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Iram Nisa Asif
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women What is This? A single source for accurate overview articles covering the major topics of scholarly interest within the study of women and Islam.


Women in Pakistan have marked their presence in public spaces since the 1950s. Whether in circumscribed spaces for women or gender-mixed spaces, Pakistani women are increasingly participating in public debates and have become more visible in national discourses. The national public sphere in Pakistan is important in this regard because it serves as a theatrical “stage” for political performance, where women and men across ethnic, class, and ideological lines have orchestrated acts of protest and performed as agents of social change. This is a platform contested and shared by political parties, social movements, and grassroots organizations. Rhetorically skilled and activist women use the national public sphere as a political stage to promote their emergent causes in front of local as well as global audiences.

Particularly in urban sectors, women have demonstrated their demands for justice and condemned institutional violence against women through street mobilization, public assemblies (jalsa), print journalism, and TV media. Most effectively, using methods of collective mobilization, women in Pakistan have claimed a female voice in male-dominated discourses by seizing upon public places and spaces: the scene of the street as disseminated by the media. With this in view, both Islamic and secular women can be seen as proactive agents in the national public sphere, exposing the limits of the political and linking the spectacular and theatrical with their claims to authority as they critique corruption, nepotism, and inequality in society and in the state apparatus. Ideologically apart, Islamic women use religious tradition as a means to reach their political ends whereas secular women use UN-sanctioned human rights to voice a consistent criticism against ideas and practices of gender bias. Pakistani women have thus contested the national public sphere among themselves and with their male counterparts—they have used it successfully to create a national focus and attract global attention to their demands. While outspoken women have created public awareness around cultural, social, political, and legal subjects related to the status of women and/or their own identities in private and public, middle-class and working-class women have performed quotidian roles in a broad spectrum of social, cultural, and work spaces. Additionally, the urbanization schemes of the major cities of Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, along with the administrative reform in 1972, opened up positions for secretarial work in government services, in the nongovernmental organization sector, and in other such white-collar occupations.

The boom of media enterprise continues to add new avenues in broadcasting and journalism—modern jobs that Pakistani women compete for. There are female academics with prominent profiles, as well some outstanding women politicians (there is a quota for women in the National Assembly of Pakistan). Whether in sight, leading public exposés in political arenas, or out of sight, in novel workspaces, the actions of Pakistani women demonstrate how cultural conventions of exposure and discourses on domesticity, and thus ideals of womanhood, have taken new forms and continue to change with time. The perception of Pakistani women as only domestic daughters, sisters, and wives who act in the private sphere, circumscribed by purdah (seclusion) norms, is thus changing. In the early twenty-first century Pakistani women are actively engaged in the fields of philanthropy, politics, governance, religion, law, activism, human rights, education, sports, literature, music, arts, fashion, and, most popularly, in the media.

Since 1999, the year in which the army chief Pervez Musharraf (r. 1999–2008) seized power via a nonviolent coup, the media landscape in Pakistan has seen a dramatic change. Musharraf opened up the airways to a free and independent media when he issued countless TV licenses his predecessors had vehemently blocked. GEO broadcast was among the first TV channels. It moved its headquarters from Dubai to Lahore and competed for audiences with the state-governed channel, Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV), which had been broadcasting news and religious and social programs to the public since 1964. Following in its trail, more than forty-five private TV channels mushroomed alongside print newspapers in more than eleven languages. This explosion of broadcast media outlets and subsequently new media spaces, such as YouTube, heralded the emergence of a new mediatized public sphere where social, political, and human rights activists—men and women alike—articulated counter-discourses to state-sponsored rhetoric. In particular, urban-educated Pakistani youth have become proactive in social media, exploiting the opportunity to develop new modes of critical expression. Feminist critics, journalists, and writers have published their writings in the press and media—for example the journalist Razia Bhatti (1944–1996) was a critic who broke many taboos—making TV journalism and broadcasting a platform for engagement, criticism, and contestation. Often TV journalists take up the role of moral crusaders advocating for public ethics and attacking discrimination and corruption. They also employ the media to transmit local events to a global audience. Countless foundations, networks, and resources for Pakistani journalists have materialized as part of the rapid development in modern media communication, predominantly in the urban landscape—some exclusively directed at women, such as the Women Media Center (WMC). WMC, founded by the feminist journalist Fauzia Shaheen, is a nonprofit organization that works toward creating a professional and unbiased environment to empower and increase women's presence in the media via training and workshop participation. The key objective of the organization is to create visible and competent female newsmakers—both as sources and subjects of news.

