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the other sisterhood Arrow vol 5 no 2 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 2, 2006


Among the Other Sisterhood: reflections on encounters with
the women's wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami (Pakistan)

Shakira Hussein
Australian National University


1. This paper reflects upon research encounters between the author and members of the women's wing of the Pakistani Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) [1]. As one of the two major religious parties, and through its close collaboration with the Pakistani military, the JI bears considerable responsibility for the disastrous erosion of women's rights - particularly legal rights - over the past quarter century. The women's wing strongly supports this patriarchal ideology. As a Muslim feminist, I approached the JI women with some trepidation, and was therefore taken aback to be at times reluctantly charmed by my interviewees. In this paper, I explore the paradoxical politics of female commitment to a patriarchal ideology, but I also reflect on the dynamics of primary research across an ideological divide, and on the implications for both parenting and research of combining the two.

2. Many Pakistanis, especially those who live or have lived in the West, grow weary of sensationalist media coverage of the "plight" of Pakistani women. This weariness can manifest as a reflex cynicism at the mere mention of the "women issue". "I suppose you're going to write about how oppressed they all are, how terrible it all is?" my uncle said knowingly, when I told him about my fieldwork with Pakistani women. Pakistanis like my uncle correctly point out that the vast majority of the country'swomen are not victims of honour killings, or languishing in jail for adultery. "What about all the Pakistani women doctors, lawyers, and professors, not to mention (former Prime Minister) Benazir Bhutto?" they retort. Lower class women are generally omitted from this litany of female achievement, but they are not mere passive victims of patriarchal abuse, either. My uncle's mother (my grandmother) was a village-raised woman with very limited literacy, but she was a formidable woman possessed of sharp intelligence and a wicked sense of humour. Only the brave or the foolish would have picked a fight with her.

3. Yet the privileged status of some Pakistani women and the immense resilience of many others does not alter the fact that large numbers of women and girls have suffered violence, imprisonment, and death as a result of the Islamisation of Pakistan's political, social, and legal cultures. The origins of these processes do not lie only within Pakistan, or within "Islam". Global politics, including United States' foreign policy, has played a crucial role. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a critical moment for Pakistani as well as Afghan women. American aid to the Afghan mujahadeen was channelled through the Pakistani Interservices Intelligence Agency (ISI), who in turn worked closely with Pakistan's religious parties in arming favoured elements within the Afghan resistance. The American-sponsored counterinsurgency therefore strengthened the standing of religious extremists in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, at the expense of many women (and of course, many men). In the logic of cold war strategists, the fates of "third world" societies were held to be of little consequence in comparison to the larger goal of draining the power of the Soviet Union. In the words of Zgbigniew Brzezinski: "What was more important in the world view of history?...A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?" (Ali 2001) .

4. In Pakistan, with the encouragement of those "stirred-up Muslims", Zia ul Haq's military dictatorship passed the infamous Hudood Ordinances, under which thousands of Pakistani women, including rape victims, have been imprisoned for zina (fornication). Neither the civilian governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, nor the military led government of the "enlightened moderate" Musharraf has possessed the political will to overturn the Ordinances [2]. In 2003, up to eighty eight percent of the women in Pakistan's jails were estimated as being held under the Hudood Ordinances (National Commission on the Status of Women 2003). The majority are eventually found not guilty, but by the time this verdict is reached, they may have been imprisoned for years.

5. However, the major focus of my research was not women who were "oppressed" in any conventional understanding of the word. Rather, I studied the women's wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami, one of the main religious parties, where women play an active role in defending the Hudood Ordinances and reinforcing the values that underlie them. These women are not "subaltern", despite the social marginalisation of their gender. They occupy a subordinate position in one of the most patriarchal organisations in a highly patriarchal society, but their active adherence to patriarchal ideology is nothing so innocent as false consciousness, nor so cynical as outright personal opportunism. They live in the "Third World", "the South", but they are members of its ruling elite - a couple of my interviewees are members of parliament. Much of the literature concerning transcultural or transnational research analyses issues arising from the imbalance between the researcher's position of privilege and the social and political deprivation of the researched [3]. I had to negotiate this terrain myself when interviewing Afghan and Pakistani women who had suffered various forms of deprivation and violence, but the issues that arose in my relationship with the JI women were quite different. In class and economic terms, my JI interviewees easily outranked me, and while I belong to a religious and ethnic "out-group" in Australia, they belong to the social mainstream of Pakistan. I believe that I have a more fulfilling life than any that is readily available to them - a greater range of opportunities, a much higher level of personal autonomy. But they forcefully deny having any desire for such opportunities. If there was an asymmetry between us other than that between describer and describee, it was not perceived by them.

