As the Islamic Republic of Pakistan becomes world’s third-most dangerous country for women, the transformative potential of Islamic feminism has become a matter of urgent concern. Islamic feminism and Islamization have experienced varying degrees of interplay in Pakistan owing to the politically unstable history of the country, yet the common concern of Islamic feminists remains that the religious preachings are somehow misinterpreted in an attempt to legitimize the subordination of women. Created as a modern Muslim state in 1947, Pakistan was expected to advance women’s rights; instead, gender inequality was institutionalized through personal and family laws.
It was in the late 1970s, however, that the Hudood Ordinance, particularly its Zina laws, resulted in severe socio-economic and legal setbacks for all women. Women were restricted to chador (veil) and char devari (four walls of the home), and the distinction between adultery and rape was blurred resulting in high-profile cases of female rape victims being publicly flogged for adultery.
When the impact of Hudood Ordinance started to proliferate across the country, it triggered an immense mobilization by women who viewed such policies as blatant attempts to use Islam for legitimizing patriarchy. In an effort to collaborate the growing resistance against the laws, women’s rights activists came together to form the Women’s Action Forum (WAF).
Acknowledging that outright opposition of Islamization would be counterproductive in the prevailing Islamist political climate of the country, WAF sought to reclaim their rights using an Islamic feminist ideology. In addition to resorting to Islamic feminism, WAF members, in an attempt to avoid being discredited as ‘anti-religious’ women, reached out to those members of the ulema who opposed the Islamization policies, as well as those women members of the Jamaat-e-Islami party who were against the state’s stance on rape. Consequently, an unprecedented demonstration was held in which women activists protested against the Hudood laws.
However, despite the persistent struggles of Islamic feminists, Hudood laws remained unscathed for nearly three decades. It was not until November 2006 that the ‘Women’s Protection Act’ mitigated some of its negative effects. The ordinance itself was not repealed and it continues to be incorporated into the legal system.
Moreover, today’s reality is that Islamic feminism in Pakistan is being hijacked by a group of so called Islamist women who in the name of Islamic feminism are further destabilizing the gender regimes. This is the paradoxical effect of Islamic feminism.
While the feminist reading of Shariah is necessary, the political reality acts as a detriment for those women who are committed to seeking reforms through religious reinterpretation. Whether such developments challenge the transformative potential of Islamic feminism is subject to debate, but evidence indicates that Islamic feminist activists are now incorporating secular frameworks with the goal of pursuing an effective political agenda that is not easily co-opted and has long-term policy implications. In order to fully comprehend Islamic feminism in Pakistan, however, there is a need to carry out further research into examining the relationship between Islamic feminism as a theoretical academic ideology and Islamic feminism as a form of practical collective action committed to advancing women’s gender interests.