Columnist and author Bina Shah recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times about feminism in Pakistan. The thrust of her argument is that Pakistani feminism faces so much antagonism because it is seen as an ideology appealing only to the English-speaking class of society. This is why it doesn’t find mainstream support in Pakistani society, which continues to see it as anti-Islamic. Therefore, she concludes, feminist theory in Pakistan must marry secular and Islamic strands.
While I see the logic in her argument, and reluctantly agree that this might be the practical way forward, I disagree with the idea that a secular concept like feminism should be rooted in Islam in order for it to gain mass appeal in Pakistani society.
I see the strategy of blending Islamic ideals into every debate as yet another way of ceding territory to conservative Islamic forces that threaten to convert Pakistan into a completely theocratic society. The more we try to include Islamic beliefs and thoughts into national debates in Pakistan, the more space we give to such ideologues and the faster we progress towards a society where religion reigns supreme to all other forms of rationality.
In a country where persecution against religious minorities is pervasive, advocates for civil society causes such as feminism need to find a way to push through with their ideas in Pakistani society without having to appeal to Islam. Too many debates in Pakistan use Islam as the winning argument. When we do that, we begin to solidify Pakistan’s position as an Islamic Republic (a theocratic state) rather than a Muslim-majority country (a demographic fact).
Among the reasons that Pakistan is such a horrific place for non-Muslims to call home is because everything in the country appears to need a stamp of approval from Islam. Peace-meal steps such as refusing to conflate strictly secular concepts like feminism with Islam may help curtail the escalation of Pakistan towards an even more ideological and intolerant place than it is right now.