“There goes the Ninja brigade again,” was a familiar refrain among Anglophile folks during the six-month-long Lal Masjid/Jamia Hafsa crisis in Islamabad. For the vast majority of the Urdu-Hindi-Bangla-Punjabi-speaking population of Southasia, the term burqa posh – or the more recent expressions imported from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, hijabi and niqabi – denotes a Muslim woman in an all-encompassing veil, generally black, leaving only the eyes visible. In the case of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, from the 1990s until the US-led invasion of December 2001, the infamous blue “shuttlecock” burqa became de rigueur.
This is in marked contrast to the centuries-old practice of a large section of Southasian urban women of only partially covering their heads with various chunnis, dupattas, chaddars, shawls, sari palloos or plain-old scarves – some opaque, others gauzy net or chiffon. Both of my non-segregated, non-secluded Muslim grandmothers covered their heads, and both were considered relatively progressive, liberal and ‘modern’. This dress code was more a part of a common regional cultural heritage than an Islamist or religious statement. For that matter, my Hindu aunt, who lives in an ashram near Delhi, still sometimes covers her head, and I have Baha’i, Buddhist, Sikh and Parsi friends who do the same on occasion.
The burqa-clad mobs of women on the rampage are only the more obvious, and more recent, face of militant Islam. Of greater importance is the quiet, increasing penetration of an extremist brand of militant Islam into political and secular institutions, the bureaucracy and the public education system, by women who see themselves as representing the ‘true’ faith.
Islamists, of course, come in various hues, ranging from devout observers of a very personal faith, to those who reprimand, sermonise and preach in an intrusive fashion against those they perceive as being ‘errant’. Then, there is the third category, which has taken upon itself the salvation of not just Muslims in the ummah, but of the entire human race. This fanatic trend is in direct conflict with, and in serious contravention of, the several Koranic injunctions against compulsion in religion, applicable to both women and men. These extremists include the transnationalist militant suicide bombers of al-Qaeda; the Jamia Hafsa/Lal Masjid state-within-a-state renegades; Pakistan’s Muttahida-Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) political coalition; as well as the well-educated, UK-born and -raised radicals, such as those who kidnapped and murdered the American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi. These self-proclaimed custodians of the faith, whose sole objective is to gain political power in order to enforce Sharia as the law of the land, are commonly referred to in pejorative Urdu as thekedars, contractors.
A more recent but still little-discussed phenomenon is the rapidly increasing numbers of women entering the extremist fold. This trend can be traced back to the repressive and brutal regime of General Zia ul-Haq and his so-called Islamisation programme, which all recognise as having been little more than a ploy to prolong his illegitimate rule. While Zia was eliminated in 1988, his remnants are not only alive and kicking today, many of them are in power in Pakistan’s current junta-led administration.
General Zia used the oldest of the religio-political parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami (the JI, which has counterparts in Bangladesh and India), to give himself a façade of legitimacy. In return, it wrested concessions for Islamism, most of them pertaining to the repression of women and religious minorities, such as the notorious Hudood Ordinances of 1979 and various blasphemy laws. The party shrewdly did not attempt to touch upon such thorny issues as the ‘Islamisation’ of the economy, as this would have meant eliminating interest (riba, or usury), which would be unviable in the current globalised economic order.
General Pervez Musharraf tried to follow the same route in enlisting the MMA’s vote for the 17th Constitutional Amendment, which has enabled him to stay on as both president and chief of the army staff to date. He also tried to play the women’s-rights card with a curiously motley crowd, which included the MMA parties as well as the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). This tactic was not only unsuccessful, but Gen Musharraf ended up alienating both the orthodox and the progressives with the 2006 passage of a watered-down Women’s Protection Act (which retained stoning to death for adultery, and the inadmissibility of the testimony of women and non-Muslims), and by not repealing the Hudood Ordinances.
A much more sinister development during the Zia years, the negative impact of which continues to buffet society today, was the ‘Islamisation’ of the national curriculum and teacher-trainings for public schools. This was done by bigoted and misogynist mullahs, who wormed their way into the Ministry of Education in a well-planned strategy that involved the recruitment of full-time professional staff, as well as large-scale membership on various ad hoc commissions and committees. Once again, the main focus of this programme was on women and minorities (especially Hindus), though emphasis was also placed on anti-India ideologies. Ultimately, an entire generation of children who grew up during the late 1970s and 1980s became indoctrinated in patriarchal misogyny and inter-faith communal hatred. This trend received further support following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, when more than three million Afghan refugees flooded across the border. These refugees were for the most part conservative Islamists, with patriarchal views on the treatment and rights of women and girls.
From the early 1980s onwards, calling attention to a supposed threat to Islam from communism, the Pakistani religio-political parties began to recruit and train Afghan and Pakistani boys in their madrassas in order to join the jihad. In this, they were helped with funds from both the US and Pakistani intelligence services. It gradually came to light that young girls were also starting to join these madrassas, though the reason their parents were enrolling them had less to do with religious fervour than with the economic exigencies of crippling poverty. At that time, poverty levels in Pakistan ranged between 35-40 percent, with concentrated pockets in the rural areas of NWFP/Pakhtoonkhwa and Balochistan, which were also the provinces where the Afghan refugees were concentrated. It is no coincidence that rural female literacy in these two provinces at that time stood at two percent and 0.8 percent, respectively.