6. There is a substantial literature on Islamist women's movements, most of it focusing on the Middle East (Zuhur 1992; Badran 2001; Cooke 2001; Moghadam 2002). This literature describes how involvement in Islamist politics can be a source of personal empowerment for some women. Working for such an organisation provides a "respectable" reason for public mobility and public (veiled) visibility, a path for voluntary or paid employment, even an avenue for meeting potential marriage partners (Zuhur 1992) Although Islamism is not a homogenous movement this literature provided valuable insights into Pakistani female Islamists. However, while it is often quite self-reflexive, it has not generated such a wealth of material focusing on the dynamic between the researcher and the researched as has the literature on subaltern women.

7. Literature about "subaltern" women provides valuable insights into the ethical dilemnas generated by the differences, especially the power differential, between researcher and researched (Spivak 1988; Lazreg 1988; Mohanty 1984; Khan 2005) . In researching the women's wing of the JI, the power differential was much less pronounced and the primary differential was ideological. However, the ideological differential generated its own ethical dilemmas - issues of complicity and resistance, of boundary-fixing rather than boundary crossing. In exploring these dilemmas, the self-reflexive ethos of the aforementioned writers provided a much-needed point of entry.

The Jamaat-i-Islami and female identity

8. As one of Pakistan's two main religious parties, with a close working relationship with the military, the Jammat-i -Islami bears a high degree of responsibility for the acute social and particularly legal vulnerability suffered by Pakistani women. The JI was founded in 1941 by the prominent Islamist thinker, Maulana Maududi. After partition, Maududi and the JI saw the Islamisation of Pakistan, via the implementation of sharia , as a primary objective. The party has not until recently performed strongly in Pakistan's occasional elections, instead deriving its influence from its symbiotic relationship with the military. However, in the 2002 elections, the JI and other religious parties were able to captialise both on a wave of post 9/11 anti-Americanism and on Musharraf's systematic marginalisation of other political forces. The Mutahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), an alliance of religious parties in which the JI is one of the two major forces, gained a quarter of the seats in the National Assembly, and was able to form government in the North West Frontier Province.

9. Yet although it is a male-dominated organisation with a highly patriarchal ideology, the JI also has a very active women's wing - by some accounts the most active women's wing of any Pakistani political party (Hussain 2003) - first formed in 1948, and which plays an important performative function. Besides their educational and welfare programmes, the JI women (hair and faces veiled) hold regular street demonstrations over a range of social, economic, and foreign policy issues, but perhaps most importantly in opposition to any attempt to repeal or reform the Hudood Ordinances. They claim to speak for "ordinary" Pakistani women, who - unlike the "elite", "Westernised" Pakistani feminists - regard the Ordinances as protective and not oppressive. In the view of the JI, the real threat to Pakistani women comes not from the Hudood Ordinances, but from threatened corruption by "Western values" - especially sexual values - which would destroy the sanctity of Pakistani families.

10. The identity of JI women is constructed in direct opposition to a rather lurid representation of the kind of woman I am. I am Muslim, feminist, secular, a single mother. I was born and raised in "the West"; my mother is an Australian Catholic of Scottish descent. Pakistan is the country of my paternal ancestry, but my relationship with my father is extremely remote. I have a university major in Urdu, but it is not my mother tongue (nor, for that matter, the mother tongue of my Pakistani relatives, who speak Panjabi as their first language). I am not, then, a "native informant" (a problematic identity in itself), although I must actively resist being conscripted into the role and am familiar with its various ambivalences. I can identify with Shahnaz Khan when she writes "My colleagues in Canada expect me to do research on Pakistani or other third-world women. In Pakistan, however, I am considered not Pakistani enough" (Khan 2005) . I am and always will be an "insider/outsider" in Pakistan. In recent years I have visited the country more often than most of my Western-resident relatives who were born and raised there, perhaps partly because I do not have any firsthand memory associating Pakistan with the hardship that, after all, drove my family to leave in the first place. In Pakistan I feel fulfilled, even when circumstances are difficult; but I always have the safety of my Australian passport. At times, people share confidences preceded by remarks like "I can say this to you because you are basically Pakistani." At other times my opinions are dismissed as those of a naïve or arrogant "Westerner". In short, despite my deep sense of connection with Pakistan, I can very easily be represented as the type of deluded, dangerous, "Westernised" woman so often demonised by the JI.