Women parliamentarians working for state power and influence are prominent in mediatized discourses. There is a higher number of women in parliament than the constitutionally imparted quota; women across political parties possessed altogether 91 out of 342 seats in the National Assembly after the 2008 election—the highest representation of women in the country's history. In comparison, the 1988 elections elected only eight women to the National Assembly. Moreover, after 2008 five women have assumed positions at the federal level and as ministers of state. This indicates that the visibility of women in the polity and legislature has increased and is increasing, despite the apparent rise of Islamism in the country.

Not limited to state politics, women in diverse political and social public domains also manifest their interests, needs, resistance, and collective mobilizations against discrimination and hegemonic power. Indeed, the role of Pakistani women is shifting national politics as new aspects of participation and public representations are structured within and around women's agency. This has been true of the rising political engagement, visibility, and achievements of women from the upper classes, but is now increasingly so also for the middle classes, who associate the status of Pakistani women with that of progress and democracy, manifested in the supreme symbol of Pakistan's first female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto (1953–2007), first elected in 1988.

Even prior to Benazir Bhutto, however, a series of women pioneered political discourses and were engaged in Pakistan's nation-building project. Women's role has been, and still is, enmeshed in Pakistani nationhood, idealized in cultural performances (as daughters, sisters, and mothers who preserve honor and respect, balancing domestic duties with public engagement) and cultural clothing (ideally with a light chiffon scarf on the head to demonstrate respect for tradition). Their public involvement necessitated symbols of modest conduct and dress codes immersed in new combinations of representation with respect to so-called traditional values and domestic awareness—whether in rural or urban areas. Tradition in this way is an essential part of facilitating changes and engaging in complex ways in political strategizing.

After the independence of Pakistan in 1947, women from the upper and upper-middle classes (often wives of political leaders) participated in the birth of national politics, legislation, and representation. In particular, the public face of Fatimah Jinnah (1893–1967), the sister of the nation's founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah (1876–1948), was seen to connote strength in support of a nation in the making. Fatimah Jinnah ran for presidency in the 1965 elections with support from the conservative religious movement Jamāʿat-i Islāmī, but her opponent, Ayub Khan (r. 1958–1969), defeated her. Nationally and internationally recognized Begum Rana Liaquat Ali Khan (1905–1990), the wife of Pakistan's first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan (1896–1951), held several state positions; among others, she was the first female ambassador to the Netherlands, Italy, and Tunisia from 1954 to 1963. Later, in 1973, she was appointed as the first female governor of Sindh Province. Begum Rana Liaquat Ali Khan also established the All Pakistan Women's Association (APWA) in 1949, whose members were mainly drawn from the minority elite. It was a serious and collective attempt to improve women's status in society and was state sponsored until 1977. APWA hosted welfare projects for low-income women in both rural and urban areas, predominantly in the fields of education, health, social rights, and law. This image and the welfare work of “do-good begums” were an essential aspect of the nation-building project in the early years. They articulated discourses of anticolonial nationalism and the integration of migrants (muhājir) coming from India. Thus, both Fatimah Jinnah and Begum Rana Liaquat Khan figured as symbols of motherhood: Madar-e-Millat (Mother of the Nation).

Another influential group, the Women's Action Forum (WAF), was formed in 1981. A secular feminist movement shaped within a liberal framework of religious tolerance and freedom, its founders were educated activists who contested a series of women's predicaments and Islamic laws that discriminated in favor of men, such as the ḥudūd punishments introduced by the general Zia ul-Haq (r. 1977–1988) in 1979. Using the national public sphere as an arena for political performance, WAF women took to the streets and demonstrated against legal injunctions oppressing women and denying their rights. The legislation of the Muslim Family Law Ordinance (1961), the Hudood Ordinance (1979), the Law of Evidence (1984), and the Law of Qiṣāʿ (retribution) and Diyāt (blood money) (1985) has been under immense criticism from Pakistani feminists and human rights activists. All four laws do not protect women's legal rights vis-à-vis men—on the contrary, they institutionalize the devaluation of women. In cases of testimony, inheritance, marriage, or guardianship of children, the legislation prevents women from exercising their fundamental rights on equal terms with men. For example, in cases of financial transactions, the testimony of two women equals that of one man, and in cases of rape the evidence of four righteous Muslim men is needed to prove that adultery has not taken place and that a sexual attack was in fact rape. In particular, the Hudood Ordinance, in which the distinction between rape and adultery is blurred, has been the subject of constant criticism. WAF also defended the right of sportswomen to participate in the Asian Games. During the military government of General Zia ul-Haq women were banned from spectator sports as a result of an androcentric religious lobby that considered women's participation in sports as obscene. However, since the mid-1990s, women have become increasingly visible in national and regional sports fields; in team-oriented performances; and as individual performers in cricket, football, tennis, squash, badminton, swimming, skiing, mountain climbing, cycling, and running, where women set new directions for emerging currents of change. Since the first women's cricket team was assembled in 1996 by Shaiza and Sharmeen Khan, young Pakistani women have been inspired and encouraged to ignore criticism from orthodox religious groups. However, limited funds for women's sports have made it extremely difficult for Pakistani women to qualify for international sports competition.