Almost simultaneously, two other phenomena began to emerge in Pakistan. One was the rise of the second phase of the women’s-rights movement, with the formation of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in 1981, which set upon a collision course with the Zia junta, especially pertaining to the several discriminatory laws that were being promulgated, and the severe restrictions imposed on women’s development and empowerment. The second was the countering of the WAF’s liberal agenda by a newfound moral fervour among urban women, initially belonging to the elite classes, but gradually moving to encompass the middle class as well. One of these upper-middle-class veiled women, Apa Nisar Fatima, a member of Gen Zia’s hand-picked Majlis-e-Shura (Islamic Parliament), founded an organisation called the Pakistan Anjuman-e-Khawateen-e-Islam (PAKI, or the Pakistan Association of the Women of Islam), which was closely connected to the JI. Fatima recruited highly educated and professional women, many of them trained in US universities, to learn, and subsequently spread, her rigid, retrogressive brand of Islam. Although PAKI remains a fairly small, exclusive group, its sphere of influence is disproportionately large.
One of the students of this aggressive proselytising was Dr Farhat Hashmi, who taught at the Women’s Campus of the International Islamic University, in Islamabad. Hashmi also went on to found her own school, the al-Huda International Academy for Women, where she started off – seemingly innocuously – by teaching Arabic and interpreting the Koran, in English and Urdu. Hashmi’s real agenda soon emerged, however: to counter the growing influence of the WAF and other women’s rights NGOs. To this day, PAKI and al-Huda’s sources of funding remain a mystery, although human-rights groups speculate that they are substantially supported by political mentors. (International media reports also hint at assistance from some of the more shadowy militant groups that are currently banned in Pakistan.) Hashmi herself shifted to Canada following the attacks of 11 September 2001, from where she was recently deported, for preaching and distributing hate material, and inciting interfaith disharmony.
The tactics devised by Fatima, Hashmi and their followers were not confined to in-house vitriol against the maghrib zada (Western-immorality-infested) women of the WAF and women’s-rights organisations. The PAKI and al-Huda leadership insisted on their members being nominated to the Parliament throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Even the current Parliament has a substantial number of these women on the reserved seats, belonging to the MMA coalition, affiliated to both PAKI and al-Huda, as well as on the women’s wings of their respective parties. Furthermore, they insisted that members of their groups be made official members of such important entities as the Zari Sarfaraz Commission on the Status of Women (1983-85) and the Nasir Aslam Zahid Commission of Inquiry on Women (1995-97). They have been so successful in their lobbying activities that the Pakistan Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, set up under Gen Musharraf in 2001, has a permanent seat for an ‘Islamic scholar’. Each time one of these bodies prepares a report with forward-looking recommendations (for instance, the repeal of the Hudood Ordinances and similar laws), these women write a dissenting note, which they demand be published as an integral part of the report.
At this point, these extremist women have infiltrated all echelons of the federal and provincial government ministries and departments, and thus have prior knowledge of international conferences and draft policy documents. They are therefore able to get themselves included as members of official delegations to international conferences, as well as to review and revise country reports to their satisfaction. They have even managed to include their language in the National Policy for the Development and Empowerment of Women, prepared by the Ministry of Women’s Development and approved by the Cabinet in 2002. Fortunately, the WAF members of the Policy Drafting Committee succeeded in watering their insertions down, but they could not entirely delete them.
In public, the intimidating tactics of Pakistan’s female extremists have taken both overt and subtle forms. The former was manifested during the Jamia Hafsa/Lal Masjid crisis. The scenes of hordes of stick-wielding, shouting, black-garbed young women on the seminary’s ramparts, provoking the law-enforcement machinery, will long be etched in the region’s collective memory. On the other hand, the subtle tactics being used by these women include the claim that they are the only experts on Islam; they regularly use Allah, the Koran, the Prophet and his sunnah (tradition) to batter opponents in any public debate.
Many reasons are put forth for the fanatically rigid views held by these women on the distorted interpretation of Islam vis-à-vis women’s rights. The foremost reason given is that holding these views is a religious obligation, and that all those who do not abide by their particular views are in gross violation of Allah’s commandments. Other reasons propounded are that women who follow the al-Huda brand of Islam, especially its dress code, are more physically secure in an insecure public environment. This is supposedly because they evoke male respect rather than ‘provoke’ male lust, and also because they accept male superiority and the subordination of women as being ordained by Allah in the Koran. This, many of them claim, subsequently gives them a sense of inner peace, as well as more harmonious male-female relations and a peaceful family life.
At the global level, the increasing polarisation between Islam and the West is certainly contributing to Muslim women turning to more extremist forms of religion as a political statement. But this is only a partial explanation. Some point out that the space that the Islamist platform provides in a deeply conservative society, where women are literally not to be seen or heard, is part of the appeal of these ultra-religious extremist groups. This is especially so for those who wish to congregate with other women in similar circumstances, to be free from the patriarchal domination of their fathers, brothers or husbands – no matter how temporary the escape. Others ascribe the increasing tendency of Pakistani women to join such groups as an outcome of growing economic and gender disparities, particularly in education, employment and access to resources – an assessment with which most women’s-rights activists would agree.
~ Tahira Abdullah is a development worker and rights activist based in Islamabad