Forced marriages, honour killings and the hugely publicised case of the gang rape of Mukhtar Mai have held Pakistan up as an international example of the impact of religious fundamentalism on women’s rights. This has certainly become evident from the number of reports that have been churned out by international human-rights organisations over the past several years on women’s rights in Pakistan. Interestingly, this emphasis also fits seamlessly into the rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’.
Enthusiastically embraced by the regime of General Pervez Musharraf in order to root out Islamic fundamentalism, the ‘war on terror’ strategy has been projected as the panacea for all violations of women’s human rights. As a key player in the ‘coalition of the willing’, Gen Musharraf committed to usher Pakistan into a new era of progress. The bloody standoff at the Lal Masjid in July 2007, coupled with the November declaration of emergency, together form part of the standard script of ‘progress’ that is often seen to put into motion a country’s move from tradition to modernity. Ironically, both come at the cost of human lives and abrogation of human rights. Caught amidst this transition is the question of women’s rights in Pakistan: will a progressive and secular Islam truly bring an end to forced marriages and honour killings?
The problem with this view is that it defines the notions of tradition and modernity as binaries. This ignores those crucial grey areas in between, where reality is about a layered experience of working out a space between these two points, and not of rejecting one for the other. This tension can be identified through an exploration of some films on and from Pakistan made over the last decade.
The stereotypical narrative is perpetuated in Women’s Rights are Human Rights, made in 2001 by Dutch filmmaker Ayfer Ergun and produced by Amnesty International. The part of the film that discusses honour killings, filmed in Pakistan, starts with images of veiled women on the street, the sound of the azaan in the background, and a Western woman’s voiceover declaring that in Islamic law men are supposed to be protectors of women. Here the visualisation and narrative explicitly invoke a connection between Islamic culture and honour crimes. This film comes a couple of years after Amnesty singled out Pakistan as the emblematic case of non-implementation of the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) – even while the United States remains the only country in North America and Europe that is not a party to CEDAW.
In the same vein is the Toronto-based Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid’s Reinventing the Taliban (2003). In this documentary, the filmmaker travels to NWFP, a stronghold of Islamic fundamentalism, and interviews members of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), one of Pakistan’s most radical religious groups. The film captures the ways in which women’s rights are curbed in the name of Islam in the country. She contrasts the situation in NWFP with ‘progressive’ Lahore, where women ramp models speak out strongly against the despotism of jihadi Islam. The film identifies these voices as the symbols of secular people’s challenge against the hardliners.
The counter position is Pakistani director Shoaib Mansoor’s debut film, Khuda Ke Liye (In the Name of God), released in July 2007. This is a mainstream film, and one that is said to have the potential to revive the sinking Pakistani film industry. The opening of the film saw fatwas issued against the filmmakers, supposedly for denigrating Islam. At the same time, Khuda has become a runaway hit in Pakistan, having grossed more than USD 500,000. The film ran to packed houses in Karachi and Lahore, but did not manage a release in NWFP, Balochistan or in Islamabad. It is said that Gen Musharraf was a fan of the film, and even provided state protection to Mansoor after he received death threats.
Khuda Ke Liye is a story about two musician brothers from a wealthy and progressive Pakistani family. The younger gives up music and takes up jihad under the influence of the teachings of a maulvi, while the elder one goes to Chicago to study music, and is arrested and tortured in the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001. In an interesting interweaving of plots, Mansoor also places the issue of women’s rights at the forefront, when a Pakistani immigrant from London, who lives with his white girlfriend, cannot accept his UK-raised daughter marrying a white man of her choice. To maintain his status in the Pakistani community in London, he takes her to Pakistan and forces her to marry the musician-turned-jihadi brother.
The film speaks in a very rational voice, but does not mince words when it comes to condemning fundamentalisms of all stripes – be it the treatment of women in Pakistan or that of Muslims in post-9/11 United States. Khuda also counters what can be referred to as the ‘museumisation’ of Pakistan’s international representation: as a culturally depraved Islamic country that carries out atrocities against its women. Violence against women in Pakistan is a reality, and Mansoor does not deny that it is increasingly being sanctioned through cultural diktat. However, he challenges the direct causal connection sought to be drawn between Islam and its treatment of women. Rather, he attempts to understand the violations of women’s rights in the Islamic world, especially Pakistan, as emanating from the deployment of a certain kind of politics that uses women’s bodies as markers of honour.