11. Given this background, I anticipated that my interaction with the women of the Jamaat-i-Islami would be frosty, at best. I did not imagine that there would be any problem in establishing a clear boundary between interviewer and interviewee; indeed I was far from sure that they would agree to meet with me at all. I expected to find them difficult, unfriendly (to someone of my ideological persuasion) and unlikeable. I was surprised when some (by no means all) advocates of women's rights, who were highly critical of the JI in general, gave qualified praise to members of the women's wing, saying that they were smart, hard-working, and much more reasonable to deal with than their male counterparts. In particular, following the 2002 elections, they contrasted the JI women with the women's wing of the other major party of the MMA, the Jamaat-i-Islami-i-Ulama (JUI). Female members of both the JI and the JUI entered the national parliament under newly introduced gender quotas (despite their parties' opposition to such quotas). Women's activists familiar with both parties claimed that while the JI female parliamentarians were experienced political activists who possessed a strong familiarity with women's issues (albeit from a highly patriarchal perspective), the JUI had not had a women's wing prior to 2004, and in order to fill its quota had drafted in the female relatives of its senior members, women lacking in political experience and ability [4]. The JI women's welfare programmes, run through affiliated organisations such as Women's Aid Trust and Al Khidmat, also received some qualified favourable mention. (To other feminist activists, however, the JI women are "hypocrites", preaching the virtue of subservience to other women while leading active and rewarding lives themselves).

12. My first personal encounter with the JI women's wing was in 2000, at a forum sponsored by them to which women members of all the major Pakistani political parties were invited. I was told about the forum by the non-religious women's NGO, the Aurat foundation. One of the Aurat foundation's objectives is to increase female participation in politics, through training and outreach schemes. Through this programme, they have dealings with women of a whole range of political affiliations, including the JI. This has led to some paradoxical situations, with women JI members attending Aurat Foundation sponsored events even as other aspects of the foundation's work (most notably a women's shelter in Peshawar) came under the most ferocious of attacks from male JI politicians.

13. The forum was held at Mansoora, the JI "village" outside Lahore. Mansoora is the "model" JI township, with schools, mosques, medical facilities, visitors' accommodation and residential housing for party members and their families. Once you get past the security at the entrance (never in my experience a straightforward exercise) it is a quiet, pleasant environment. I had been told the incorrect time for the forum, and arrived two hours early. I was also hot, tired, and physically debilitated. Seeing this, the woman who greeted me waved aside explanations and introductions, instead taking me through to a cool, dim room, where she laid me down to rest on a charpoy and brought a jug of cold water. At that moment, I could have desired nothing more.

14. I awoke just in time to attend the forum. The most senior JI woman present swept regally towards me, bestowing a beatific smile. "I am Raheel Qazi," she announced, and embraced me. Her status was clear by her manner, despite her plain though smart clothes and the fact that she lacked most of the gold jewellery commonly worn by those Pakistani women who can afford it. The JI frowns on ostentatious ornamentation, and in fact Qazi did not need it to establish her rank. Her father, Qazi Hussein, is the party's amir (leader), and she herself holds a senior position in the women's wing (at that time, head of the international relations and political department). Her name (if not her face, which is always covered in publicly circulated photographs) is well known. She had "just returned from the Beijing plus five conference". I choked, remembering the radical feminists I knew who had attended the same event. Envy, too, played a part in my reaction: I would love to have attended the Beijing plus five conference. And I could not stifle the sense that I had the stronger entitlement. I was the "real" feminist, I should have been at Beijing plus five - me, not this defender of patriarchy.

15. I chatted informally for a while with other JI women, all of them educated professionals. They were likeable and articulate - in my notes, I wrote "need to remind self that charm is not a measure of political morality". But the charm worked - my preconceptions of them as devoid of personality, humour, and intelligence - a breed of Islamist Stepford Wives - fell away fast. I was not persuaded by their ideology, but I did find myself enjoying their company. I had a stimulating conversation about the importance of female education with the principal of the Mansoora girl's school, not unlike a conversation that I might have had with a colleague in Australia. I was reminded of where I was by another woman, who denounced the tactics of secular women's organisations - one improved the lives of women through education (especially education in Islamic studies) not through "holding demonstrations and getting into fights". Presumably she was objecting to the ideology of the demonstrations, rather than the mere act of demonstrating. The JI women's wing has held public demonstrations on issues including the French ban on headscarves in state schools, the US military intervention in Afghanistan, the murder of MMA activists in Karachi, "vulgarity being spread through the media, under the aegis of the government", the Indian occupation of Kashmir, the alleged desecration of the Holy Qur'an by US guards in Guantanamo Bay, the publication of the infamous "Danish cartoons", and in support of the Hudood Ordinances.

16. The forum commenced; Qazi was the main speaker. She had invited everybody there, she said, because Pakistan faced a challenge to its very survival. In the face of such a threat, it was necessary for women of all political parties to come together for the good of the nation. Globalisation threatened Islam, Muslims had to unite to reject Western cultural and media invasion. At one stage a group of male photographers was admitted to take pictures. Qazi and the other JI women pinned their niqabs across their faces; I automatically reached for my dupatta to cover my hair, but seeing other non-JI women pointedly leaving their hair as well as their faces uncovered, I let it drop. Qazi's charisma beamed straight through her niqab.

