Re-Orientalizing Feminism

A review of Afiya Zia’s book, Faith and Feminism in Pakistan: Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy?

Book Cover, Faith & Feminism in Pakistan by Afiya S. Zia. Image:    Dawn News

Book Cover, Faith & Feminism in Pakistan by Afiya S. Zia. Image: Dawn News

Afiya Zia’s self-professed project in her latest book is an attempt at critiquing what she terms “the post-secular turn” in scholarship on Muslim societies. In its essence, this scholarship problematizes secularism and liberalism, explores religious agency as a not-invalid-way of being-in-the-world, and closely attends to Islamist women’s movements. According to Zia, all this by default undermines feminist politics in Pakistan. This is a tall claim – and one that is neither borne out by the empirical evidence provided nor a close reading and deconstruction of the arguments of the scholarship in question. Instead, the book reads as a rather careless and inexact polemic against theoretical concepts and arguments that the author has not fully comprehended but nonetheless insists on bludgeoning.

The recipients of Zia’s ire are divided into two groups. First, the “Retro-Islamists”, who she claims “dovetail with broader masculinist and Islamist demands that seek to purge all rights-based initiatives of Western...influences” and who “seam together secularization with/as Islamist politics”. This camp primarily includes Saba Mahmood and Humeira Iqtidar (but also Sadaf Aziz, Amina Jamal, and Masooda Bano, among others). The second group are who she labels “Scholar-Activists”. These are early career or graduate students in the North American academy, who, in her rendering, practice “secular lifestyles” but “target feminist and human rights activists in Pakistan for their perceived Islamophobic and liberal-secular politics”. Zia alleges that their “consciousness, politics and activism is polemical and entirely web-based, and...shaped by post 9/11 debates”. Included in this category, it seems, is almost every young Pakistani academic who is interested in critical scholarship, has studied Islamist movements, and/or has been critical of the War on Terror.

Zia is especially confounded by the very discipline of anthropology and more specifically, the ethnographic method. For her, “ethnography is a very contested methodology” (there is no reason given for this), which, through its “selective accounts rather than broader or deeper social scientific inquiry” (there is no explanation of what such a deeper social scientific method would entail) is allowing the Retro-Islamists to produce “contradictory claims” about Islamist women. For Zia, these claims are contradictory because they demonstrate how some Islamist women exercise agency and experience “empowerment” (however constrained) from within the structures of Islamist norms and practices. She laments that this “post 9/11 anthropology” is based on the “Foucauldian conceptualization of power” which encourages anthropologists to “re-visit the post-structural, the less tangible, discursive fields that focus on performance, relations, concepts, imaginaries, subjectivities, agency, affectation, morality and injury with reference to the Muslim subject...rather than polygamy and child-custody”.

In a sense, because Zia views the world as neatly divided into the “discursive” (and therefore imagined) and the “material” (and therefore real), her gripe is with post-structuralism itself, although it is not thought through in the book at all, and only ever truly becomes a problem for her when it leads to more nuanced and less essentializing studies of Muslim societies.

Afiya Zia and the “post-secularists”

As Zia’s main aim in this book is to counter “post-secular scholarship”, especially Saba Mahmood’s book Politics of Piety, it is pertinent to contextualize the latter. Mahmood’s book is based on an ethnographic study of a women’s mosque movement in Cairo, where the women teach each other ways to become pious and disciplined Muslims. Using this case, Mahmood problematizes the liberal feminist understanding of power, autonomy and self, which locates agency only “within those operations that resist the dominating and subjectivating modes of power”. She notes that this conceptualization “elides dimensions of human action whose ethical and political status does not map onto the logic of repression and resistance”.

To understand Mahmood’s argument, one should note that post-structural and critical social theory, including feminist theory, has long understood that (in Mahmood’s words) “all forms of desire are discursively organized” and the very construction of the self, its place in the world, and notions of what change is desirable and how to bring it about, are located in, and shaped by, specific histories, vocabularies, and moments in time. This has allowed critical social theorists, including anthropologists, to account for alterity – i.e. cosmologies and systems of meaning that do not fit neatly into the hegemonic Western/Enlightenment/Modern world-views. But this notion has also allowed theorists to understand how the project of modernity (and its various iterations) itself came to be, and how it continues to change. This conception of alterity is hardly limited to Islam or Muslim-ness. In fact, its most profound insights have come from studying indigenous systems of thought the world over, and using them to decenter the concepts of Rationality, Law, State, personhood and autonomy, among others.

