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A State of Suspended Disbelief

Being thankful that the debate about whether Pakistan would be a "free sex zone" is not high on the list of the powers that be and presuming that sexual freedom enables the death of patriarchy and the consequent empowerment of women, this note raises a number of issues concerning the women's movement in Pakistan and its relationship with the state.


is not new either. Many male heads of

A State of Suspended Disbelief

non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have historically mocked (usually surreptitiously) bourgeois women activists. Afiya Shehrbano Zia Women activists have been targeted for

Being thankful that the debate about whether Pakistan would be a “free sex zone” is not high on the list of the powers that be and presuming that sexual freedom enables the death of patriarchy and the consequent empowerment of women, this note raises a number of issues concerning the women’s movement in Pakistan and its relationship with the state.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia ( is a women’s rights activist and researcher based in Karachi.

Economic & Political Weekly

June 7, 2008

ne criticism of the literature emerging from the Pakistani women’s movement has been that it is pre-eminently state-centred in its focus. In that respect, Haris Gazdar’s ‘No Longer Worried about Becoming a ‘Free Sex Zone’’ (April 19) suggests a different approach to overcoming patriarchy. In looking for new opportunities to challenge tradition, he proposes the circumvention of a patriarchal state and flooding the country with lady health visitors and strengthening of service delivery.

Gazdar’s arguments may be partially understood by looking at his source – the World Bank (WB) country study. This report was unanimously and publicly rejected by women’s groups and political activists in Pakistan, such that the government could not endorse it.1 The WB report was critiqued for “blaming the victim” and for basing the source of all women’s issues on culture and tradition, rather than a militarised state that was supported by the international community and the WB.2 That Gazdar should legitimise the report by quoting it in his article merely affirms the disconnect between social policy advocates and the political women’s movement in the country. On a personal level, it is a revealing analysis on how (sensitised) men see women’s issues in Pakistan today.

Patriarchy’s Impact on Women

There are a couple of methodological issues in his article that bear noting, including his separation of “high” politics with presumably “grounded” service delivery and a social policy that would, in his view, “subtly challenge patriarchy” in the country. That is not a novel conception for the second wave women’s movement that has spent nearly three decades directly and “subtly” confronting the state and religio-cultural norms. This romanticisation of a grassroots gender revolution either fragmenting the class movement with their preoccupation with womenspecific politics, or for the westernised feminist training projects that the “women NGOs” corner. Other liberal men, more savvy or genuinely sensitised, have joined the bandwagon and are experts themselves on gender issues – after all, gender is about both, feminine and masculine identities.

That is where Gazdar’s analysis flounders. While he makes relevant observations on the quantitative aspects of gender discrimination in the health and social sectors and political decision-making, I would challenge his understanding of the impact of patriarchy on women, sociologically. Anecdotal reference to “burqa clad” women in Karachi taking the veil as a deterrence (against male attention) is contestable. Not just methodologically but also in terms of analysis. Certainly we have observed a growing and dangerous rise in the tide of social conservatism escalating over the past decade and recognise that this dates further back to general Zia ul Haq’s regime of Islamisation. However, what needs to be acknowledged is that today, universally but particularly in Muslim contexts, the veil can no longer be analysed as a one-dimensional tool of oppression or “liberation”. Whether we like it or not, the veil can be simultaneously a symbol of patriarchy as well as that of defiance and resistance, both cultural and very political.

Certainly women do not want to deal with the male gaze as they negotiate their way into labour market but not because they want to “remain cheerful through their day” as he says. Rather, it is an offensive expression of potential male violence and a threatening reminder of the power that men assert on women in public life. Gazdar’s reasoning that harassment limits women to home-based work and prevents their equal access to the market is also contestable when read against earlier studies by his colleagues.3 The research


shows that most home-based workers are married women who combine household chores with waged work. In other words, unequal access to markets is not just because of harassment but primarily due to women’s double burden of domestic responsibilities as determined by patriarchal norms. Will social policy tackle such obstacles within the “private” realm and how will it do so without the state’s involvement?

