by Rafia Zakaria
Their headscarves match their outfits perfectly, often held up by jewelled pins sporting emeralds, rubies and other precious stones. Their make-up is impeccable and a cloud of perfume follows them wherever they go. In the past few weeks of Ramazan, many have been chauffeured in their shiny sedans to taraveeh services held in venues usually reserved for weddings. Many afternoons have been spent at women-only sessions of Quranic tafseer. They follow a number of leaders, from the now internationally known Farhat Hashmi to other well-known sheikhs.
These women represent an interesting and relatively new phenomenon in the lives of Pakistan’s well to do. Demographically, they belong to the richest five percent of the country, the last section of the population to be affected by the ravages of a collapsing economy and decrepit civil institutions. Many if not all, come from families where women have been educated for generations and encouraged to pursue any opportunity that may suit their fancy. Their ranks therefore are full of doctors, lawyers, educators and the ubiquitous socialites.
Their children are often educated abroad, their husbands clean-shaven and their houses staffed with armies of servants. Like the coffee parties and social welfare melas of old, these tafseer sessions and taraveeh services have become venues of socialisation and cultural reorganisation. In this newly fashionable zeal for all things religious, these women, often plagued by the boredom that comes with affluence, seem to have found both direction and identity.
To most of these women, talk of the necessity of “liberating” Pakistani women seems redundant. First of all, the reality of those women who do not have the same weight of guilt to expunge from their conscience is remote to them. In other words, having been given the choice to embrace religious zealotry, it is difficult for them to imagine an alternative path to embracing elements of faith that give up female agency.
As clarification, consider this illustrative example: Rashida is a university professor who has taught at the engineering department of a private university for the past twenty years. Her children are grown and settled abroad. Her husband, a high level civil servant, had always given her the freedom to work, have her own friends, visit whomever she wants and even take frequent vacations abroad to visit her sisters in America. A highly educated man, who insisted on sending not just their son but also their daughter to be educated abroad, Rashida’s husband would balk at the idea of placing any sort of restrictions on his wife.
Yet, Rashida, since beginning the course with “madam” (as Farhat Hashmi’s adherents refer to her) has begun asking for his “permission” before leaving the home. She observes strict hijab before any unrelated males, including, somewhat embarrassingly, her own daughter’s husband who is over twenty-five years her junior.
The changes, albeit discomfiting to her family members, have been accepted readily by them, much like a new career or hobby that keeps Rashida satisfied and makes her less likely to pick fights with her husband or complain about the lack of attention from her children. Rashida often forces the household maid to attend tafseer sessions with her and has asked her to wear hijab (even though she is Christian!) before male servants and in front of Rashida’s husband and son. When asked about why she wears the hijab, Rashida will insist, truthfully so, that it is a choice made freely and without any pressure from her husband.
Rashida’s case is illustrative for a variety of reasons. First, it demonstrates the palliative nature of pietist movements like Farhat Hashmi’s, for women who, at crossroads in their lives (in this case, after the children have left home), may find themselves unsure of their identity and their place in society. Faith not only fills a much needed spiritual void but also a social one, providing new avenues of meeting people and a new purpose to life; all deeply admirable components.
What Rashida’s example also illustrates is the curious juxtaposition of post-feminist ideas in a society where women’s liberation never took the form of any coherent movement. In other words, Rashida’s case represents how a very small sliver of Pakistani women in the upper echelons of society, who have been insulated by class privilege from the laws and customs that target and persecute the remainder of Pakistani women, is now at the helm of denying the need for legal and sociological changes.
Women like Rashida are the face of the post-feminist Pakistani woman. Born in affluent homes and provided the same privileges as their brothers, they have often never experienced any form of legal discrimination or sexual harassment. The discriminatory weight of counting as a half-witness under Qanoon-e-Shahadat, or being legally entrusted to a male relative, of having to produce four witnesses in cases of rape, are all far away from their comfortable realities where religion is yet another item on a long menu of possible activities.
The women that are abducted, that are imprisoned under accusations of Zina, that are traded away in land disputes, are mere spectres in news stories. Theirs is a world of free choices garnered by class privileges. They take religion as a particular sheikh sells it to them, don hijabs and ask their husbands for permission to leave the home in an experiment with a new identity that may be adorned or shed at will. Indeed, there is no need for feminism in their world since subjugation, legal or otherwise, when freely chosen, represents no subjugation at all.
Instead, the cost of elite women’s experiment with Islamism is borne instead by those women whose agency and free will is ignored in this equation. Just as Rashida does not give a second thought to the relative fairness of requiring her maids of to attend tafseer sessions or wear hijab, the limits to the ability of religious awakening to question core problems in society is exposed. The ability of elite women to define whether or not Pakistan needs feminism is thus circumscribed by the fact that the battles feminism would have to fight have never been battles for them at all, but rather for those women who remain invisible as much because of their poverty as of their gender.