17. After everyone else had departed, I interviewed Qazi at length. It was not at all the confrontational experience that I had anticipated. For one thing, I felt disarmed by the simple act of hospitality on my arrival, the provision of rest and refreshment. Rather than launching into a brisk, no holds barred interview about women's rights, we spent several minutes with Qazi asking sympathetically after my health, and my thanking her for the thoughtfulness I had earlier been shown. The cordial tone established in this initial exchange remained even after we moved on to more contentious issues.

18. Qazi contrasted the JI women's wing with the "elitist" secular women's rights groups, who had been fighting for years to have the Hudood Ordinances overturned. In her view, such women were only interested in blackening Pakistan's name, not in truly working for the uplift of women. They had adopted a "Western" concept of women's rights, which was hostile to Islam and which failed to acknowledge that Muslim women had been granted all the rights they needed from the very earliest days of the religion. The Hudood Ordinances could not be overturned because they were not man-made laws - they were the law of Islam and accepted as such by the vast majority of Pakistani women. She (Qazi) and her colleagues in the JI were far more representative of ordinary Pakistani women than were the women of the secular women's rights groups, who were running a foreign agenda funded by foreign money.

19. Much of what Qazi had to say was predictable enough, but she expressed it fluently and clearly, and remained in control of the conversation at all times. When I questioned or disputed her statements, she did not argue, but "corrected" me, in a helpful, kindly tone.

20. She was able to concede (or rather, appear to concede) a certain amount of ground without deviating from the party line. Yes, there were innocent women languishing in Pakistani jails, charged with zina, although the numbers were not as high as "certain groups" claimed. However, the problem lay not in the law itself, but in its implementation. She cited the fact that neither marriages nor divorces are commonly registered in rural areas of Pakistan, so that a woman may believe herself to be legally divorced and remarried, only to have her first husband claim that she is still married to him, and so guilty of zina with her second husband. She also noted the problem of police corruption, which allowed those engaged in personal feuds to have their enemies charged with crimes, including crimes under the Hudood Ordinances. These were problems that could be solved without reform or repeal of the Ordinances themselves, simply by improving the processes by which they were implemented. And, she correctly noted, some of these problems (such as corruption and the glacial slowness of the legal system) were not specific to the Ordinances, but applied to the implementation of Pakistani law as a whole [5].

21. She was on more certain ground when she denounced the oppression of Pakistani women by non-Islamic cultural practices, such as honour killing. Hundreds of Pakistani women die every year in such killings, murdered by their families in order to regain the honour destroyed when women allegedly [6] engage in adultery, marry outside of their community or without parental consent, or fall victim to rape. Honour killing, Qazi declared, was "completely unIslamic" and should be eliminated (although again, she referred to the exploitation of the honour killing issue by those hostile to Pakistan and Islam). Her denunciation was so passionate, and so apparently unqualified, that it was only later that I realised I had not questioned her on perhaps the most central legal issue concerning honour killing: the Qisas (retribution) and Diyat (blood money) Ordinance. Under this ordinance, the family of a murder victim may choose to waive the penalty for the crime, with or without the payment of blood money. This has obvious repercussions in the case of honour killings, where the murderer belongs to the same family as the victim, effectively allowing men to kill their female relatives with impunity. The JI is opposed to attempts to abolish the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance, which it claims is derived from Qur'anic injunctions and so beyond the reach of human decision making [7]. My failure to quiz Qazi on this point had no substantial impact on my research. Her opinion (which was in line with that of her party) was on the public record. I was nonetheless mortified by the oversight; Qazi, I reflected ruefully, must have thought me a pushover. We parted on friendly terms, Qazi bestowing another beatific smile and two beautifully gift-wrapped volumes of essays by Maududi - as I was to discover, the standard JI gift for visitors.

22. Qazi's own life bears many resemblances to that of many professional middle class women in the West. She has a postgraduate education (a Masters in Islamic Studies), and a career which she clearly finds rewarding and in which she is respected. She has travelled widely and met various luminaries in her field, such as the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Ladies Union Zaynab al Ghazali, who survived imprisonment and torture and was until her death in 2005 perhaps the most famous woman Islamist. In 2002, Qazi became a member of the National Assembly, which requires her to spend a significant amount of time in Islamabad. In a later interview, I asked her who looked after her children (a primary school aged daughter and a teenage son) while she was away (she is a widow). She said that they were well cared for by her family. Various relatives lived in Mansoora, and anyway "the whole of Mansoora is a family". There was never any shortage of people to help out.

