Gender and Identity in Pakistan

— Shahnaz Rouse

IN RECENT MONTHS media coverage has been filled with images of victorious U.S. forces, humiliated Taliban fighters, figures of Afghan women, somber Pakistani generals. With the exception of these images—which juxtapose military might (of the United States) and defeat (for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces) against images of Afghan women before the U.S. intervention (read “oppressed” and “veiled”) and after their “liberation” by U.S. forces (ostensibly unveiled and therefore “free”)—little else appears in mainstream media offerings.

These images raise a familiar specter—intervention justified by a concern for women—that hauntingly and alarmingly resonate with similar discourses and constructions in the colonial logic for its interventions in many parts of the Third World. Here I wish to examine the silences embedded in these representations not with regard to Afghan women per se, but with regard to the United States’ closest ally in this “war on terrorism,” Pakistan.

This will also elucidate some of the contradictions that are obvious to some of us who have been involved with that part of the world. Most specifically I address the close relation between conflict, militarization, gender and space that afflicts Pakistan and has done so at least since the moment of its becoming a front line state for the U.S. proxy war against the USSR in Afghanistan.

The perspective adopted here takes a long view of history rather than being focused on the present moment.

A Contradictory Nation

Pakistan’s creation on the basis of conceptualizing Indian Muslims as a separate nation is a problem that has persisted. Are Pakistanis Muslims? What kind of Muslims? What of non-Muslims? While these were initially concerns largely of the bourgeois and urban middle classes, today most segments of the population are engulfed by this dilemma.

Central to these contestations is an ongoing struggle over various definitions of Islam, and its relation to the socio-political body. The early compromise that was reached was to split the legal system in two, with personal status law (marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance) being articulated in consonance with so-called Islamic principles whereas all other issues were framed in line with secular legal traditions.

The Pakistani nationalist movement at its outset favored Punjabis and Urdu-speaking immigrants from India. Their domination stemmed from their cultural/political and economic position. (Segments of the Pakhtun were closely linked to the state from the beginning, not because of their participation in the Pakistan movement, but through their representation in state institutions and the political economy particularly since the Ayub Khan period [1958–69], and later through their geopolitical significance vis-à-vis Afghanistan).

The decision to adopt Urdu as the national and official language of Pakistan combined with Punjabi and an elite Urdu-speaking minority’s hold over state apparati, meant these groups defined what it meant to be a Pakistani. In the early years insistence on one’s ethnic language and cultural traditions was construed as counter-national, as a betrayal of the “nation.”

Ethnicity, Virility and Violence

East Pakistani demands for linguistic recognition for Bengali as a major language, though finally conceded to, were viewed with suspicion by those who held power in the west. The creation of the one-unit under Ayub Khan was a device to undermine the numeric strength of East Pakistanis in their demands for equal citizenship in the Pakistani nation-state.

Culturally too, the Bengalis were treated as “effeminate,” without the “toughness” of the Punjabis and Pakhtuns, and lacking the “sacrifices” made by Urdu speakers. It was this duality that enabled many West Pakistanis to support and stand behind the West Pakistani military assault on the Eastern wing and its peoples; that permitted the military to assault and rape at will Bengali women since they were already constructed as outsiders culturally.

Effeminization of its men and rape of the women went hand in hand; both of these served as a marked contrast to the construction of Punjabis and Pakhtuns who were (over) represented among those committing these atrocities as virile, martial and “real” Pakistanis.

This representation of Bengali males as weak and in need of domination by their stronger (West) Pakistani brethren was a view shared not simply by hegemonic groups in Pakistan, but also by large segments of the left at the time.

(I might add here that official histories of Pakistan after the creation of Bangladesh [the former East Pakistan—ed.] almost completely ignore the existence of the East as an original part of Pakistan. It is as though that history never existed; and to the extent that it is mentioned, its separation is reduced simply to Indian machinations against the Pakistani nation.)

