The Poverty of Piety: A Response to Sonia Qadir

In support of Afiya Zia’s secular feminism

Lahore, February 13th 1983: An iconic photo of women burning their dupattas during protests against General Zia’s Islamization programs. Photo: Rahat Ali Dar

Lahore, February 13th 1983: An iconic photo of women burning their dupattas during protests against General Zia’s Islamization programs. Photo: Rahat Ali Dar

This piece is a response to Sonia Qadir’s review, which appeared earlier in Jamhoor.


Sonia Qadir’s review of Afiya Zia’s book, Faith and Feminism in Pakistan: Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy?, requires a response. While Qadir accuses Zia of failing to engage correctly with scholarship on Muslim women’s agency, Qadir herself does the same vis-à-vis Zia. She does not accurately present or engage with Zia’s arguments. The nature of Qadir’s critique exemplifies a challenge faced by liberal or secular feminists in the Muslim world. On the one hand, post-colonial and post-structuralist academics accuse liberal-secular feminists of being orientalists and enlightenment prodigies. On the other, the right calls them “western stooges” and “allies of imperialism”. The way in which Qadir treats Zia’s argument aptly portrays the first challenge. But both these challenges put secular feminists in a defensive position, one that Zia, understandably so, adopts in her book.

Qadir criticizes Zia’s arguments on the following grounds: Zia criticizes work on Muslim women’s agency without understanding this scholarship. She thinks that Zia fails to grasp the nuanced delineation of agency in this scholarship. Zia, by taking a liberal and secular standpoint, “re-orientalizes” feminism. Further, Qadir argues that Zia’s way of seeing the world in binaries is obsolete. She also notes Zia’s disdain with post-structuralism, which is manifest in Zia’s partiality for the material and the concrete. Qadir also thinks that Zia’s overall arguments are backed by insufficient empirical evidence. However, her most absurd charge is that Zia displays exceptional audacity by challenging “established” academics like Saba Mahmood.

First of all, Qadir, to her credit, does adequately present the arguments of academics like Mahmood. This was needed because Zia herself, though taking aim at the work of Mahmood and others, does not detail their arguments. However, this shortcoming of Zia’s book does not undermine her arguments. Qadir has not detailed Zia’s central argument and in her refusal to engage with it, she misses an important gap in the scholarship on Muslim women (or women living in Muslim countries) that Zia bridges. The main premise of Zia’s critique is that women’s movements must be judged in terms of their larger material and political gains for women (and gender and sexual minorities). Zia criticizes scholarship on Islamist women’s agency precisely for its failure to link these women’s agency to larger material and political gains. What Zia warns against is of losing sight of the aim of feminist practice and theorizing, which is to achieve full humanity for women, and gender and sexual minorities.

A view of Muslim women who experience empowerment through Islamic practices is a limited one, just as the view that presents them as “docile” is.

Furthermore, Zia highlights that Muslim women, and those living in Muslim countries, experience oppression from multiple sources. She notes that while scholarship on Muslim women’s agency counters the orientalist attacks on the “docile Muslim woman” and gives them voice and recognition, it fails to engage with the reality that Muslim women resist not only the Orientalizing West but also local patriarchies. These local patriarchies limit women’s choices, commit violence and justify and perpetuate violence against women. For the women living under these structures, these local patriarchies are more immediate, more binding and more harmful than the Western discourse that “otherizes” Muslim women. Zia shows that women in Muslim contexts practically challenge these patriarchies and she emphasizes that these local patriarchies need to be challenged academically as well. A view of Muslim women who experience empowerment through Islamic practices is a limited one, just as the view that presents them as “docile” is. There are women in Muslim contexts who recognize the violence and hypocrisy of the West, including that of the Western academia, but who also challenge the anti-women ideologies and practices of their local cultures, traditions and religions.

Zia lends voice to secular women in Muslim contexts, who are often demonized by the religious-right in their respective countries. Vilified by the right, these women are ignored by the self-styled “progressive” and post-colonial scholars working on women in Muslim contexts. Qadir at one point accuses Zia of failing to recognize “alterity” in Muslim contexts. But the “post-seculars”, as Zia labels them, themselves fail to recognize this “alterity” when they assume that in Muslim contexts, “Muslimness” is the only way of being and doing. Other ways of being and doing – that could be liberal or secular – are deemed inauthentic and borrowed. Zia defends those professing secular ideas in Muslim contexts against such claims. By treating women in Muslim majority contexts who do not adhere to Islamic ideals as “Westernized” and as blindly towing the Western line, “post-seculars” (and we can include Qadir in their ranks) deny women the agentive status granted to “pietist” women. It is this agency, absent in “post-secular” scholarship, that Zia brings to the forefront.