23. Although she did not mention paid domestic help, and in her home we were waited upon by her own young daughter, it would be very unusual for a Pakistani household of such status not to have servants, whether or not the mother worked outside the home. I was faintly aware of background household noise as we spoke, the presence (I assume) of servants cooking and cleaning. As so often in middle and upper class Pakistani households, my awareness was not so much of the servants themselves, but of my host's utter obliviousness to them. I recalled a line from a Nadine Gordimer novel: "the presence somewhere of servants that is like the sound of her own heart to any white brought up in Africa" - or to any member of the subcontinent's middle class (Gordimer 1987) . The fact that Qazi did not think to mention the role of the servants in enabling her own career was symptomatic of class attitudes in Pakistan (and not only Pakistan) and hardly surprising, but was telling nonetheless.

24. Although I know nothing of Qazi's family life beyond the basic details, I have no reason to doubt her belief that her demanding political career has not been at the expense of her care for her children. After all, I too leave my daughter with family for lengthy periods of time while I travel for work or study; I too rely on paid child-care workers to enable me to pursue my own career. But the JI literature's frequent emphasis on the belief that women's first responsibility is to her home and her family is generally seen as implying disapproval of employment outside the home except when economically necessary, or when there are no competing maternal responsibilities. Certainly, Qazi and other JI women cited Western women's pursuit of career before family as contributing to the decline of Western morals.

25. Qazi's exceptionalist attitude to her career reflects that of Zaynab al-Ghazali. Al Ghazali's first marriage broke up under the pressure of her political career. On the eve of her second marriage, she informed her future husband that she had taken an oath of loyalty to Hassan al Banna (leader of the Muslim Brotherhood) and had dedicated her life to jihad. If her husband wished to marry her, he had to accept the demands of this jihad: "And if ever the welfare of the marriage conflicts with God's da'wa, then the marriage shall end and the da'wa shall become my whole being" (Hoffman 1985) .

26. Al Ghazali's readiness to place her role as an Islamist leader ahead of her marriage (she had no children) has been cited as evidence of her "Islamic feminist" credentials (Hoffman 1985; Cooke 2001) . Yet al-Ghazali advice to other women is to "Stay in your home and obey your husband. You will be rewarded for your obedience to your Prophet and to him" (Karam 2002) .

27. There is a similar lack of consistency between the words and actions of the leaders of the JI women's wing. On the one hand, the participation of Qazi and other JI women in public life transgresses the char diwari, if not the chador , of the chador aur char diwari (the chador and the four walls [of the house]) slogan of the Zia years that was supposed to circumscribe the boundaries of a woman's life. But on the other hand, this transgression is clearly marked as exceptional, arising out of the need to serve a just cause - in fact, the only cause worth fighting for. Personal fulfilment or ambition, or commitment to a non-religiously framed cause such as "social justice", are not similarly privileged motivations. Economic necessity (the reality for most Pakistani women in the paid workforce) is accepted as a legitimate motivation, but generally with the qualification that in the "Islamic society" promoted by the JI, such necessity would not exist and women would be provided for by male breadwinners. While in her interviews with me, Qazi characterised her parliamentary career in very positive terms, her public pronouncements cast it as a regrettable necessity forced on her by the introduction of gender quotas: "[t]he party requires women to sit in the assembly for numbers. Otherwise, we are only here to create human beings, not governments" (Shehzad 2002).

28. Muslim women wearing hijab in Western countries often complain that their decision to cover (in the West, this almost always means covering the hair alone, not the face) leads to their being judged as backward, dim-witted peasants. I had assumed that such stereotypes were not widespread in Pakistan and so was surprised to hear similar complaints from the JI women. Their assertion that their membership of an Islamist party and their more conservative forms of covering (concealing the face when in mixed company) led others to underestimate their intelligence and education was not without foundation. For example, when I tried to contact Shaheena Wahid (an architect and member of a JI affiliated women's legal aid programme), the proprietor of my guesthouse refused to let me use the phone myself, instead rather officiously insisting on making the call for me. Knowing that Wahid was affiliated with the JI, he began the call by asking her - rather patronizingly and in Urdu - whether she spoke English. When I eventually met her in person, she was still steaming with fury at the insult. "But it happens all the time. Because of how I dress and what I believe, people think I'm stupid, that I don't speak English, that I have no education." It was a chastening experience for me, too. After all, the guesthouse proprietor had patronized me as well as her. However, while my interviewee, a member of a highly patriarchal organization, had put the offending male quickly and effectively in his place, I as the supposedly independent feminist had allowed myself to be bullied into surrendering control of my own work arrangements.