The status of Urdu speakers in the community of Pakistani citizens too has undergone a shift. The transfer of power from Karachi to Islamabad; changes in the political economy, which empower Punjab and Punjabis over other nationalities; movement in the center of economic gravity from Karachi to urban, industrial centers in the Punjab; and the dynamism of Punjabi agriculture, alongside a focus on the frontier (between Afghanistan and Pakistan especially), all combined to undermine the position of Urdu speakers in the social body and the body politic of Pakistan.

This was accompanied by a growing aggressiveness of Punjabi culturalist positions, both among those in power and progressive elements. The violence in Karachi in the eighties and nineties (both locally generated and state induced) led to a situation reminiscent of East Pakistan.

The disregard for lives lost among the Urdu-speaking community in Karachi reflects a callousness towards them as humans, and highlights the tendency towards the increasing marginalization of ethnic communities other than the Pakhtuns and Punjabis as equal partners in the Pakistani nation.

It is precisely in these two regions—Sarhad and Punjab—that the religious fundamentalists also hold maximum strength. To the extent that membership in the ideal of Pakistan shuts out other ethnic communities, the latter have turned to ethnic identification and organizing as their primary form of struggle.

Women’s Suppressed History

Pakistani women’s history has until very recently been written in conjunction with the history of the nationalist movement itself. The historical women we read and hear about are largely those who move in public arenas, often related to known male figures, using dominant languages (literally and conceptually).

Other women, other voices tend to be drowned, suppressed. It is public struggle, one that is derivative from the nationalist movement that forms the main narrative.

What we have is a conjoining in official history of privilege: public versus private, upper class versus the poor, educated women (speaking the hegemonic languages) versus illiterate women (speaking in the vernaculars).

The outcome is necessarily also the privileging of a modernist framework and epistemology. Those struggles in which bourgeois women were engaged gained center stage. Rural and urban working-class women, as well as women using local vernaculars were silenced in public histories.

To the extent the latter were present, they were “spoken for” by women with privilege, a prime example of such appropriation being the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA).

From Pakistan’s inception, women’s incorporation into the public body was rationalized in the developmentalist context of the “wealth of the nation.” This was first noticeable in the sixties, labeled Pakistan’s “development decade.” Utilizing this rhetoric, Ayub Khan, under whom the military assumed power for the first time in 1958, passed an ordinance on personal status laws.

This ordinance, as I have argued elsewhere [1], did not alter the religious basis of personal status law but sought to ameliorate its excesses, in a way that primarily benefited women with education and legal connections who could take advantage of its provisions. The emphasis on the family as the natural female domain remained unexamined.

Despite the periodic breaks and ruptures between the nationalist (male) forces and women activists, women’s incorporation into a reformed national agenda set the frame for their rights and the discourses surrounding it through the seventies. It is no coincidence that foremost and most visible in this struggle have been bourgeois and middle-class women.

Islamicization and State Crisis

In the late seventies, this changed as the so-called liberal, bourgeois state crumbled. The shifting geopolitical position of Pakistan bears mention.

Following the Iranian and Afghan revolutions, Pakistan became a frontline state. Zia ul Haq’s regime (1977–87) was the beneficiary. Not aligned with the same class fractions as Bhutto’s regime (1973–1977), and seen as illegitimate by the majority of Pakistanis, Zia sought a new model that would consolidate and provide an ideological basis for his regime.

This was found in a more distinct “Islamic” turn at the level of ideology and (national) identity, a turn that won him support from both Saudi Arabia and fundamentalist forces within Pakistan.

For the first time in Pakistani history, the modernist, liberal agenda was categorically ideologically challenged at the level of the state. It could be argued that the state under Zia overturned, indeed inverted, the compromise between secular and religious forces and ideologies reached by previous regimes.

Where earlier regimes conceded “personal status laws” to the religious domain, they sought by this means to co-opt religious opposition and thereby disempower orthodox religious groups in relation to the state. The Zia regime, on the other hand, altered the legal structure so as to create parallel systems of civil, religious and military courts, and pronounced the supremacy of the latter two over the former.

Claiming that the state was instituting “Nizam-e-Mustafa” (organization of the prophet, i.e. an “Islamic state”), Zia’s regime introduced draconian changes in the legal structure that further eroded not only women’s rights but also those of large segments of the population.