Further, sexual harassment in only part of a more structural and material reason for the deliberate creation of a dual-labour market in capitalist economies. Relegating women and minorities to the secondary, more fragile and career limited one, privileges male workers as it benefits capitalists. Harassment is merely then an insurance policy to maintain these deliberate divisions in labour and in the market. Hence, merely flooding the market with lots of trained women may be symbolically and personally empowering and quantitatively relevant. However, it does not challenge the quality of the market nor male attitudes, particularly not with regard to sexual harassment. Social policy needs to change market structures rather than attem pting to push through reform by evading patriarchal behaviour or avoiding the state.

State and Culture

That is why the state cannot be ignored. Gazdar attempts to understand violence as a patriarchal norm with reference to Nafisa Shah’s doctoral work on honour killings in interior Sindh. He quotes an example from the study on how patriarchal violence is strengthened when men from marginalised groups gain social parity with neighbours, by inflicting violence on “their own” women. However, he is incorrect in suggesting that this is some sort of a privatised cultural expression of violence whereby women can hopefully struggle out of this bind through education or employment.

In fact Shah’s thesis points out clearly and damningly of the collusive role of the state in such cultural articulations of violence – ideologically, materially, legally and administratively. She identifies the local semi-judicial system of the ‘jirgas’ (tribal assembly of elders) as supported by the local administration, which further uses state structure and authority for enforcing decisions on whether a woman has dishonoured the community/tribe. Then the “settlement” is decided usually materially or through rape or exchange of women. The state is routinely entrenched in and exploits gendered roles as defined by itself as well as cultural norms. Women are immobilised in this mutually beneficial patriarchal relationship and without the state playing any overt role in this systemic cycle of violence. The state is let off the hook, however, when this is blamed on traditional patriarchy and bad social policy.

In addition, sexuality is pivotal in honour crimes and suggesting that its a positive development that a liberal state discourse should side-step this debate, is akin to merely sweeping it under the carpet. De-linking sexuality from the state’s business and relegating it as a “private” issue does not pronounce the death of patriarchy. Further, this thinking puts the lady health visitors’ scheme in grave policy danger because it may easily be perceived and accused for pursuing (a private and hence) anti-state agenda.

It is also important to remind Gazdar that while Nafisa Shah has earned her national assembly reserved seat and the women’s movement supports her completely, there have been some 36,000 women councillors at local bodies level who have been politicised since the Local Government Ordinances 2001, passed by the Musharraf government. While Gazdar may consider high politics a drama, surely these women warrant a mention within social policy recommendation. Their inclusion as local bodies representatives would only strengthen, if he likes, social reform at a “low” political level.

Revivalist Islamic Scholars

Gazdar holds responsible those Islamists who seek to modernise Islam and yet promote patriarchal tradition through progressive interpretations. He argues that those such as “Maudoodi and his ilk are not the source of patriarchy in Pakistan” but they “provide intellectual and ideological props for the perpetuation of traditional patriarchal norms”. Gazdar’s point is well taken but his target misplaced. Rather than Maudoodi’s ilk, there is an entirely new crop of upper class revivalist scholars, some of them entrenched in elite educational institutions, such as the Lahore University of Management Sciences, defining the intellectual Islamic revivalist discourse.

In addition there is a host of post 9/11 generation PhD students, churning out doctorates that seek progressive debates on social issues within the Islamic framework. Not only do they head departments and publish at local institutes, they even run programmes at south Asian centres around the world. In fact, many of these academics write consultancy reports for the WB and even the government, recommending social and economic policies. It would be naive to assume that the very porous boundaries of religious patriarchy have not, under neoliberal or progressive masks, managed to entrench themselves across all institutions in Pakistan.

Gazdar accepts the power of state ideological support in effecting changes in gendered division of space. But then goes on to suggest that therefore, the state should simply not “enforce the writ of the patriarch” and this will allow the “normal” course of social policy to follow. The depoliticisation of women’s issues at state level with regard to their sexuality and mobility is for Gazdar a “blessing in disguise” for it allows the “resumption of normal business” such as the lady health visitors and other such schemes.