29. Shaheena Wahid's adherence to the party line is slightly more complicated than is Qazi's. She works for the Women Aid Trust, a JI affiliated welfare organisation that provides legal aid and other welfare services to women, including some of those charged under the Hudood Ordinances. Initially, she described the importance of this work by talking about the large numbers of women who were falsely accused. I asked whether she believed that a woman should be imprisoned for adultery if there was no doubt as to her "guilt". She replied that she believed that women should be only be punished for committing adultery if they lived in a "true" Islamic society, which contemporary Pakistan is not. The shortfalls she identified concerned the lack of sexual "decency" in the media and in public discourse. However, when I reframed her argument by suggesting that women in Pakistan often did not enjoy sufficient personal autonomy to deny or consent to sex in any meaningful sense, she agreed, and elaborated on the point at some length. Even Raheel Qazi, in a 2004 interview, said that there was no reason why women should be punished with imprisonment for adultery or other crime - "there is nothing in the Qur'an about this." (This of course leaves open the possibility of punishment through flogging, or stoning to death.) Later that year, the women's wing put forward a proposal (which appears to have fallen from view) to allow women to serve home detention rather than prison sentences. I can only speculate as to the discussions and processes leading to this proposal, but it seems plausible that it may have arisen from the fact that through their welfare programmes, JI women activists have had firsthand dealings with women incarcerated under the Ordinances so stridently defended by their own party. After hearing Shaheena Wahid and one or two others fall somewhat short of a wholehearted endorsement of party policy towards the Ordinances, it seemed possible that for some JI women, the home detention proposal may represent an attempt to reconcile their commitment to party ideology with their firsthand experience of its effects. But again, this is only speculation.

30. Such speculation, of course, illustrates an inclination on my part to search for chinks in the JI women's ideological armour and to understand the ways by which intelligent and apparently well-intentioned women could participate in a political movement that had proved destructive to so many. They were well aware of this destruction; yet they refused to acknowledge the connection between their party's policies and the suffering it caused.

31. One obvious explanation, of course, is personal opportunism. Participation in JI politics provides women with the social sanction to work, to travel, to participate in public life - privileges that are difficult for many Pakistani women (even middle class women) to attain. This is particularly the case since most JI women are the daughters and wives of JI members. For them, participating in public life in any other capacity would mean breaking with their families. They may have claimed to be motivated by religious ideology rather than the desire for personal fulfilment, but they always described their work as very satisfying. Yet their belief in themselves as altruistic was too powerful to be easily dismissed as mere window-dressing.

32. Their welfare programmes are very important to their claim that their involvement in the JI is beneficial to Pakistani women. The JI women's wing runs a range of programmes which mirror those run by "secular" NGOs - education programmes, a legal aid service, a women's shelter home, and during the recent earthquake relief effort, food distribution work and a trauma centre. These programmes are good publicity for the party, of course, but the women who run them also seem genuinely committed to their work. All the programmes are run according to "Islamic" principles. For example, the women's shelter in Peshawar was set up in the wake of a political tussle for control of "Mera Ghar", a shelter run by the Aurat Foundation. Having failed to impose its own ideology onto Mera Ghar, the JI established its own shelter. Mera Ghar, the JI women alleged, was a Western-influenced scheme to break up Pakistani families by encouraging women to divorce their husbands and/or defy their fathers. In contrast, their shelter attempted to "avoid the broken home" by encouraging violent men to mend their ways and absconding women to return to their families except in the most extreme and hopeless of cases [8].

33. On this and other issues, my JI interviewees regarded the abuse suffered by some women as the lesser of two evils. Domestic violence, unjust imprisonment under the Hudood Ordinances and honour killings, were all regarded as regrettable but discrete events, primarily affecting only those directly involved, however tragically. By contrast, family breakdown, sexual misconduct, and the encroachment of "Western" values were seen as threats to the entire social fabric and therefore a danger to all Pakistanis and Muslims. Because they saw each individual story of women's suffering as a separate event, rather than as symptomatic of a broader issue, they were able to apply bandaids to the wounds of a few women through their welfare programme without apparently considering their own implication in causing the wound in the first place. Returning over and over again to the question of how women could participate in such a destructive patriarchal movement, I theorized that part of the answer might lie in their focus of individual "good deeds" performed through their welfare programmes - deeds which were not examined in their wider context.

34. Such lines of inquiry seemed unnecessary and over-elaborate to many colleagues in both Australia and Pakistan. To them, the JI women were stupid, or brainwashed, or just malevolent - it didn't much matter which. They were incredulous, and in some cases disapproving, when I told them that my encounters with the JI were not overtly hostile. I began to feel that I had been consorting with the enemy, and to wonder whether the lack of friction indicated some ideological or intellectual lack on my part.

35. Why, then, were my dealings with the JI women so amiable? For one thing, they were easy to deal with - punctual, which is rare in Pakistan, and reliable. They tried hard to accommodate my schedule, and they were generous with their time. They made small gestures of thoughtfulness - contributions to my ever-growing collection of the works of Maududi, of course, but also lifts back to my hotel, fruit and snacks to eat on my travels, a birthday cake for my daughter, who accompanied me on one trip. Qazi in particular had the politician's flattering gift for remembering personal details from previous encounters. The JI women were intelligent, articulate and self-possessed; I could not help but enjoy my time with them, even as I was appalled by their ideological position on issues such as the Hudood Ordinances, or the need for laws forcing women to cover their hair in public.