Qadir insinuates that Zia treats women’s pietist agency as an “invalid-way of being-in-the-world”. But Zia does not make such a claim. She only notes that such forms of agency do not radically challenge gender relations in the way that agency (sometimes religious, often secular) explicitly directed against patriarchy does. Zia makes a valid point that, by stretching the limits of agency to the inclusion of “willing compliance”, the lines between false consciousness and agency is blurred. 

Further, Zia calls out the “agentive” Muslim women for their adherence to anti-women ideas and practices. She states that “those scholars who endorse Islamists’ agency and seek to redefine their complexities…seem not to hold Islamist women accountable by any measurement or criteria”. Zia goes on to say that:

when Islamist women actively pursue patriarchal, conservative, censorious and anti-women, anti-minority policies then their agency should be examined for its effects and impact at the same time, rather than simply romanticized as different and non-westernized.

It should be stressed here that patriarchal values and ideologies are practiced, professed and proliferated, not only by men, but also by women. And if these women are recognized as agents, then they can be (and must be) reproached for their actions. Zia rightly points out that by engaging in pietist practices that are based on ideologies that treat women as inferior and unequal, women themselves harm the women’s cause. She notes that “this may be seen in Islamists’ resistance to legislation against domestic violence and marital rape, the backlash to the Women’s Protection Act, their refusal to amend the Qisasand Diyat laws and campaigns to impose an Islamic dress code”. And I would add: academics like Mahmood who romanticize the agency of Islamist women are equally culpable. 

At one point, Qadir praises post-structural and critical social theory’s contribution to recognizing “alterity” and to countering colonial, racist and imperialist discourses. Her praise is justified. However, recognizing alterity does not mean that forms of violence embedded in these alterities should not be questioned by those living under and experiencing such violence. Zia has engaged in such questioning. Furthermore, post-structuralist emphasis on discourse and language as instrumental in sustaining structures of oppression does not mean that the material foundations of these structures do not exist or do not matter. Isn’t the ultimate aim of delineating and deconstructing language and discourse to bring down the material structures of oppression? Qadir herself says that “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.” But the theorizing on Muslim women that Zia criticizes loses sight of this larger aim. Post-structural constructions of alterity as merely an academic exercise can be justifiably criticized as any other academic activity. What Zia has dismissed as theorizing without regard for its potential for larger social change is taken by Qadir as lack of understanding on her part. 

The way “human rights” narratives are abused to legitimize US imperialism is one thing. The way oppressed people appeal to universal human rights in their struggle for liberation is another. These two have to be understood and assessed separately. Women in Muslim contexts who invoke a human rights discourse to demand full humanity should not be accused of “re-orientalizing” feminism. Qadir’s observation that Zia treats the secular, liberal and modern uncritically is misguided when judged from the criteria that Zia sets in her work – that is, to assess a movement’s impact in terms of tangible economic or political gains. Zia points out that most economic and political gains Pakistani women have accrued has to do, in part, by insisting that women’s rights are part of fundamental and universal human rights. What economic and political gains have women achieved by engaging in Islamist movements and pietist practices? 

What economic and political gains have women achieved by engaging in Islamist movements and pietist practices?

One last comment. Qadir’s implication that Zia is somehow ineligible to “attack” academics twice her intellectual weight is absurd. The “intellectual weights” ascribed to academics are neither apolitical nor without contexts. Hierarchies exist in the academia and these are a reflection of the hierarchies that exist outside the academic world. However, hierarchies within must be left more open to subversion and dismantling. A place high up on this ladder cannot be used as an argument against any criticism. 

Since Qadir herself highlights many of the gaps in Zia’s work, I didn’t do that myself. Instead, I emphasized Zia’s vital contribution to scholarship on Muslim women’s agency. However, gaps in her book there certainly are, including the need for more in-depth empirical evidence to substantiate her claims.


Sundus Saleemi is a feminist economist working at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE). She is pursuing a PhD at the University of Bonn, Germany.