“Marching Women,” a mural in Cairo dedicated to the women of the Egyptian Revolution. Image: Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen

“Marching Women,” a mural in Cairo dedicated to the women of the Egyptian Revolution. Image: Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen

Zia is not only patently oblivious of this intellectual and disciplinary history but also actively adverse to its theoretical and political contributions in the form of decoloniality, pluralism and difference. It is no wonder then that she not only finds any critique of liberalism and Enlightenment ideals preposterous, she also lays them all at the feet of what she condescendingly dismisses as “post 9/11 anthropology” or “Retro-Islam”.

It is in this very disciplinary vein, incomprehensible to Zia and her brand of philistine anti-intellectualism, that Mahmood notes how feminist (and I would add, queer) theory itself has challenged the notion of a rational, self-authorizing, autonomous, rights-bearing subject as the norm that is assumed by liberalism. Instead, it has made the case to recuperate the embodied, affective, and inter-subjective – ways of being that are excluded by a liberal world-view. It is therefore not a stretch to argue, as Mahmood does, “for separating the notion of self-realization from that of the autonomous will”. In other words, what agency in any particular space and time would mean, and what it would enact, can only “emerge through an analysis of the particular concepts that enable specific modes of being, responsibility and effectivity”, rather than be determined in advance. “In this sense”, Mahmood states, “the capacity for agency is entailed not only in acts that resist norms but also in the multiple ways in which one inhabits norms”.

Indeed, it sounds rather contrived to argue, in line with Zia, that human beings do not act for reasons other than personal autonomy, or notions of liberation, freedom and resistance to tradition. Or that throughout history, the human understanding of freedom has remained fixed and unchanged. Mahmood encourages us to go beyond the binary of submission/subversion in relation to norms, and instead think about the variety of ways in which norms are lived and inhabited, aspired to, reached for and consummated”. This is an important move for her because it helps us understand how specific moral-ethical frameworks construct particular kinds of subjects, whose politics cannot be understood without also paying attention to their embodied actions.

None of this subtlety of argument is presented, let alone convincingly argued against, in Zia’s book. Instead, Zia repeats a simplistic assumption ad nauseam: that the very act of studying Islamist movements, and making room for Islamist women’s “docile agency”, harms feminist politics and aims to render a secular-feminist subjectivity impossible. Mahmood’s invitation to understand the complex relationship between bodily practices and their interior meanings in order to devise better feminist strategies is entirely lost on Zia.

Zia then goes on to adopt a similarly dismissive attitude towards Humeira Iqtidar’s work, specifically Secularizing Islamists: Jama’at-e-Islami And Jama’at-ud-Da’wa In Urban Pakistan. Zia takes issue with Iqtidar’s argument, also based on ethnographic work, that Islamists belonging to these political organizations are facilitating secularization within Pakistan, even as they continue to oppose secularism. Refusing to actually engage with Iqtidar’s detailed analysis, and only noting in passing that this argument is based on Talal Asad’s definition of secularism as the management of religion by the state (and ignoring both the importance of this definition and the evidence for it), Zia nonetheless rubbishes the argument, on the rather absurd pretext that it is the “intent to dislodge secularism as universal that leads Iqtidar to invest hope in Islamist political parties such as the JI (and more interestingly, the Jama’at-ud-Da’wa) as harbingers of secularization”.

Orientalism 2.0

In fact, one of the most troubling aspects of Zia’s book is the way she understands the categories of the West, liberalism, universalism, secularism, (modern/colonial) law, state and human rights. She conceives of them uncritically and in binary opposition to Islam, Muslim-ness, backwardness, misogyny, and oppression. In a telling instance, she refers to any legislation passed on the basis of liberal, universal, secular and rights-based discourse as an automatic “common sense corrective” to Islam’s patriarchy, notwithstanding its content and effect. On another occasion, she cites the judgment in a case fought by lady health workers for minimum wage and recognition of their status as workers approvingly, not just because of the favorable outcome of the case, but because the Supreme Court delivered the judgment based on the “liberal, universalist rights” rather than any “Islamic provision or indeed, cultural specific code or ethos”.