36. My meetings with the JI women perhaps seemed more rewarding because they contrasted favourably with some of my other fieldwork encounters. For one thing, they were much more approachable and less bureaucratic than their male JI counterparts. Even allowing for the gender barrier, male JI members seemed to be much more security conscious and (perhaps rightly) much more sceptical of my personal agenda. Conversations with male JI activists often turned into quizzes designed to assess my knowledge of Islam. I failed one such test when asked if I knew the meaning of my name. I replied that it meant "thankful", when according to my interrogator I ought to have said "thankful to Allah". At the end of the rather terse interview that followed, I was presented as usual with a gift of books by Maududi - but on this occasion I was told that they consisted of essays "suitable for those Muslims who have strayed from the path of true Islam."

37. I met with a similarly frosty reception from another Islamic women's group, al-Huda, who allowed me to visit their premises in Islamabad, but then engaged in what I quickly decided was a deliberate strategy to bore me into surrender. This impression was confirmed when, after a long and deathly dull tour of their education programme, I asked their leader to confirm that all of her comments were "on the record". She correctly observed that since she had told me nothing that could be of any interest to anyone, I could quote whatever I liked. Having been scolded by the JI men and bored witless by al-Huda, I found the JI women relatively easy company.

38. I also considered the possibility that my personal ideological blinkers, though very different to those of the JI, were nonetheless providing more common ground than I wished to admit. People of my general ideological persuasion - broadly characterised (or caricatured) as left-wing, post-modernist, multiculturalist - are often accused of having denied ourselves the moral grounds from which to oppose Islamism. We are accused of "cultural relativism", which supposedly precludes us from saying that one belief system is "better" than another. We are told that our anti-Americanism is so complete that we would allow free rein to America's enemies, no matter how morally reprehensible. Those of us who are feminists are accused of placing our commitment to multiculturalism ahead of our commitment to women's rights, thus abandoning non-Western women to honour killings, forced veiling, and female genital mutilation (Hymowitz 2003; Chesler 2005) .

39. In general, I find it easy to respond to this type of accusation. I oppose oppressive practices against women regardless of any cultural or religious justification that may be used to defend them - my opposition to such practices has to a large degree determined my course of research. However, I do not locate the origins of such practices only in particular versions of culture and/or religion, but in much wider sociological and political contexts. My "anti-Americanism" - which is specific to certain political and especially foreign policy issues - arises in large part from the history of collaboration between the United States and misogynist forces in Pakistan and elsewhere.

40. Yet I must also admit that JI women and I were able to agree on certain issues, provided that these were very narrowly defined. The fact that I was able to agree with my interviewees over some issues (such as the right of French schoolgirls to veil) helped to offset our disagreements in other areas (such as the right of women in the North West Frontier Province to remain unveiled). At the least, such partial agreement reduced friction; at the most it may have created the illusion that I was open to persuasion.

41. My ambivalence about my dealings with the JI women was epitomised by my uncertainty regarding their - and my - use of the term "sister". I was already accustomed to the (non-familial) use of "sister" in a range of contexts. In my local Muslim community in Australia, "sister" and "brother" are used both to acknowledge membership of a common faith, and in order to negotiate gender boundaries, sometimes as explicit reassurance: "You're quite safe with me - you're my sister" - but most often implicitly. In South Asia, "brother" and "sister" are also common terms, used between friends but also between acquaintances and strangers. Again, this plays an important role in negotiating gender boundaries. In a quite different context, feminist-minded women on my university campus would light-heartedly refer to ourselves as "the sisterhood", or "the sisters", a morale building term against the pejorative labels - "feminazis", "feministas", "fembitches" - that were so often used to define us.

42. So it felt entirely natural to be addressed as "sister", and to address others in the same way. Yet I felt uncomfortable about trading this term with the JI women. I was fairly sure that non-Muslim women did not qualify as "sisters". This did not worry me, however, so much as the sense that the term implied a common membership of an ideological community. The JI women and I may both be Muslim, but I am not "their" kind of Muslim, and as far as the JI is concerned, not to be "their" kind of Muslim is not to be Muslim at all. I resolved that to avoid misunderstanding, I would stop addressing the JI women as "sister". But the word was too much a part of my vocabulary, both in Australia and in Pakistan, to be so easily dropped; it kept slipping out. I was quite sure that my JI interviewees did not believe that I marched to the same ideological drum as they did. Indeed, they often used the word "sister" as a gentle admonition, a way of softening a disagreement: "No, sister - that is a Western concept". Still, I did not feel comfortable at being included in the JI concept of "sisterhood"; I thought of myself as belonging to another sisterhood, one defined not by religious affiliation but on a shared commitment to "building feminist solidarities across the divisions of place, identity, class, work, belief, and so on" (Mohanty 2003) .