For Mansoor, this is not Islam. This is reflected in a scene where the younger brother, under the influence of the maulvi, returns home and pulls down all paintings from the walls – any form of art supposedly being un-Islamic – and demands that his mother start wearing the hijab. His parents and elder brother are visibly upset and, in response, their devout grandmother says, “When I started going to school there was a debate about whether I should wear the hijab. Today, after 70 years, we are back to the same question.”
Khuda also successfully pricks the idea that radicalism is location-specific. This can be seen in the way that the immigrant Pakistani man’s actions are depicted as more in line with Taliban-like practices than that of the progressive Pakistani family of the musician brothers, in spite of the former’s location in multicultural London. The racial targeting of Muslims in the US following 9/11 is also thought-provokingly depicted, wherein the falsely detained elder brother, after being subjected to several days of torture in custody to admit to being a part of al-Qaeda, says, “I love Osama bin Laden, because you will never let me hate him.”
Rational v radical
Both Khuda Ke Liye and Reinventing the Taliban – one a feature film, the other a documentary – present the voices of liberal Muslims who reject fundamentalism, and yet stop short of indicting the state as a participant in the process of the radicalisation of Islam. Rather, they co-opt the state’s rhetoric. In Khuda, the standoff between rational and radical Islam is played out in a courtroom, in which the diktats of a fundamentalist maulvi are effectively countered by the progressive interpretations of Islam by a rational maulvi, played by Bombay actor Naseeruddin Shah. The debate is over whether Islam recognises women’s consent in marriage, whether it considers mausiki (music) as haram (blasphemous), and whether keeping a beard is the true symbol of being a Muslim. The courtroom stands for rule of law over rule of fanaticism, wherein the voice of sanity ultimately prevails. In reality, of course, things are not so straightforward: it is this same judiciary, handpicked by Gen Musharraf, that soon after the release of Khuda supported the declaration of emergency in Pakistan.
Khuda ends on a positive note, when the violated woman finally gets justice, the elder brother comes back home – though crippled – and the younger gets back to singing. After a commendably complicated plot thus far, however, the film falls into the liberal trap of advocating an ‘outside’ intervention for change. The UK-born Pakistani girl, having been forced into marrying the younger brother and subsequently being rescued, is all set to fly back to London when, suddenly, she decides against leaving. In the following scene, she is back in the same village in Afghanistan, setting up a school to teach English to girls.
Such a representation ignores the potential for change that Muslim women within Pakistan have already portrayed. Mukhtar Mai, with the compensation she received, opened schools for rural children, and remains an icon of resistance. This has been aptly captured in a recent documentary on Mai’s life called Shame (2006), made by Montreal-born Pakistani filmmaker Mohammad Naqvi. On the contrary, Mansoor’s implanting of a ‘foreigner’ to teach English, and ostensibly ‘liberate’ the young girls, does severe disservice to what women from within the communities have already begun.
Similarly, Obaid ends Reinventing with a shot of Gen Musharraf trying to convince a group of beard-sporting mullahs that keeping a beard is not the only sign of being a Muslim. Accompanying this scene is Obaid’s voiceover, in which she praises the general’s outspoken opposition to zealous fundamentalists and his support for the secular majority. She also makes a point about the need for countries such as India, Pakistan and the US to collectively root out Islamic fundamentalism – in effect supporting the ‘war on terror’ as the only way of countering radical Islam.
At a time when Pakistan is in the throes of political turmoil, the state-advocated understanding of modernity as the opposite of tradition makes for a troubling point of view. We cannot forget that after the Mukhtar Mai rape case, Gen Musharraf publicly alleged that getting gang-raped had become a money-making concern for women. He also refrained from repealing the Hudood Ordinance, which had led directly to Mukhtar Mai’s rapists being acquitted prior to the intervention of the Supreme Court. With such sentiments in minds, at what cost does one embrace the kind of liberal secular state that Gen Musharraf purportedly espoused?
The question also remains of whether we are to look at the transition from traditional to modern Islam as a linear process of progress. Or, on the flip side, do we pay more attention to understanding the ways in which people, especially women, deal with their religious identity and demand their rights? A woman has the option of wearing the veil as a way to offer multiple forms of resistance: she can wear it to access public spaces that would otherwise be inaccessible to her, and at the same time she can wear the veil as a Muslim holding up a symbol to resist the ‘modern’ gaze that wants to imagine liberation for her. We need to find and create spaces of rationality between the binaries of tradition and modernity, rather than falling into the trap of letting the state act as the sole arbiter of what qualifies as liberal and secular. In the current context, this task remains a significant challenge in Pakistan.
Author is a scholar of Women’s Right in Faculty of Law, University of Toronto and a Human Right’s Lawyer.
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