In addition, the state-sponsored media-instituted programming that emphasized women’s place in the home, privileged their segregation and seclusion, and emphasized head covering for women as not only “appropriate” clothing for women, but required it for women in public offices and even public spaces.

Never before in Pakistani history had there been such a direct assault on women’s corporeal realities. Subsequent to these changes, both in public and private, women were faced with assaults—from parents taking advantage of the new laws to curtail their daughters’ autonomy, to the state charging women with adultery under the new Hudood Ordinance, which disallowed women to testify on their own behalf in rape cases and instead charged them with having engaged in illicit sex.

The Modernization Paradox

Despite its Islamic rhetoric, Zia’s regime simultaneously continued the “modernist” development schema set in place by previous regimes. Ironically but not coincidentally (given the massive infusions of external aid which it received both from the U.S. and multilateral aid agencies), it was under Zia that some of the policy initiatives initiated under Bhutto were taken to fruition.

Thus the women’s division created earlier became a federal ministerial reality under Zia; “women in development” projects flourished and thrived; non-governmental organizations, some of which dealt with women beneficiaries solely and were run by women, were initiated in this period. This contradictory state stance on women both curtailed women’s rights and created spaces for women’s organizing.

The Zia regime’s “Islamic” laws generated the first autonomous women’s movement in Pakistan—the Women’s Action Forum (WAF). WAF broke with previous dominant women’s groups in that it adopted an antagonistic stance towards the state rather than seeking accommodation with it.

WAF also separated women’s rights from the discourse on development through which women’s rights had primarily previously been articulated. In articulating women’s rights as human rights, WAF established a link with workers, peasants, and other oppositional groups struggling to regain democratic rights under Zia’s authoritarian regime.

Furthermore, the regime’s contradictions, between its “Islamic” ideology and laws versus its developmentalist practices on behalf of women (which coincided with an international agenda insisting on linking women to development), created spaces for women to gain organizational experience and engage in critical practice.

The latter developments, however, also ran the risk of co-opting women activists. Indeed, some have argued that over time, the radical edge of the newly emergent women’s movement was diluted over time precisely because of the link between the state and donor agendas, and the massive availability of funds for “women in development” projects.

Masculinization and Militarization

The masculinization of public and private spaces that occurred subsequent to state policies and practices directly pertaining to women, was further exacerbated by the militarization of Pakistani society.

This ensued, in large part, from Pakistan’s status as a frontline state following the change in regime in Afghanistan, and resistance to it sponsored by the U.S. and the Saudi regimes. This led to the availability of armaments in many segments of Pakistani society.

Even more significantly, with the collusion of the Afghan opposition to the Kabul regime in drug trafficking, which came to be based in Pakistan rather than (as earlier) in Afghanistan, the subsequent movement of drugs from the northern areas throughout the length of the country created an entirely new situation, the ripple effects of which are still with us.

Not only did the drug trade—reminiscent to that in the “Golden Triangle” during the Vietnam war days—create heroin junkies for the first time in Pakistani history, but payoffs to the military and police, plus the necessity of developing reliable couriers, has resulted in an entire population of people engaged in extra-legal armed activities.

No wonder then that banditry, abductions, kidnappings, and violent crime have seen a previously unimaginable climb since 1977. The state is not only incapable of stemming this current, but to the extent that it is in complicity with these same forces both internally and internationally (in the Pakistani state’s past support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamic militants in Indian Kashmir), it is not interested in putting a stop to this process.

Paramount among the implications of this militarization for women has been the prevalence of violence as a central organizing principle and practice at the level of both the state and civil society. Recognition of this reality has led segments in the emergent women’s movement in Pakistan to take an active stance on behalf of peace initiatives regionally and to link these to internal conditions.

This militarization of the state and civil society resulting from the international/global politics of the last two decades, combined with the collapse of the liberalization policies of regimes following Zia (i.e. those of Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, and now Musharraf), the continued reliance by all three (in Musharraf’s case until very recently) with “Islamic” ideology as constructed by increasing militant and conservative religious groups for “strategic” and/or ideological purposes, has resulted in an increasing masculinization of public space.

