Does Aurat March, Pakistani Feminism, Need a Religious Message?

The struggle for women’s rights under the banner of Aurat March started on 8 March 2018. Since then, it has remained persistent in taking up women’s issues and ridding them of many discriminatory laws ranging from domestic violence to honour killing. However, it still struggles to earn acceptance and acknowledgement from the masses. It has become a battleground for conflicting narratives between the left and the right. The extreme religious right-wing, whose visibility has increased over the years, consider it a threat to Islamic values and principles. At the same time, the liberal faction is adamant that there is nothing wrong with the values of wild western feminism and should be adopted as it is. It is impossible to conclude the discussion as both are wrong and right simultaneously.

In the case of the religious reservations to the movement, it is undeniable that Islam in Pakistan is entrenched in the culture, culture being a euphemism of Islam, to the extent that it is hard to tell them apart. So, in most cases, going against Islam usually means going against the culture, which is hugely patriarchal. For instance, Islam does not prevent women from being financially independent; in fact, Hazrat Khadija (R.A.) was the first person to offer her business earnings to propagate the message of Islam. Yet, the believers of the same religion defame working women and take pride in confining them within four walls. Moreover, after the demise of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), many of his companions approached the wives of the Prophet, who were considered the “custodians of knowledge”, and this knowledge was later compiled as ahadith. Most of it was narrated by women, many of them being the Prophet’s wives, especially Hazrat Ayesha (R.A.), and nobody questioned the authenticity of their knowledge. Yet, Islam, today is used openly to negate women’s experiences altogether.

If involved, in any way, Islam can only stress implementing the laws that empower and facilitate women even more.

Muslim women wrote histories, led armies, nursed the wounded during wars, and suffered along with men while promulgating the message of Islam. However, Pakistani Islam still finds a way to proscribe women from taking up a public space for a day to demand their right to justice and equal opportunities that Islam gave them centuries ago. Threatening religious parties like Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl’s (JUI-F) to stop the march with “baton” is contrary to the teachings of Islam. If involved, in any way, Islam can only stress implementing the laws that empower and facilitate women even more.

On the other hand, the liberal faction boldly clamours Azadi (independence) from the cultural and societal cage altogether. Considering a large number of people in the country seem to lean toward the far-right or conservative side, it sounds like an impossible demand. Pakistani society is different from western one in many ways. Culture, family, religion and family are the archetypes that drive society. It believes in collective identity and responsibility, which contradicts the western belief of individualism.

Although western feminism has won many battles against patriarchy and has come a long way since it started, it still faces challenges even in the West. Critics believe that feminism, which inherently calls for equality, will find it challenging to eradicate inequality, signifying capitalism as a hindrance. Although sexism and oppression have been around long before capitalism, both have unquestionably helped strengthen the hold of capitalism. It also exploits the core values of feminism by favouring a few privileged. The discussion around the pay gap between the sexes only includes women at the executive level, which does not change the condition of all. There is a need for inclusivity and discussion about involving all women, especially disabled and under-privileged wage earners; otherwise, it will exacerbate the societal gap. Bell Hooks considers it a “bourgeois class bias” that does not consider the diversity of wants and needs of all women. Many third-world countries also express the same concern of non-inclusivity and bias evident in western feminism.

Pakistani feminism, considering the above-stated situation, should look for a plausible alternative that could work best for the local societal model. Religion can be a vital alternative, although there is a major difference between Islam and feminism in their approach and conceptualisation. Western feminism believes in the complete equality of men and women and does not acknowledge the biological limitations that bind women’s circumstances. On the contrary, Islam believes in equity and compensate women for these limitations. In fact, in many ways, Islam is more feminist in its spirit than western feminism. The notion that Islam and feminism are irreconcilably opposed ideas is a false dichotomy cemented by patriarchal culture and mainstream media. Therefore, including Islam in the women’s rights movement would be an effective approach.

In order to make Aurat March successful and inclusive, it should not look towards western feminism only. Rather, it should attempt to integrate modernism, feminism and Islam and try to bridge the gap between conservatives and liberals. Religion has the potential to be a great contributor to the cause and is an excellent tool for wider advocacy for better reforms. The most probable way to do it is by involving progressive religious scholars because the continued divide between religion and the Aurat March will hamper its path to gender justice and limit it to only the privileged group.

Uzma Saif

Uzma Saif is an Assistant Editor at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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