Gender, Religion and the Quest for Justice in Pakistan

By Farida Shaheed

By Farida Shaheed

September 2009


This paper explores how Islam in Pakistan metamorphosed from the religious identity of the majority population (the raison d’être of its existence as a nation for Muslim Indians), to become the central defining parametres for state and society. This privileging of religion as the yardstick for all activities from politics to judicial structures, from entertainment to women’s rights in the 1977-88 decade seriously undermined women’s already weak position in society and even today challenges the quest for gender equality. Frequently, the impact on women of fusing politics and religion is considered as a selfcontained matrix.

This paper starts from the premise that the ultimate aim of politicoreligious elements is to capture state power in which disempowering women is only one effective tool in seeking legitimacy and asserting influence; women becoming markers of appropriated territory in wider power contestations. It is therefore not possible to understand the impact of fusing politics and religion on women, without understanding the context within which this takes place. The paper suggests that in culturally traditionalist societies like Pakistan, already subject to constrictive gender rules, women become easy victims of retrogressive socio-political religious projects but, at the same time, that women are not an undifferentiated unit. The usage of Islam by diverse regimes has not impacted women in like manner. Women were victims of gross negligence and paternalistic attitudes but rescinding women’s rights was never a main objective until General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988). Under Zia the systematic and aggressive inscription of Islam into the body politic and social fabric had devastating consequences for the polity in general and women and non-Muslims in particular. His era thus marks a qualitative realignment of forces. Gender cross-sects other deeply entrenched social inequalities so that ‘Islamization’ measures have impacted diverse groups of women differently. Further, the pursuit of gender equality is greatly impeded by the vast chasm separating de facto from de jure rights in Pakistan thanks to which only a small minority of women knows of their rights. The fewer the people who enjoy rights, the more vulnerable they become. The state’s failure to deliver on its promises of equal opportunities, benefits and justice has created a vacuum into which the religious right inserted itself and was able to project itself as the harbinger of justice in a visibly unjust world. In the final analysis, regardless of the claims to the moral high ground of authenticity, the paramount concern of religious political projects is power – not religion, or ethnicity, or culture.

Section 1 gives the political context: the political actors and forces involved in the fusing of religion and politics from 1947 to 1988. Section 2 provides an overview of women’s disparate realities and goes to explore the implications of this interfacing for women’s rights and gender inequality during the Zia years and subsequent developments. Section 3 problematizes the role of civil society in this process and questions some of the facile assumptions that are often made about the socially-progressive role of civil society actors. The final section provides some overarching conclusions.




  • Farida Shaheed
    Farida Shaheed, a sociologist and human rights activist, is Deputy Director of the multi-country research consortium “Women’s Empowerment in Muslim Contexts: gender, poverty and democratisation from the inside” (WEMC) and Director of the Research Centre Shirkat Gah - Women’s Resource Centre (Pakistan). In October 2009, the UN Human Rights Council appointed her as Independent Expert on Cultural Rights. Decades of combining research, policy and hands-on grassroots work on women have led her to focus both her writings and activism on the complex forces at play in the interface of women, culture, identity, and governance/state – especially in Pakistan, South Asia and Muslim contexts. Awards include the Second Annual Award for Women’s Human Rights (1997) and the Prime Minister's Award (1989) for her co-authored book “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back? Women of Pakistan”.

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