Moving Beyond the Binary: Gender-based Activism in Pakistan
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This article challenges the binary framework within which women in Pakistan have been viewed, by political actors, the state, and more broadly as well, as either ‘secular/feminist/godless/Westernised’ or ‘authentic/ Islamic/traditional’. It begins by contextualising the genealogy of this binary in Pakistan’s colonial and political history, which has led to the state’s side-lining of moderate religious voices and promotion of right-wing religious parties that suited its political objectives. Even the scholarship produced by the women’s movement, which arose in response to a politicised Islamisation process begun under military rule in the 1980s, inadvertently reproduces this binary as activists sought to assert a rights-based agenda and were supported by international donor funds. A shift in recent years in response to West-based international scholarship post 9/11, which focusses on the subjectivity and organisation of Islamist women, has influenced work on women in Pakistan as well as a donor turn to funding faith-based initiatives. The paper then examines current gender justice movements that emerged independently at a grass-roots level, and draws attention to their effectiveness despite lack of strong linkages with either the women’s movement or Islamist women. These include rights-based mobilisations by peasant women, community health workers, tribal women in the Taliban/conflict-affected north-west, and transgender activism. It ends by challenging feminists to engage more deeply with these forms of activism.