‘Azadi, Awargi, Tehzib’: Feminism And The Secular-Sacred Divide In Twentieth Century Pakistan

Dr. Amina Yaqin argues that feminism is not just a western construct that exists in opposition to Islam, it has been shaped through transnational ‘contact zones’ over time. A circular dialogue that relies on a binary division between eastern and western ...

women protestors Aurat March

While in Lahore, I went to see the Barbie film with my family. I wasn’t surprised by its neoliberal feminist agenda, which hit the right note for my teenage daughters. Sadly, I didn’t win the argument about whether it was a good film but what it reinforced for me was the echo of a #MeToo global feminism agenda that has become commercialised and branded. Ironically, the film’s delayed release due to ‘objectionable content’ in Pakistan has most certainly added to its hype. It represents all those things that are red flags to an ideological ‘Islamic state’ when it comes to gender equality. Echoes of feminist agendas colour social media and feminism gets translated as a singular idea linked to a binary east-west divide that has been used to distract the nation at times of crisis.

Since 2018, on International Women’s Day, groups of women and men across Pakistan march in a coordinated fashion using posters and placards to demand change when it comes to gender justice. The rise of the Aurat March, closely tied to the global #MeToo movement, has led to a backlash against the organisers, including rape and death threats as well as blasphemy charges. The sexual violence that marchers protest against has come back to haunt them. Social media erupts with vitriol and hatred, the state is drawn in and objections raised. The twenty-first century slogan ‘Mera jism meri marzi’ (My body, my choice) is reminiscent of the poet Fahmida Riaz’s twentieth century collection entitled Badan Darida (The Body Torn) which earned her notoriety and censure for stepping outside the boundaries of respectability and sharafat. Fahmida Riaz has courted controversy amongst the elite Urdu literati for projecting the voice of a sexually liberated individual poet narrator self. In doing so, she has shown that women’s self-esteem as creative artists or as citizens in the community and nation need not be reliant on social constructions of gender conveyed through the genteel world of Urdu verse. Contexts of the secular and the sacred pervade her poetry, translated through transnational feminist subjectivities tempered by Sufi thought. Her writing repertoire ranges from poetry to prose destabilising a tradition/modernity divide.

Another feminist activist and a leading poet from the 1980s, Kishwar Naheed, who has been an active member of the Aurat March also encountered a reactionary response in 2019 from within the group. At the Sindh ‘aurat tanzeem (Women’s Collective) celebration marking the success of the Aurat March, she gave her views on the controversy on social media over the ‘offensive’ language used on placards. She remarked that the stark language and images represented on the Aurat March posters, of women cooking while men kept the bed warm, azadi (freedom), awargi (licentiousness) and others were too strong and out of sync with our ‘tehzib’ (culture), likening the fervour of the marchers to jihadists. Her response created a furore on social media and in the news media. She was criticised for being out of touch by a younger generation of feminists because of her conservative stance on the language used in the posters.

Naheed’s position is one that argues for resilience rather than an open confrontation. For her, the bold reclaiming of Urdu terms by aurat marchers such as ‘awara’ (licentious) and images of women with their legs wide apart are too provocative, leading to misunderstandings rather than long term change. Her autobiography Buri aurat ki katha narrates how women poets are read through their bodies instead of their art and craft in a predominantly patriarchal environment. As a poet who came to public attention in the twentieth century, she has seen and experienced attitudes toward sharif women in the public mushaira that make her cautious. There are easy associations made between the performance of the mushaira and the mujra of the courtesan. She sees the cultural codes tied to the term ‘awara’ including adultery as a problem rather than a solution. Thus, the altercation between Naheed and a younger group of feminists can be read in two ways, one, as an indication of the iron fist of Urdu literary culture and its selective response to secular western modernities that surround it, and two, as a signifier of the changing discourse of feminism and gender equality.