This sterilised division between state debate and public discourse and the argument that temporary suspension of the issue will allow the women’s agenda to flourish, is the kind of liberal male social

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June 7, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


policy women have been challenging. This is like the argument made by the revivalist Islamic feminists who suggest that if women just depoliticised themselves and instead of confronting the patriarchal state, merely sought empowerment through social work and communicating directly with god without male mediators, they too would evade patriarchy and perhaps, beat it one day.

What Gazdar would do well to remember is that while the silent revolution (presumably funded by the state) may be looking to lodge itself at the grassroots level, another one in the form of women veiled in black, armed with sticks and an ideology that also seeks women’s empower ment,4 is knocking confrontationally on the doors of the state rather than waiting for the state to relinquish or suspend any debate. If they succeed because of their direct action and willingness to influence state discourse while we wait for the state to wither away, the quiet revolution will not simply be silenced, but co-opted and reinvented beyond recognition.


1 Pakistan: Country Gender Assessment 2005; Bridging the Gender Gap, Opportunities and Challenges, Tara Vishwanath, Ghazala Mansuri, Nistha Sinha, Jennifer Solotaroff, The World Bank, 2005.

2 In fact, women’s groups took out an alternative country report in protest against the World Bank report, titled, Pakistani Women in Context, A Companion Volume to the Pakistan Country Gender Assessment, 2005. Zia Awan, Rukhshanda Naz, Simi Kamal, Justice Majida Razvi, 2005.

Interestingly Gazdar choses his references from the “rejected” one.

3 Saba G Khattak and Asad Sayeed, ‘Subcontracted Women Workers in the Global Economy: The Case of Pakistan’, Sustainable Development Policy Institute Monograph Series #15, Islamabad, 2000; ‘Women’s Work and Empowerment Issues in an Era of Economic Liberalisation: A Case Study of Pakistan’s Urban Manufacturing Sector’, PILER and SDPI, 2001.

4 I refer to the women students of the Jamia Hafsa religious school or madrasa that was part of the Lal Masjid/Mosque in a posh location of the capital, Islamabad. These young women illegally occupied the premises adjoining the Lal Masjid in early 2007, in protest against the government’s threat to demolish it and reclaim it as state land. The women also allegedly kidnapped a woman from the neighbourhood whom they accused of prostitution and only let her free once she “repented”. Many of these students were killed in a state shoot-out in July 2007 to evict the masjid. The Jamia Hafsa women observed a complete black veil and carried bamboo sticks during their occupation of the mosque library. They continue to hold regular protest rallies in Islamabad outside the state reclaimed mosque.

March 31, 2007
Global Imbalances, Reserve Management and Public Infrastructure in India –Avinash D Persaud
Banking Reforms in India: Charting a Unique Course –T T Ram Mohan
Inclusive Financial Systems: Some Design Principles and a Case Study –Nachiket Mor, Bindu Ananth
Microfinance Development Strategy for India –Anil K Khandelwal
Private Equity: A New Role for Finance? –C P Chandrasekhar
Hedge Funds –A V Rajwade
Commodity Derivatives Markets in India: Development, Issues and Perspectives –Himadri Bhattacharya
Commodity Futures in India –Kamal Nayan Kabra
The Microcredit Alternative? –Madhura Swaminathan
Consumer Protection in Indian Microfinance:
Lessons from Andhra Pradesh and the Microfinance Bill –Prabhu Ghate
A Microfinance Institution with a Difference –Aloysius P Fernandez
Microfinance for Poverty Reduction: The Kalanjiam Way –M P Vasimalai, K Narender
Banking and Financial Policy: An Independent View –Rajaram Dasgupta, M Thomas Paul
How Do We Assess Monetary Policy Stance?
Characterisation of a Narrative Monetary Measure for India –Indranil Bhattacharyya, Partha Ray
Indian Banks’ Diminishing Appetite for Government Securities: A Change of Diet? –Amadou Sy
Indian Macroeconomic Concerns: Corrective Steps towards Sound Banking –Rupa Rege Nitsure

For copies write to: Circulation Manager, Economic and Political Weekly, 320-321, A to Z Industrial Estate, Ganpatrao Kadam Marg, Lower Parel, Mumbai 400 013.

Economic & Political Weekly

June 7, 2008

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