In contrast to the secular WAF, young Islamist women in the cross-gendered seminary-mosque movement Jamia Hafsa–Lal Masjid (Seminary Hafsa–Red Mosque) are a contemporary example of how female religious actors have contested and performed in the national public sphere. The movement first came into the limelight through national media in early 2007. Reportedly seven thousand adolescent girls, young women, female teachers, and students from Jamia Hafsa assembled in the courtyard of the Red Mosque on 28 January 2007 in Islamabad to protest against seven mosque demolitions in the capital. More broadly, the movement was agitating for Islamic revivalism and Islamic legalization in the social, political, and legal institutions of Pakistan. As an essential part of the scene, all students and teachers were dressed in black burqa uniforms (long female kaftan dresses that include head and face covers), while the adolescent girls, modestly dressed with pastel-colored scarves over their head, lined up in row after row behind their leaders. Local Pakistanis, regardless of religious conviction, were appalled by this urban female face of Islamism, not only because they perceived the burqa as an imported alien dress code by contrast to their own shalwar kamiz (trouser and tunic), but also because religion had taken a radical form in which women replicated androcentric Islamist discourses in the public sphere. The authorities ignored the powerful and intimidating public representation of women from Jamia Hafsa and their demands for a “system change” based on religious tenets. They responded with a military operation, however, as the movement sought to alter what its members perceived to be rampant social change in their immediate local community, overtly attacking “un-Islamic” activities and “un-Islamic” places in Islamabad. Young Islamist women took part in moral crusades in public spaces—and equally encouraged other religiously ethically minded Muslim men and women (ghairat-mand) to do the same—precipitating a vigilante movement of Sharīʿah enforcement (Nifazat-e-sharīʿah) in the country. In the discourses of Jamia Hafsa the notion of ghairat applies to “ethical shame” or “ethical consciousness” directed by religion. The idea of ghairat, generically meaning honor, jealousy, courage, modesty, and shame, is enacted in various cultural contexts, often in relation to women's modesty and sexuality. It is a complex concept that applies to both men and women. Motivated by ghairat, the movement violated the law as members occupied the national children's library of the city, kidnapped a local prostitute, and forced film and music shops to shut down, burning their DVDs and CDs alleged to contain “sinful” music, women's dancing and singing, or displays of immodest sexuality.

Regardless of background and ideology, and despite their visibility in the national public sphere, one has to keep in mind that women in Pakistan face disproportionate hurdles in achieving success. Access to power in Pakistan is structured around social background and family names. The distribution of welfare, education, power, and privilege as preconditions for social mobility is still highly unequal. While the deterioration in the status of the majority of rural and lower-class women continues, politically or financially endowed women have increasingly progressed in activities at the state and grassroots levels, in national and international arenas. In a complex and gender-organized society like Pakistan, however, women must still contend with prejudice and patriarchal perceptions, regardless of social background and social status. These construct cultural boundaries and maintain systematic modes of subordination that either marginalize women in subtle ways or in more overt and brutal ways. Furthermore, institutional discrimination toward women still persists and takes different forms both in rural and urban configurations: in the house, the society, or the state, women at some level encounter the face of a structurally entrenched androcracy. Pakistan remains in many respects a patriarchal feudal society, typified by traditions that authorize men to keep their families’ daughters, sisters, and wives within either close kinship or domestic proximity. Such traditions provide a set of rules, perceptions, and behaviors to govern, inculcate, and reproduce sharply distinct gender roles in culturally structured ideologies and practices.



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  • Women Media Center Pakistan”: wmcpk.org/wp/.
  • Women's Parliamentary Caucus”: www.wpcp.org.pk/wpcp/Home.aspx.
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