Feminism - the philosophy and the movements it has inspired – is often unknown or largely misunderstood, not only for what its represents, but also its historical trajectory and development in Pakistan.

Afiya Zia’s book, “Faith and Feminism in Pakistan” offers an important explanation and critique of feminist philosophy(ies)/approach(es) in Muslim contexts, in particular in Pakistan, threshing out its(their) theoretical underpinnings and practical/political implications. Zia’s primary objective is to, through such exposition, demonstrate the critical need for a secular, human rights approach to feminist agency, debunking the assertion that “secular politics, aims and sensibilities are impossible, impractical or undesirable for Muslim women” (pp. 22).

For a reader unfamiliar with the subject, Zia’s exposition of the varied strands of feminism is extremely valuable. Feminist thought in the Pakistani context, can largely be categorized as “Islamic Feminism” and “Secular Feminism” (though Zia refers to various sub-categories within these). Islamic Feminism (as propounded by writers such as Margot Badran and Haideh Moghissi) rejects a singular, male interpretation of Islam as authoritative/ correct, and seeks to reinterpret Islam to re-locate and reclaim women’s rights within the Islamic/religious framework. Zia argues that Islamic Feminism has gained impetus in the post-9/11 era of the War on Terror, as the Muslim world has increasingly come to be viewed through a reductive, religious lens. She states, “The spaces for Muslims to be anything other than a religious category has become increasingly narrow over the last decade … Academics around the world are increasingly complicit in encouraging a kind of Muslim exceptionalism which is blunted through the lens of [religion]…” (pp. 46)

Secular feminism, on the other hand, Zia explains, grounds its demand for women’s rights within a human rights discourse and is open to recognising and critiquing the interplay of cultural-religious practices in buttressing patriarchy. Both Islamic and Secular Feminisms conceive of their politics as resistance to subordination of women, but employ different methodologies.

Zia explains that a more recently emergent strand of feminist scholars, spearheaded by Professor Saba Mahmood (late), have however, sought to conceptualise women’s agency beyond the binary of resistance-subordination to find value in Muslim women’s docile pietest agency. Drawing on the women’s mosque movement in Egypt, Saba Mahmood argues that women’s agency may be viewed as “performative” instead of being “transformative”. Participation in pietiest/religious collectives (such as Al-Huda in our context) arguably assigns value to women’s sacrifices, desires, and struggles for space within what may be exclusionary hierarchies, according to them a sense of self-realisation. The consequence/objective of such agency is then not emancipation. Such docile pietiest agency is more internal, both in object and form.

Zia, quite rightly questions whether such internal, docile agency is apolitical/non-transformative. Zia claims that “the actual political consequences of piety have remained under-examined or deliberately sidelined”(pp. 39). She refers to the Al-Huda movement/collective and the experiences coming out of the Jamia Hafsa/Laal Masjid incident to draw home the point that the political consequences of pietest agency are not so innocuous to the feminist project, and may in fact entail support for patriarchal notions that buttress women’s subjugation.

For Zia there is an inherent danger in relying on faith-based agency as a source of women’s rights and emancipation since religion (together with other cultural practices) is/may be deployed as a tool to reinforce women’s subjugation. She argues that “The political experience in the Pakistani context has shown, however, that faith-based agency of women is not just innocuously adopted for non-liberal, non-feminist ends nor as a willing embracement and celebration of gender inequality only but increasingly to actively support a patriarchal Islamist agenda”(pp.86). As examples, Zia cites the activism of female parliamentarians of the MMA in 2004, who gave up their historic opposition to the discriminatory Zina Ordinance, and in line with their party’s “conservative male dictate” voted against amendments to the Zina Ordinance (pp. 112). Zia also refers to the experience of the women in Swat who were initially drawn to the spiritedness of Maulana Fazaulullahs sermons, and supported his Tehreeq-e-Nifaz-e-Sharia-e-Muhammad, to realize only in hindsight that that the horrors and brutality inflicted against their family and community could not have been inspired by religion. Zia has very boldly asked the question whether religious/faith-based agency that leads to illiberal/non-feminist political consequences is valuable. The question which all women and men interested and involved in the subject women’s rights and feminism must continue to ask and deploy is, in Patricia Jeffery’s words, “not whether women are victims or agents, but rather what sort of agents women can be despite their subordination” ( cited by Zia, pp. 100).

Zia argues that the experience and exercise of non-faith based agency by Pakistani women is not exceptional and comprises of a “defined combination” of autonomy, mobility, capacity for economic and personal decision-making and social purpose/responsibility. She refers to the network of 110,000 Lady Health Workers (LHWs) who have challenged and re-negotiated traditional notions of gendered space and the public-private divide to provide basic healthcare to women across Pakistan. As a collective these women have successfully lobbied for entitlement to a minimum wage, and openly objected to religious opposition to their mobility and their work. The agency of LHWs has accorded them greater mobility, status and a purposeful social calling, whilst more broadly challenging patriarchal diktats. The Women’s Councillor Network of formed after the induction of 36,105 women in the local government bodies following elections in 2002, serves as another example of non-faith based feminist agency. Through this network, women councillors have not only lobbied for greater rights within the local government system but also addressed and advocated for women’s issues and rights more generally. By citing these examples of secular feminist agency on the part of Muslim women, Zia successfully dispels, what in her view has become the dominant post-9/11 conceptualization of Muslim women as merely religious subjects/actors.

In building her thesis, Zia has cleverly weaved through the variant and complex strands of feminist theory and political experience in the Pakistani context to the benefit of particularly those who have not engaged with the subject in depth. Faith and Feminism effectively argues against the reductive, religio-centric approach to feminist agency, and by pinpointing its inadequacy/danger for the feminist project, Zia sets up a strong case for the need to explore and expand spaces for secular feminist agency. Zia, however, has not fully addressed the fact that faith/Islam is a reality for many women in Pakistan and is often determinative of their identity and life options. Zia refers to Farida Shaheed’s conclusion that reclaiming religious practices and rituals provide women the liboratory, or at least resistance potential against their “everyday experiences of patriarchy and religion” (pp. 100). The question that remains unanswered is whether secular non-faith based agency would be an attractive or viable alternative for such religiously inspired/driven of women.


Author: Afiya S Zia

ISBN: 978-1845199166

Sussex Academic Press, UK

Folio Books, Lahore