Aneela Zeb Babar on feminism, militancy and the women of Pakistan
To have a gendered reading of military and politics in the feminist movement of Pakistan, SheThePeople.TV caught up with researcher and author Aneela Zeb Babar. She has recently published a book about it titled ‘We are All Revolutionaries Here: Militarism, Political Islam and Gender in Pakistan.’ The book captures about two decades of Pakistan’s history from 1988 to 2008, which were pivotal in shaping the narrative of militarism, political Islam and gender politics in the country.
“When you meet someone of Pakistani origin they are often asked a smorgasbord of questions, which I don’t think could be tackled in a 10-minute conversation, so what I did was I took different chapters from different pages of my life and in the end we came up with this book project,” stated Aneela to us about what made her write the book.
Working, reading and learning about Islam, gender, migration and popular culture in Pakistan for about two decades now, Aneela grew up in an army background spending her childhood in Rawalpindi. Perhaps growing up in a country under martial law nudged her to get a Master’s degree in Defence and strategic studies, though she went on to do a second degree in gender and development and a PhD which was a feminist critique of all that.
“With the Nuclear tests of 1998, what was happening between the two countries was that the language of aggressive peace-keeping was very feminine in nature where shades like “humne bhi chudiyan nahi pehni hain” were thrown at each other”
The book does take up the ubiquitous issues like Purdah and hijab. “People generally do not tend to understand why Muslim women think of a Hijab as a matter of choice. For many people it is a political statement, for some it is a way of rebellion and for women, who are overseas and are confused about their South-Asian identity- whether you are a Pakistani or Indian-Bangladeshi, covering their head is a way of marking their difference.”
It also has chapters about the feminist critique of the nuclear tests that were happening between Pakistan and India in that time period. There is a chapter about a local madrasa in the Laal Masjid whose teenage female students took to streets.
“This chapter deals with 14-year-olds, who are very powerless in any society because of their age and gender, and how the elders of Madrasa lend them a listening ear and it becomes empowering for them in an Islamic society,” she says.
Elaborating on the nuclear test years, she states, “In Pakistan or India or elsewhere when we talk about peace, we are very comfortable with this idea of deterrence which is a very masculine idea of peace ke humne toh unhe chup hi karwa diya… kisi ko dara dhamka ke peace rakhna.” And in South Asia, we have conflict avoidance wherein the main issue remains unresolved but rifts keep fizzing every once in a while.
“With the Nuclear tests of 1998, what was happening between the two countries was that the language of aggressive peace-keeping was very feminine in nature where shades like “humne bhi chudiyan nahi pehni hain” were thrown at each other. The hyper-masculine behaviour of leaders, scientists and religious clergies to justify nuclear tests could be seen and even the missiles if you see are always named after a Chauhan or Ghauri,” explains Aneela.
“So much aggression against women could be seen in everyday discourse and also the war songs being played in the countries.”
I hope one’s endeavor to explore a history of Pakistan with the Pakistani women as narrator would not only identify a different gender, but also a new generation and class of interpreters for Islam.
To quote Aneela from the book, one of the attempts of the book is “To identify the common thread that links the various incarnations of the Pakistani woman that we have witnessed over the years. On the surface these performances may seem at cross purposes. What, you may ask, might link a group of middle-class Pakistani women (some of them wives of army officers and bureaucrats), demurely sipping coffee in a living room, with the fiery young women in black burqa, threatening shopkeepers in Islamabad? The living room brigade is listening to an audio CD of their spiritual guru extolling the merits of their silent social revolution. Meanwhile, the other group brandishes batons, standing guard as their colleagues take to the pulpit and Pakistan’s youth enter their crusade against the Pakistani government. These women and those other lives in the Pakistani diaspora they are linked to (through the new moral communities in cyber space), all aspire to have a voice in how Pakistan does religion and politics.”
She goes on to say, “However, I hope one’s endeavor to explore a history of Pakistan with the Pakistani women as narrator would not only identify a different gender, but also a new generation and class of interpreters for Islam. ….The growth of the gendered transnational networks of religion mediated exclusively by, and focused towards and funded by, women’s contributions challenges the way the male elite have traditionally controlled religious spaces in diasporic communities. This could only happen if one applies alternative means of seeing not only the socio-political practices of diasporic communities but also how one views the religious behavior of the women living in these communities. Though women may explain their religious involvement and social performances as moral obligations and religious responsibilities, in many ways they are challenging the authority of others to define and interpret religious duties for them.”
(We Are All Revolutionaries Here is published by Sage Publications. Hard cover, Rs 600.)
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