If we look at language and culture, the tradition and modernity pull is evident in media-led Urdu cultural representations on television and film that keep returning to two Urdu classic novels from the late nineteenth and turn of the twentieth centuries, Umrao Jan Ada by Mirza Hadi Rusva and Mirat-ul-Arus by Nazir Ahmed, and their vision for progressive and reformed Muslim women. These novels capture the moral dilemmas for women in a modern society with their representations of a changing Muslim culture in colonial India in which women were beginning to come out of the zenana into the public sphere. The question is which culture does Kishwar Naheed affiliate with and who is she speaking for? The new middle class, the ‘old’ ashraf middle class or hybrid groupings in between. What happens when an iconic feminist such as Kishwar Naheed, who has carved a niche for herself in feminist circles in Pakistan, falls short as a role model for a younger generation of aspiring feminists. More significantly can Urdu’s identity as a literary and a national language allow for a hybridisation that is more inclusive.

These questions about the fissures in Pakistani feminism can be thought of with reference to Chandra Mohanty’s classic article, ‘Under Western Eyes.’ Questioning the power dynamics between first and third world feminism. Mohanty’s critique was centred on a book series by Zed Press on ‘Women in the Third World’, authored by feminists, ‘who identify themselves as culturally or geographically from the “west”’ (Mohanty 1994: 199). She observed that the average third world woman who emerges from these texts is one who ‘leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read: sexually constrained) and being third world (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, religious, domesticated, family oriented, victimised, etc.)’ (1994: 199). Her aim in describing this power relationship was to ‘locate the colonialist move’ of the first world feminist, revealing herself to be the real subject of her discourse on third world woman. She argues that this first world feminist ethic can also be practised by any indigenous elite group, that undertakes the representation of women from non-elite groups.

A problem in Mohanty’s analysis identified by Sara Suleri, was an emphasis on the politics of authenticity (Suleri 1994: 247). Suleri’s own recommendation for postcolonial feminism was to focus on ‘lived experience.’ Putting theory into practice, she referred to Pakistani women and their encounter with Islamic law as an example of how lived experience may be determined by external factors outside autobiography (1994: 252). It is at this juncture that the postcolonial joins forces with feminism in questioning power, location, history and politics. As Suleri famously says in her memoir, Meatless Days, there are no women in the third world (1989: 20). And as Rafia Zakaria notes in a global world, ‘No attention can be garnered by Pakistani feminists unless they do something that is recognisable within the white feminist sphere of experience’ (2021: 10) and resilience is ignored.

The narrative of today’s Aurat March has deep links with the history and legacy of feminist Urdu poetry in the twentieth century. This story has to be contextualised through the history of Urdu’s linguistic hybridities, rekhti and reform, anti-colonial resistance and the longer trajectory of Islamicate and Indic aesthetic influences. In my book, Gender, Sexuality and Feminism in Pakistani Urdu Writing, I argue that through their writing and experiences, women poets have negotiated sacred and secular spaces across liberal and Islamist positions articulating a community that is neither nationalistic nor patriotic. More broadly, feminism is not just a western construct that exists in opposition to Islam, it has been shaped through transnational ‘contact zones’ over time. A circular dialogue that relies on a binary division between eastern and western cultures leads to a simplistic and reductive understanding of feminism.

Watching the Barbie film in Pakistan may be a feminist act by middle class women and men to express their solidarity with a universalist feminism that speaks out against sexual violence and gender discrimination. For me, it was a confirmation of Hollywood’s cynical buy in to a neoliberal brand of feminism relying on the fantasy echo of universal gender rights. While women empowerment programs have become the buzzword of the twenty first century, women’s protest marches continue to show us that there is discord and disagreement. Local feminisms demand long term structural change that redresses inequalities within homes, communities and nations.

Dr Amina Yaqin is Professor of World and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Exeter. Her latest book Gender, Sexuality and Feminism in Pakistani Urdu Writing is just out published by Folio Books.