A billboard on Shahrah-e-Faisal in Karachi has been recently prepared and painted completely in black. It carries this stark, single-line quote displayed across it; “If you imitate someone, you are one of them”. It’s not a counter-terrorism message. It’s an anti-Valentine’s Day caution.
The rearguard has realised the futility in pulling down billboards that carry images of women, music, entertainment or ‘western’ leisure activities (like the Shabab-e-Milli did in KP during the MMA years). Instead, the effectiveness of media has lured the right wing to instrumentalise its various forms instead, towards moral and ‘Islamic’ ends. The realisation that the variety of broadcasting mediums, even if western in origin, can be subverted for launching moral crusades is perhaps most visible in the social media pages and activities of the young supporters and members of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
This instrumentalisation of modernity by Islamists is not new and has led some to argue that, in fact, contemporary Islamists should not be termed as ‘fundamentalists’, given their propensity for and adaptability towards modernity, capitalist economics and universalist aspirations. Some post 9/11 scholarship insists that the women of the Jamaat-e-Islami are in fact, agentive and modern in and through their pietistic aspirations. This work argues against the expectation that all women should seek liberation, emancipation or freedoms as defined by universalism, secularism etc.
But this argument stops short of going into details of the implications of Islamic politics and its impact on a broader social landscape.
Regardless of the modernising possibilities of Islamist groups and parties, the way religious terrorism has played itself across the Pakistani landscape has made it very clear that this is not a linear phenomenon and neither is it spearheaded by any single entity. The TTP is perhaps the most radical and insurgent face of Islamist activism but more important has been perhaps, the trickle down of what is called extremist Islam, to normative religious conservatism. Secondly, it is not just that terrorist organisations have a nexus and symbiotic relationship with mainstream Islamist groups (banned or not) but also that these often align themselves along ethnic lines which also feeds the conflict in a multicomplex manner.
As if this weren’t complicated and layered enough, there is a political economy to these networks and Islamist groups. It’s not just about weaponisation, supplies, international funding or suspected sympathies within state agencies. Several groups now operate as mutual holding companies. In fact, there is what can only be called, a corporatisation of Islamist politics whereby franchises may be leased or acquired by take-overs. There is also a secondment system, for example, the convenor of the Tehrik-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool is also a leader of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD).
This feature of the fractured but connected nature of religious political activism in the country is diverted from our attention because we are alert only to its most spectacular expression — floggings and hangings of women in Swat, assassinations of teachers and policewomen in Hangu, murders of polio vaccinators in Karachi and those who dare to defend women belonging to minority religions.
But it is important to realise that beneath the surface of such acts of terror in the name of Islam, one of the normal consequences of the modernisation of Islamist politics has been the race to show-case what an Islamic state and society should look like. This competition has resulted in a contest to reduce public spaces and personal and political rights for women and minorities. The more orthodox the Islamist group the stronger the competition to demonstrate their authenticity by limiting women’s mobility and the expansion of their political rights.
Liberal-leaning political parties and women’s rights/human rights activists realise this and sound their concern after a reported nine rounds of peace talks with the religious militants. Given the TTP’s spectacular but honest misogynistic views and actions taken against women, it’s not an exaggerated reaction to be fearful. West-based scholars often reprimand Pakistani activists for being alarmist and overstating their fear of Islamic militants by arguing that liberals are worried about their own lifestyles and therefore demonise the militants. The listed documentation of specific anti-women atrocities committed by religious militants is therefore undermined and expunged by such arguments.
The continued insistence that women be excluded from all forms of public presence and services has been reiterated by the Lal Masjid representative to the Taliban peace talks committee, Abdullah Aziz. It’s not about liberals’ fear of Islam and the outliers that are the TTP but the real worry should be about clergyman such as Aziz who acts as rationaliser of the TTP’s ideological intent. Similarly, leaders like Imran Khan attempt to mainstream the TTP’s political purpose by diluting its harsh core and by converting them into victims of imperialism instead.
The former has agreed with the TTP view that Sharia must be imposed on the inadequately Islamic Republic of Pakistan and that one of the ways to recognise it will be, when there are no women sitting in Parliament. Imran Khan is still criminally distorting history by insisting that the anti-polio campaign has been sparked due to the Shakil Afridi involvement in the CIA raid in Abbotabad.
At least in the 2007 peace talks, in return for allowing FM Fazlullah to continue with his illegal radio broadcasts that advocated anti-state sermons in Swat, the MMA meekly requested the TTP chief that polio vaccinations should be allowed to continue. Which one was more successful is clear today, when Peshawar has been declared the largest polio reservoir of the world and Pakistan, the epicenter of terrorism. Yet, the fact that both are considered to be the responsibilities of western governments allows us to deflect the vertical and horizontal nexus, influence, as well as the ideological and operational shield that sustains Islamist groups in Pakistan and makes orthodox religion its political source and hegemonic future.
Women activists in Afghanistan are justifiably anxious about the Presidential elections due in April. Most of the 11 candidates are warlords and fundamentalists whose views on women are not far from that of the Afghan Taliban. This is the success of religious conservatism — across the spectrum they all have consensus on the reduced worth and rights of women and minorities.
Similarly, women’s rights activists in Pakistan are equally anxious about the terms and conditions that will determine the outcome of the current round of peace talks with the TTP. Regardless of the results, religious politics will take a hard right turn.
Between the clear misogynists, the sympathetic rationalisers and the weak record of normative women’s rights in Pakistan, women of this country should be prepared to bear the brunt of the cost of peace.