Books Review


By: Shahnaz Rouse Publisher: Women Unlimited, New Delhi ,Year: 2004, ISBN: 81-88965-03-0, Pp: 155 , Price: Rs. 200 Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand

Gender is central to the construction of national and community identities. National and religious ideologies are thus, at the same time, gendered ideologies, laying down norms and rules for the ‘ideal’ man and woman, whether as citizen or as believer. Invariably, women come to be seen as the principal bearers of tradition and carriers of the ‘authenticity’ of the ‘nation’ and the ‘community’.

This fascinating study, a collection of three incisive essays, looks at the centrality of the issue of gender in the construction of dominant ideologies of nationalism and Islamism in Pakistan. Rouse covers much ground in this slim volume, discussing a wide range of debates on the ‘ideal’ Muslim Pakistani woman and highlighting the burden that women come to bear in the role of repositories of ‘tradition’ that is forced on them.

Rouse stresses the importance of sensitivity to local contexts in which diverse understandings of the ‘ideal’ Pakistani Muslim woman are generated. Critiquing the notion of a stereotypical Muslim woman, so central to Islamist as well as orientalist imagery alike, she pleads for a historically nuanced reading of the subject at various levels: at the level of the ‘everyday’, and in the discourses of the state, Islamist groups, the ‘ulama and other sections of Pakistani civil society. In doing so, she cautions against treating women as passive victims of patriarchy and misogyny, and insists that the role of women themselves in the construction and sustaining of patriarchal ideologies and structures be also examined.

The first chapter of the book examines debates on religion and religious identity among middle class Muslims in colonial India. Rouse points to similarities between these and their Hindu counterparts. For both, religion came to be seen as the primary unit of identity, glossing over internal divisions of caste, class, language and ethnicity. Overlaps between ‘Islam’ and ‘Hinduism’ and liminal or shared religious identities were bitterly critiqued. ‘Islam’ and ‘Hinduism’ came to be understood in essentially scripturalist or textual terms. Hindu and Muslim ‘reformers’, elites who claimed to speak on behalf of their ‘communities’, allied with orientalists and British colonial officers to develop novel notions of what it meant to be ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ that had hitherto never existed before. Colonial mechanisms of control and administration, such as the census, and steps towards codifying ‘Hindu’ and ‘Islamic’ law and thereby overriding customary practices also played a key role in transforming community identities, and, along with this, the legal status of Hindu and Muslim women. The imposition of patriarchal readings of religious laws had, as Rouse shows, crucial implications for how women were represented in Hindu and Muslim discourses of cultural ‘authenticity’.

Women, Rouse tells us, came to be seen as central in this project of redefinition of community identities and boundaries. The public space was seen as a male domain, governed by British colonial logic. The ‘inner’, ‘sacred’ space of the home, generally associated with women, was where religious and community identities were sought to be protected and preserved, safe from colonial control. Hence, women came to be regarded as the predominant bearers of ‘tradition’, protecting the sanctity of the Hindu or Muslim family from the colonial gaze. Accordingly, Rouse shows, numerous conservative religious groups, among both Hindus and Muslims sought to carefully shield women from any ‘modern’ influences, which they saw as necessarily perverse. Even so celebrated a thinker as Muhammad Iqbal, she tells us, was vehemently opposed to modern education and voting rights for women, while at the same time championing ‘Muslim’ rights. Presumably, then, Muslim women did not appear in his scheme for ‘Muslim’ progress.

Yet, at the same time, numerous other middle-class male reformists, Hindus and Muslims, sought to promote education for women, but, as Rouse stresses, this was not for its own sake, but, rather, to provide educated wives for their men folk. In short, education was to be carefully controlled and was not to be allowed to challenge patriarchal structures in any way. This, Rouse argues, was also the considered opinion of the colonial authorities. However, as British rule drew to a close, key Muslim leaders, including, and particularly, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, president of the Muslim League, appear to have endorsed the participation of women in public activities, insisting that this was indispensable for the sake of the freedom of the country. Rouse writes that this was still a largely elitist concern, although she notes that it provided a major impetus to the cause of universal literacy for women once Pakistan came into being in 1947.

The second chapter looks at a range of gendered discourses in independent Pakistan, seeking to provide a broad overview of significant debates on the ‘ideal’ Pakistani Muslim woman. Rouse’s basic argument is that this issue must be located in the wider context of the struggle for democracy in Pakistan, involving the state, the military, the ‘ulama, radical Islamists and various democratic forces. She argues that in order to preserve their undemocratic rule, successive Pakistani regimes have relied for legitimacy on the ‘ulama and/or the Islamists, on the one hand, and on western, particularly American, support, on the other. This has meant that groups that have a vital stake in democracy, including ethnic and religious minorities, the working class, the peasantry and women, have suffered the most. In the case of women, this is reflected in attacks on the feminist movement as ‘western’, ‘divisive’ and ‘anti-Islamic’, as well as in a series of laws, passed by the dictator Zia ul-Haq and still on the Pakistani statue books till today, that claim to be ‘Islamic’ and are fiercely discriminatory towards women. Rouse shows how women have sought to mobilize against these repressive laws, as part of a wider struggle for democracy in Pakistan. For this they adopted various strategies, articulating their demands both in secular terms, demanding a separation between religion and the state, as well as in ‘Islamic’ terms, critiquing what they saw as patriarchal and ‘inauthentic’ understandings of Islam used by the state, the ‘ulama and the Islamists.

The final chapter of the book locates the issue of women’s struggles for autonomy and rights in the context of what Rouse describes as self-conscious efforts to remake Pakistan’s image in ‘Islamic’, masculinist and exclusionary terms. She argues that this must be seen in relation to the Pakistani state’s close nexus with American imperialism, to the Saudi factor and to the role of the Pakistani state in abetting radical jihadist Islamist groups, as in Afghanistan and in Kashmir. She sees this as inevitably leading to greater intolerance, violence and repression in Pakistani society, directed particularly against ethnic and religious minorities and women. The best illustration of this argument, she says, is the Muttahida Majlis-i ‘Amal (MMA) government that is now ruling the North-West Frontier Province, a conglomeration of several hardliner ‘Islamic’ groups. Ever since it came to power, the MMA government has taken numerous anti-women and ostensibly ‘Islamic’ measures. Rouse sees this as symptomatic of what she calls the looming threat of the ‘Talibanisation’ of Pakistan.

Examining a wide range of debates on gender-related issues in Pakistan, this book is a thought-provoking study of the ways in which the notion of the ‘ideal’ woman is imagined in and placed at the very core of nationalist and religious discourses, a phenomenon not limited, of course, to the Pakistani or even to the Muslim case. That said, the book misses out on crucial debates among the various Islamist and ‘ulama-related groups, tending to tar them all with the same brush. Thus, Rouse does not deal with the crucial issue of the spaces (albeit limited) that Islamism opens up for Muslim women, and she mentions the efforts being made by some Pakistani Islamic feminists only in passing. In a country like Pakistan, both the secular feminism that Rouse appears to advocate, as well as some sort of Islamic feminism have their own important roles to play in furthering women’s rights. To ignore or dismiss the latter can only further limit the feminist agenda, already reeling under accusations of being ‘elitist’, ‘divisive’, ‘western’, and, therefore, ‘un-Islamic’.

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