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A New Book Examines Conditions Under the Hijab in Pakistan

A book by Aneela Z Babar takes a close look under the veil of life for women in Pakistan


Updated:June 14, 2017, 11:45 AM IST
A New Book Examines Conditions Under the Hijab in Pakistan
Book Cover (Image courtesy: Aneela Z Babar' official Twitter page)
Title: We are all Revolutionaries Here - Militarism, Political Islam and Gender in Pakistan; Author: Aneela Zeb Babar; Publisher: Sage Publications India; Pages: 196

For every Malala Yousufzai or even Benazir Bhutto, there is also an Apa Nisar Fatima, who applauded Zia ul Haq's Islamisation drive, the baton-wielding girl students of Lal Masjid's seminary or Tashfeen Malik of the 2015 St Bernardino attack. Pakistani women's presence in public/political Islam, or Islamism, has been quite complex but hasn't received as much attention or analysis as their male counterparts. At its very basic, it raises questions whether this overt religiosity is imposed or voluntary, and what do these women themselves think -- or seek?

Attempts have been made to answer these in say, Rafia Zakaria's mix of the personal and public in The Upstairs Wife or Mona Kanwal Sheikh's Guardians of God - Inside the Religious Mind of the Pakistani Taliban, which also features the principal of Jamia Hafsa, the girls' seminary of Lal Masjid, but it gets overshadowed by the rest. Aneela Zeb Babar, a researcher on Islam, gender, migration and popular culture for nearly two decades in academia and development agencies in South and Southeast Asia, and Australia, tries to fill this gap -- and goes a long way towards it.

This book, she says, came in response to continuous requests to explain why Malala faces so much opprobrium, why Pakistani women can justify the Council on Islamic Ideology's section allowing men to "lightly beat their wives" and the like. "Perhaps one day I became nervous about how I felt generations of South Asians were condemned to repeat history, or that more things changed for the region, the more our neighbourhood was eager to make sure they remained the same," she says.

In her attempt to "decipher the country's convoluted equation between militarism, political Islam and gender politics compounded by the crisis of governance and socio-economic tensions", Babar does not seek to present a comprehensive, inter-related account but focuses on some key manifestations -- religious education and observance and the "hijab" (including in the diaspora), nationalist public discourse and Lal Masjid.

She uses a multi-methodological approach, including observation, personal and group interviews, attending sessions of Al Huda international seminary (to which Tashfeen Malik was associated) as well as key texts, like the 19th century Maulana Ali Ashraf Thanvi's Beheshti Zevar on conduct on "proper" Muslim women, still used.

She begins by seeking to understand why a significant section of Pakistanis are so attracted to radical Islam, and contends this lies in shifting definitions of national identity (acquiring more religious contours over the years), and its impact on education, particularly the growing fondness for Islamic education. Introducing a number of "hybrid madarsas", she also has a telling account of a visit to a girls’ seminary on the Punjab-Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa border.

Subsequently, comes the issue of the "hijab" -- not only one of the most recognisable (and contentious) symbols of a Muslim woman but also part of a politicised Islamic identity -- and seeks to understand the reasons and justifications of those who use it, in Pakistan as well as in Australia.

This is carried further in the next chapter in an examination of the religious and cultural life of women at home as well as the diaspora, as they try to remain "good Muslims". In the second case especially, they only isolate themselves -- a finding that will have major resonance for the West where such sizable communities are found.

Babar next analyses the "texts of war", particularly in context of the 1998 India-Pakistan nuclear tests, and the gendered construct they foisted, which has not been shaken by a woman Prime Minister or women in combat roles, including as fighter pilots. Lastly, it is the story of the Lal Masjid told by Jamia Hafsa's principal.

The account is not very comforting with her counter-intuitive but pessimistic findings of women choosing to sequester themselves in a rather restrictive millieu as well as seeking to foster unthinking conformity, without any realisation that they only further the cause of those who have created these divisions, whether by misreading or design.

While, at times, her language is a bit academic, she does make up with telling anecdotes and insights. And while she makes no bones about the uphill work required to deal with this trend, it would be a travesty to think it as only exclusively Pakistani or Islamic. Remember, she did the South Asian neighbourhood.
(Get detailed and live results of each and every seat in the Lok Sabha elections and state Assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim to know which candidate/party is leading or trailing and to know who has won and who has lost and by what margin. Our one-of-its-kind Election Analytics Centre lets you don a psephologist’s hat and turn into an election expert. Know interesting facts and trivia about the elections and see our informative graphics. Elections = News18)
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