Such examples are littered throughout the book. In fact, modern and colonial Law, secularism and the state are all posited as neutral, apolitical, objective, ahistorical and by default, on the side of women and equality – more than can be said about any law, norm, vocabulary or practice having anything to do with Islam/religiosity/faith or culture. This is particularly disconcerting when one considers the vast body of excellent scholarship questioning these binary models, which has shown how secularism and modern law themselves reify gender difference and gender inequality, and are neither neutral nor necessarily pro-women. Because Zia has no inkling of this, and because she begins and ends with the exceedingly problematic binary of Secular as Good versus Islam as Bad, she cannot but misread and misrepresent the arguments presented by Mahmood, Iqtidar and others.

How liberal-secular are liberal-secular movements in Pakistan?

Another object of Zia’s book is to provide a counter-narrative to post-secular scholarship by presenting examples of working-class movements that, according to her, are “free of ideological underpinnings, motivations, slogans and props, and which have not been informed by religious debates, take no recourse from faith and are often targets of Islamist conservatism and militancy”. She cites two examples. First, the Lady Health Workers initiative, a government-run program that employs women to travel door to door in low income neighborhoods and provide contraceptives, vaccinations and information about family planning and women’s health. Second, the women in the Okara Military Farms struggle, a movement for land rights by the tenants of Punjab’s military farms.

Zia is correct in noting that both of these are extremely important movements that deserve attention and detailed study. While a fair amount of scholarly and popular writing has appeared on the Okara movement, the politics of Lady Health Workers remains understudied. Zia does make some interesting observations about these movements: for example, she cites the politicization of lady health workers and their critique of government campaigns that end up shifting the credit of their work to male celebrities and religious scholars. She also notes the way in which peasant women in Okara gained more voice within their households vis-à-vis their male kin as an unintended consequence of their street action against state repression.

It is doubtful whether the majority of women in either of these movements would see themselves as Zia wants to see them: as liberal and secular feminists, existing completely outside the world of faith and cultural relationality. In any case, a detailed ethnographic study of these movements, one that flushed out their day-to-day negotiations with various forms of power and their own evolving status and role, would have been a very welcome and useful read. Unfortunately, Zia’s hostility to the ethnographic method means she devotes a meagre five or six pages in her book to analyzing these movements. With most of her analysis based on secondary sources and lacking empirical depth, she fails to account for anything in the women’s lives that might motivate their politics. Her objective of using working class women’s movements to counter the arguments of Mahmood and others is therefore never actualized.

Women were at the forefront of tenant protests against evictions and the rearrangement of tenancy agreements on Okara’s Military Farms. Image:    Sister-hood

Women were at the forefront of tenant protests against evictions and the rearrangement of tenancy agreements on Okara’s Military Farms. Image: Sister-hood

Towards responsible scholarship

In one of her interviews regarding this book, Afiya Zia states that “feminism requires more responsibility from scholarship”. This could not be truer. To engage in a radical feminist politics invested in large-scale social change requires us to begin with understanding the ways in which different groups and communities of women understand their own reality, and what it is that they are trying to achieve in the world. This requires producing, engaging with, and even critically interrogating just the kind of scholarship that Zia is hellbent on dismissing as unnecessary and dangerous. While there are many justifiable critiques to be made of Mahmood’s work, including her over-reliance on a coherent and unruptured conceptualization of “Islamic tradition”, Zia, in her fixation on taking down an intellectual giant simply because she unsettles her absolutist view of the world, is not equal to the task.

And while it is no secret that Zia has made a career out of ad hominem attacks on scholars twice her intellectual weight, a trend she continues in this book, the uncritical reception, and even celebration, of this work in many universities and left-wing circles in Pakistan is deeply concerning. It is sincerely hoped though that the next generation of feminist activists and scholars – many of whom are already doing exciting, groundbreaking work – will commit to practicing responsible scholarship by further exploring the threads and directions opened up by the likes of Mahmood, producing their own rigorous ethnographic studies, and using these insights to build more inclusive and robust models of feminist engagement throughout Pakistan, and beyond.


Sonia Qadir is pursuing a doctorate in Law at the University of New South Wales, Australia. She is one of the founding members of the Pakistani leftist feminist group The Feminist Collective.