1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009)

Gender, Religion and the Quest for Justice in Pakistan (Draft)

This is the Final Research Report on Pakistan in the Religion, Politics and Gender Equality Project.

The 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.