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Pakistan: The challenge posed by women

Friday 15 April 2016, by siawi3

The News, April 06, 2016

by Harris Khalique

There are books and then there are books. One such work that substantially contributes to the understanding of human experience, history and society, power and polity, is Georg Lukacs’ collection of essays, ‘History and Class Consciousness’. It is to be read and read again not just for its sheer brilliance but because for a lay reader like me, it takes mental muscle to be able to comprehend the arguments made.

I chanced upon a paragraph in this book the other day where a letter from Ferdinand Lassalle to Karl Marx, written in 1851, is mentioned. Lassalle quotes Hegel and writes, “Hegel used to say in his old age that directly before the emergence of something qualitatively new, the old state of affairs gathers itself up into its original, purely general, essence, into its simple totality, transcending and absorbing back into itself all those marked differences and peculiarities which it evinced when it was still viable.”

This is something complex and unique to have come from Hegel. After reading this quote, what immediately came to my mind as far as Pakistan is concerned is the current politics of the religio-political parties who recently vowed to come together again, forming an alliance to agitate and launch a movement against the government in order to check the so-called liberalisation and secularisation of Pakistan.

We need to investigate a few things here. What is ‘qualitatively new’ that is emerging? What are/were the ‘old state of affairs’? What is ‘simple totality’ that transcends and absorbs back ‘marked differences and peculiarities’ that were evinced at one point? Let me take each of the questions one by one.

What is qualitatively new in Pakistan that is emerging? There is no point in day-dreaming or taking an overly optimistic position, simply for lack of basic indications that hint at a quick transformative change. There are no major civil, military or political reforms being envisaged, leave alone being carried out, small adjustments notwithstanding. The economy continues to run in full favour of the wealthy, landed, traders and bankers. There is no liberalisation, leave alone secularisation, taking place unlike what some anchors, columnists and semi-literate civil servant-turned-ideologues are bellowing about. These people need to take Politics 101 or History 101 in any undergraduate college to even begin to understand what these terms mean.

Yes, there are internal and external pressures to curb extremism and violence, to promote tolerance and co-existence, to encourage financial investment in our ailing economic sectors and to create a somewhat liveable society. But that is the government or the state taking baby steps to normalise society. Mind you, ‘normalise’ not ‘liberalise’. If the head of the government or a senior official goes and sweet talks Hindus or Christians at some ceremony, that is normal for a state to function in this day and age, not liberal. Likewise, if there are efforts to curb hate speech against different faiths or sects, it is a normal function that a state has to carry out if it does not want its citizens to fight and slaughter each other on a daily basis.

As far as the external pressure is concerned, whether we like it or not, that cannot be avoided until women and men of Pakistani origin are continued to be found guilty of violent acts against ordinary citizens in different parts of the world. A recent incident saw a couple, of Pakistani origin, going on a killing spree in the US. Just a few years ago, a terrorist attempt by a Pakistani was foiled in New York. One couple was recently sentenced in the UK for attempting a terrorist strike to mark the tenth anniversary of 7/7 attacks in London while another pair of Pakistani-origin men was apprehended for planning a deadly attack.

Some of the Pakistani diaspora is inherently radicalised and connected to Pakistan through proselytising groups and extremist clerics. That creates major problems for us and our government back home.

Coming to secularism, that means the exclusion of religion from public affairs. In our case, this would mean personal belief being kept separate from the business of the state, if we follow what was said in Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s inaugural presidential speech to the constituent assembly of Pakistan. Does anyone see that happening anywhere in Pakistan? This is not Jinnah’s Pakistan and will not be, certainly for some more years to come. Currently, there is no threat to Pakistan’s political character as a religious state. The only problem is that it is a religious state run by non-clerics. The clerics want it to become a theocracy so that they can run it by invoking their self-proclaimed custodianship of the divine law.

Therefore, the only thing that is qualitatively new and different from the old state of affairs is the increasing and steady emergence of Pakistani women and girls as contributors and leaders in all walks of social, cultural, political and economic life. That is happening silently but decidedly, as some of us have observed and mentioned in our writings before. The agency, ability, astounding success and growing confidence among the women and girls of Pakistan pose the biggest challenge to religio-political parties and conservative clerics.

In all fairness, there are some within their ranks who do not endorse the anti-women view and one must acknowledge that. But the majority mainstream opinion of clerics and champions of faith-based politics is against the equality and empowerment of women. Why? Because clerics have no capacity to win any intellectual, moral, social or cultural battle against anyone and the last battle they would fight tooth and nail is over the bodies and minds of Muslim women whom they wish to control in the name of faith, drawing additional strength from other men who believe in conserving their unjust authority and privileged status.

Let me come to the last question raised – what is ‘simple totality’ that transcends and absorbs back ‘marked differences and peculiarities’ that were evinced at one point? That ‘simple totality’ is just the name of the faith that the majority practises. With the use of that name emotions can be whipped up, opinions can be remoulded, social movements can be launched and, as a consequence, economic and political power can be maximised. In order to do that, all marked differences and peculiarities like the differences in schools of thought, varying jurisprudences, divergent views of the world, etc can be put on the side-burner.

From the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), whose theological foundations are considered roguish by both, orthodox Deobandi and Barelvi schools, to the Fazlur Rehman and Samiul Haq factions of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), considered reprobate by the Barelvis including the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP) – these and many others have joined hands, shunning their differences and peculiarities. Many other parties and factions are also taken into the fold.

There are two reasons cited for the alliance being made by its member parties. The first is for blocking the Punjab government’s new law on curbing violence against women because, according to these parties, this law will destroy the family system and the fundamental values of our faith. And the second is to stop any changes to the blasphemy law, since it was last amended to be made harsher under Gen Ziaul Haq in 1985.

The second question arose when the assassin of Salmaan Taseer, Mumtaz Qadri, was hanged in Rawalpindi. Sirajul Haq, the head of the Jamaat-e-Islami, led his funeral prayers in absentia while many political groups other than JUP and Sunni Tehreek participated in his funeral rites. Interestingly, no amendment to the law is being considered at any level at the moment. On the other hand, it was a matter of not having or not having the law but taking law into one’s own hand. Hence, the current issue for clerics and religious political leaders remains controlling the bodies and minds of Muslim women.

The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.