Pakistan: “The Gender Discourse Needs to Be Linked to Local Realities”

A feminist T-Shirt. Photo: rrho. This picture is under a creative commons-license

December 16, 2009

Due to the offensive by the military only a few weeks ago, Pakistan came into the focus of the international public again. The power of the Taliban in connection with the attitude of the society was widely discussed, but once again gender and women issues were not highlighted. Durre Ahmed, chairperson and senior research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Gender and Culture in Lahore, about the current situation and development of the gender discourse in Pakistan.


In the current debate especially one phenomenon referred to as ‘radicalization’ or ‘Talibanization’ of society was often mentioned. What is the effect of this seemingly growing radicalisation of society on gender issues? What effect does it have on people’s psyche?

Durre Ahmed: As expected the effect is extremely negative. Where radicalisation is violent and obvious, the suppression of women is similarly violent and obvious. By its very nature, radicalisation is what I call a “hyper-masculinised” worldview of which religion is an important aspect. It has come into people’s psyches – of both male and female – through different mechanisms. At one hand, it expresses itself in rejection of women and of women’s bodies particularly. At another level, radicalisation understood as a mindset traps men in a vicious, arrested state of adolescent machismo.
But the gender discourse in Pakistan isn’t talking about any of these things. It remains stuck in a very narrow understanding of Islam and it selectively picks up ideas – which are there in all religions – to then suppress women. This is something, which I have been discussing and writing about for 15 years. I talk about it in Pakistan but because the gender debate is absent, there is only a small audience. However my work is trying to generate and create this discourse, trying to explain what is patriarchy, what is religion and how should it be understood psychologically.

How do you judge the influence of female madrassas – for example Al-Huda – in promoting extremism in Pakistan?

There is very little analysis or understanding of groups like Al-Huda, which is basically a women’s organisation, centred around religion. It is very interesting, that whereas the present German  minister for family affairs is a young woman who says that she is not a feminist, the founder of Al-Huda sees herself as an “Islamic feminist”. But as her idea of feminism promotes this “hyper-masculine” view of religion, in my view the agenda is not for women, although it is justified as this.

The main problem is that the discussion reflects just the legal and the theological side. However even that is not a real discourse, because only the different conservative schools in theology are talking to each other. Besides that, there is no analysis of the cultural or media aspects of these groups. The tragedy is that more and more women are accepting these patriarchal interpretations of religion and power structures. One reason is that there are no alternative voices. There is very little support for the kind of research that generates feminist ideas about religion. Without any choice, it’s the typical psychology of the oppressed – you join the oppressors in order to gain at least some power.

What role can religion play in the gender movement in the face of the radicalisation in Pakistan?

Unfortunately, at the moment the role of religion is tremendously negative when it comes to women. It is drawing on centuries of patriarchal exercise of power and therefore needs steady, sustained efforts and commitments. In that sense it should be said that there is also a tremendous, positive potential for religion as well. That is where the work of feminist theologian becomes important. If you look at the updated version of the encyclopaedia of religion, which is the main reference work for scholars of religion, the biggest new section is on “gender and religion”, so there is a lot of new thinking going on and this trend should be encouraged. More sensitive analyses will develop the positive potential and face contemporary radical threats from theological “experts”. The attitude that you have to have a degree in theology to talk about religion is the last defence of patriarchy in religion and I entirely disagree with that. A feminist interpretation of religion is as liberating for males as it is for females.

In order to understand and predict a development it is always helpful to have a look at the youth. This applies to Pakistan especially, as the average age is 21 years. Are the youth in Pakistan familiar with gender theories, movements and developments?

Regrettably, no. There are some isolated courses and modules on “gender” but there are largely superficial and historical. We can see two major defects: First of all, the discourse on gender is entirely cut off from political, cultural or religious realities in Pakistan. That way it doesn’t take into account the local idiom of Islam or cultural conditions and gets easily labelled politically as “Western”. Second, the gender movement’s local evolution has been co-opted by an insensitive development industry, which exclusively promotes the economy. As a result of these two factors, the youth is only exposed to an isolated “Western” gender perspective or a co-opted development sector, and gender empowerment in a true sense remains distant.

Finally, for the German public it is interesting to learn about their possible course of action. What role can the German or the European gender movements play to support gender development in Pakistan? What is the convergence point of Western and Eastern feminists these days?

In some sense, I feel abandoned and betrayed by European feminists. The work of feminist theorists from the West has inspired and informed me. However, now that such work needs to be grounded in a local context - in Pakistan especially in the face of violent threats towards women – there are almost no connections to be found. The problem is that we only see European pity for Pakistani women and handouts for economic uplift, which don’t even work, rather than look at it as a struggle against patriarchy.

Of course women need economic empowerment and political representation, but it shouldn’t be the exclusive focus. I would be happy if I had less money but more freedom to breathe. The battle is one of worldviews. To support it actively we need funding for research that generates fresh ideas. If we should not be rejected as agents of the West then there has to be space to evolve gender-sensitive, culturally appropriate frameworks of analysing in Pakistan. This can best be done in a sustained engagement of conceptual, theoretical development between European feminists or gender theorists and Pakistanis.

In many ways, I think the crisis of linking culture and hence religion with feminism is as strong in Europe as in Pakistan or across Asia. So that is one of the converging points. Conceptualisation of religion and women is needed across borders and the rise of Islam in Europe is only making this more urgent.

That is really one of the objectives of the Centre for the Study of Gender and Culture, which I chair. My work is on the one hand focused on Islam but because it is through feminism it is also as much a dialogue with European or what we call Continental feminism. I think that the crisis for women today in Pakistan is a crisis for feminism all over the world. In a globalised world is too much information that you could pretend you didn’t know. We feminists are all in the same boat and we will sink or swim together.

The interview was conducted by Alexandra Wischnewski.