistan
WAF Goes Secular
Postsecular Flirtations in WAF

Chapter 2. The Postsecular Turn and Muslim Women’s Agency
Muslim Women’s Agency
Pakistani Postsecular Scholarship
Recovering Postsecular Rights
Recovering Islamist Women’s Agency
Muslim Exceptionalism

Chapter 3. Beyond Faith and Agency: Working Women and Secular Autonomy
Women, Work and Religion
Working Women in Pakistan
Autonomy, Empowerment and the Threat to the Islamic Gendered Order
Lady Health Workers: The Neutral Interface
Silencing Secular Resistance
The Politics of Secular Autonomy

Chapter 4. The Limits of Religious Agency in Pakistan
What’s In It For Women?
Multiple Views of Agency
Extreme Agency
Helen of Waziristan
Lesser Militants, More Agency
Right-wing Agency
Pietist Agency

Chapter 5. The Limits of Capital: Commodifying Muslim Femininity
Capitalism as an Equal Opportunity Offender
The Veil as Commodity
Donor-driven Islam
Women’s Roles in Islamic Charities
Who Benefits?

Chapter 6. The Limits and Possibilities of Liberal Activism
Culture as Resistance Politics
A Liberal Dictatorship
Liberal Designs
Underestimating Liberal Political Possibilities
Feminists as “Native Informants” and “Imperialist Collaborators”
Sympathising with Men, Silencing Women
‘Liberal’ is not a Class
Proposals for a Hybrid Feminism

Chapter 7. Beyond Faith and Fatalism: Political Agency and Women’s Secular Movements
Contested Expectations
The Rescue Narrative
Women in Organised Politics
The Okara Peasant Movement

Feminism and Faith-based Politics
Pakistani Liberalism/Secularism

About the Author

This sophisticated, sharp analysis of women’s activism in Pakistan, brings home the crucial relevance of secular women’s movement and working-class women’s activism, under religious militancy. An essential read for those interested in better understanding the many dimensions of the sensitive subject, women’s political actions in Muslim contexts.
Haideh Moghissi, York University, Toronto, author of the award-winning Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism (OUP)

Through a critical feminist theorization of the relationship between Islam and feminism in Pakistan, Afiya Zia takes on the provocative questions of ‘Are secular politics, aims and sensibilities impossible, undesirable and impracticable for Muslims and Islamic states? Should Muslim women be exempted from feminist attempts at liberation from patriarchy and its various expressions, which include Islamic laws and customs as they are practiced in the present time?’ Her compelling response to these questions incites us brilliantly to read the religious challenges facing feminist studies and women’s movements beyond Pakistan. This book is a layered analysis of the retreat of secular and liberal feminist spaces while it also critiques the limits of liberal secularism.
Shahrzad Mojab, University of Toronto, co-author of Revolutionary Learning: Marxism, Feminism and Knowledge

Every once in a while there comes a book that is guaranteed to make its readers sit up and take note of the power of its argument, the clarity of its expression and the sheer audacity of its claims.  This is that book.  Indispensable for any understanding of the pernicious effects of an Islamically informed faith-based politics on women in Pakistan, it puts paid to the idea that such politics could ever serve as the engine of feminine agency.  This is a rare and much-needed corrective against the present sweep of insidious currents hostile to the promise of a secular future for Pakistan and its women.
Farzana Shaikh, author of Making Sense of Pakistan

In this book Afiya Zia brings into play all her skills in incisive analysis and her ability to go to the heart of the matter without fear or reservations, for which she has built a solid reputation over the many years of advocacy of women’s rights. Faith and Feminism in Pakistan should not fail to shorten the journey to salvation of not only Pakistan’s Muslim women but also of women in all Muslim majority countries.
I. A. Rehman, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan; recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award and the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award

This is a superb and much overdue study of the history of feminism in Pakistan and its involvement in the question of Islam in state and society. Afiya Zia brings a keen analytic eye to the task, without sentimentalizing any of the actors or ideas concerned. But her own lifelong involvement in the feminist movement in the country adds a richness of texture to her discussion. This is a brave new contribution to the extensive discussion of Islam and gender across the disciplines, insisting that we view the women’s rights movement as a legitimate part of contemporary Muslim societies. It will make waves in the academic world and in politics, and rightly so.
Aamir R. Mufti is Professor of Comparative Literature, University of California, Los Angeles and author of Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literatures (Harvard University Press)

Pakistani women have been at the forefront of struggles for democracy and secular human rights. From her vantage point as member of the women's movement, Afiya has documented the multiple challenges that we have faced as women activists during the "War on Terror". Those who want to understand the tensions between faith and feminism in Pakistan should read her account in this book.
Asma Jahangir, Lawyer, co-founder and chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan; United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion; recipient of the Hilal-i-Imtiaz, Right Livelihood Award; Ramon Magsaysay Award

Zia discusses the influence, impact and interplay of women’s faith-based politics and feminisms in Pakistan. First, she summarizes some of the main debates and strategies that informed the leading urban women’s group, the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in the 1990s, vis-a-vis positionality and whether to work within the Islam framework or retain a secular alignment. Next, she analyzes the influential work on Muslim women’s pietist agency by Pakistani émigré, Saba Mahmood, in order to demonstrate its impact on the post-secular turn that her thesis has encouraged in academia and the new pedagogy on Muslim women. Following on the heels of the discussion of Muslim women’s docile agency, she presents the contrasting case study of the material and dynamic nationwide health advocacy undertaken by the Lady Health Workers (LWS) who are recruited through a government program. She offers some examples that demonstrate “The Limits of Religious Agency in Pakistan”, and discusses the (re)construction of the “agentive” Islamist woman across the sites of religious nationalisms, Islamic extremism and popular culture in Pakistan. She catalogues variants of the relationship between consumer capitalism and Islam in Pakistan and points out the consequences of the commodification of gendered religious identities. She presents a critical discussion of the often limited and futile methods and strategies of liberal resistance to Islamic conservatism and religious extremism in Pakistan over the last decade, and documents the consequences of pietist agency in the context of the Taliban invasion of northern Pakistan, analyzing two streams of working women’s (secular) movements in Pakistan. While encouraging the expansion of secular spaces and political expressions for women’s progress in Pakistan, she also warns that that patriarchal collusion of religion and local customs and the actors who enable these make it unviable to rely on either of these sources of emancipatory or progressive politics.

Reviewed in the New Humanist

Reviewed in The Asian Journal of Women's Studies, at's_Studies_Faith_and_feminism_in_Pakistan_religious_agency_or_secular_autonomy

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