43. I was forced to refocus my thinking on a more personal level when, on my most recent visit to Pakistan (2004), I was accompanied for the first time by my daughter, then seven years old. Her presence altered my status in ways I had not anticipated. In many situations I became an "auntie" rather than a "sister" - and "auntie" is an altogether safer designation. I had anticipated that taking my daughter along would complicate matters; in fact, it rendered them much more straightforward. A mother does not convey the same sense of danger as does a single woman.

44. Her own responses also provided food for thought. I had expected that she would be bored during my interviews with the JI, particularly since I censored the reading material she was allowed to bring along. I was stunned, then, when afterwards she named Raheel Qazi and her nine-year old daughter as "two of my favourite people in Pakistan". I mentally replayed the interview: Qazi and I had talked, while Qazi's daughter had sat at our feet and sliced apples and guavas for us. The little girl was very attractive - huge green Pashtu eyes framed by a spotless hijab. She looked serious and lovely - I could imagine my daughter wanting to be like her. And Qazi herself had won her heart by asking her "When you grow up, will you become a warrior for Islam?"

45. I had always believed that I was raising my daughter to be proud of her Muslim identity, but in Pakistan I realized that from my daughter's perspective, it looked as though I was constantly apologizing. There were always caveats: "We are Muslim, but not that kind of Muslim". My daughter had experienced very little direct Islamophobia, but she was aware of the constant flow of negative media and political commentary, and at seven she was already sick of it. The Madrid bombings took place while we were in Pakistan, and were initially attributed to ETA. My daughter asked if ETA was Muslim, and was relieved to find that they were not, that "we" were not implicated. I was saddened that she could feel tainted by a crime committed in another continent. Qazi felt no such qualms, since even after the ETA theory was discounted, she refused to believe that Muslims were implicated (and similarly denied Muslim involvement in 9/11). She was spared, then, the long, contorted discussions I had with my daughter, as I tried to explain the "clash of fundamentalisms". It would have taken me twenty minutes to explain the kind of warrior I hoped my daughter might be. No wonder Qazi seemed so appealing. And of course, the appeal of an Islam that feels no need to explain itself is not limited to seven year olds.

46. After meeting Qazi's pretty daughter, my child became fussy about covering her own hair, although even the most conservative members of our Pakistani social set told her that there was no need: "Your mother has to - she is a woman - but you are still a little girl". She was indignant about the "unfair" status of Pakistani women - some of which she glimpsed - but she did not connect this to the confident, articulate woman who had told her that she could become a warrior for Islam, or with any of the JI women who talked to her as though she was one of them. I began to fret that she would suffer a reverse culture shock on her return to Australia. But the effect was only temporary. On the overnight express that carried us away from Pakistan, my daughter's sleepy voice asked "When we get back to Delhi, can I put on a mini-skirt?" I hadn't known that a display of Western decadence could come as such a relief. Mini-skirts were a much more straightforward message than the complicated explanations I had been composing in my head.


Shakira Hussein is completing her PhD at the Australian National University. Her research interests include gender, South Asia, Islam, and race and ethnicity.


[1 ]. The research on which this paper is based was conducted in Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar in 2000, 2001 (in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks) and 2004. I interviewed members of the Jamaat-i-Islami on party premises and in their homes, and also attended public events with them (such as meetings, a street protest and a mass wedding). All quoted remarks, unless otherwise specified, are from these interviews. Besides the thanks that must go to the JI members who agreed to meet with me and on whom this paper is centred, I must also thank members of the Aurat Foundation, the AGHS Legal Aid Cell, and staff at The News for providing their time in sharing their thoughts on women's issues and broader political trends in Pakistan.

[2 ]. After this paper was written, the Pakistani government announced its intention to reform (not repeal) the Hudood Ordinances, in particular to address the imprisonment of rape victims. The religious parties protested; Raheel Qazi was reported as saying "Hudood Ordinance is the very important element of our constitution, because we have struggled for an independent country, where we can spend our lives according to the Islamic rules" ( Bashir 2006). The government responded firstly by watering down the proposed "Protection of Women" bill, and then shelving it.

[3 ]. For an exemplary discussion of the dynamics of such asymmetrical relationships in a Pakistani context, see Khan (2005).  

[4 ]. Although the JI female parliamentarians were veterans of the women's wing, they too were criticised as belonging to the "wives and daughters club" of Pakistani politicians.

[5 ]. The Hudood Ordinances, however, seem particularly well-suited to incidences of false accusations, whether of adultery, or of "blasphemous" acts such as "burning pages from the Holy Qu'ran".

[6 ]. Many supposed honour killings are in fact motivated by other factors, such as disputes over dowry.

[7 ]. Legal reforms instituted in 2004 similarly neglected to address the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance.

[8]. Interview, Peshawar, 2004.


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