It is my contention that this masculinization is among the most ominous of developments and the least recognized by progressive circles in Pakistan.

Struggle for an Open Society

This closure, this delimitation of space itself, has significant implications for women’s immediate existence. Besides struggles around unfair laws, state and institutional policies and practices, it is today one of the most significant sites around which struggle must be organized for a more open, more democratic society.

What is noteworthy is that the interpenetration of the public and the private comes together in the phenomenon of masculinization of public space that I have emphasized in this essay. It is this combination that makes the necessity of struggles over public space so crucial. Such a struggle will also have the added benefit of immediately resonating across class and region. [2]

To the extent that the model of masculinity put forth is one that, following colonialist discourses, privileges the so-called “martial races” of Punjab and Sarhad, while men of other ethnicities are marginalized as are men who do not conform to these hegemonic constructions of male identity.

Musharraf’s regime, following its recent status as a key ally of the U.S. continues to rely on the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI set up by Bhutto, strengthened by Zia, and relied upon by all successive regimes) for internal and foreign surveillance and covert operations. The ISI, in turn, is notorious for its connections to various militant Islamic groups.

Furthermore, Musharraf while announcing his regime’s decision to smash the control of militant Islamic groups in Pakistan, and simultaneously announcing his desire to educate all Pakistanis (including women), framed this decision yet again in developmentalist terms.

To date he has not mentioned the continued existence of laws on the book that discriminate against women and minorities (albeit he made a feeble earlier attempt at dismantling the “blasphemy” laws earlier introduced by Nawaz Sharif).

Macro and micro, internal and external factors have currently combined to construct a militarization and masculinization of public space in Pakistan, especially in its urban areas. In addition to the conventional sites for struggle—legal structures, public bodies, the home—spatial transformations must be recognized as crucial and become a key site for future struggles.

The primary dynamic, no matter what the rhetoric it is couched in and/or by whom, is not a cultural one—between forces of modernity versus tradition—nor are the options for women those of veiling (signifying repression) versus unveiling (meaning liberation).

In this situation initiatives by human rights groups in Pakistan, including various women’s organizations and those struggling for democratic rights for all segments of the population, are a significant step forward.

An examination of the state, its internal and external alliances, its global linkages, and attendant discourses are all essential to realize a more democratic vision and identity. The images and words we see in the media—as well as the ones we do not—combine to tell the story of the reality that lies buried behind the mirage of the veil drawn before us.



1. See Gender(ed) struggles: the state, religion and society, in Kamla Bhasin, Ritu Menon and Nighat Saeed Khan eds., Against all Odds: Essays on Women, Religion and Development from India and Pakistan (New Delhi: Kali for Women, ISIS, SAWF, 1994); Women’s Struggle: State, Class and Gender, in South Asia Bulletin, Summer 1986.

2, While I have not dealt here at length with the topic, there is a clear link between the internal and international policies adopted by the Zia regime and those coming subsequent to it. Aggression overseas, through militant Islamic surrogates, is accompanied by continuation of Islamic laws, which construe women as second-class citizens, and in laws of evidence and other legal forums, as being equal to half a man.

This public, legal designation of women as subordinate and inferior to men has created a milieu in which abuse of women in public and private domains, and especially the former increased. Starting with Nawabshah when a group of rural women were walked naked through the village square and derided, to politically motivated rapes of women during the first Nawaz Sharif regime (1990–93), abuse of women in public spheres has accelerated. So too has the attempt by families to exercise further control over daughters and wives through using the Hadood Ordinance.

Finally, we also have the issue of (ad)dress. During the Zia years, certain cultural markers came to be constructed as “authentic” and “Muslim.” Thus, “Pakistani,” “Muslim” dress came to be defined as the shalwar kameez; the sari was denounced as Hindu and “alien.”

Women were shut out of the inner sanctums of shrines where sufi figures were buried, thus denying them what had been a very important religious site for believers and practitioners of popular, folk Islam. Numerous other such features of cultural reconstruction could be noted.

ATC 97, March–April 2002