In the past 65 years, the idea of Pakistan has been academically and dispassionately discussed many times. Unfortunately, it has happened elsewhere, not in the country; which is kind of ironic, considering that it is one of the only two countries of the world that were created on the basis of ideology. Bearing in mind that the idea of Pakistan is not a popular topic of debate in the country, Rubina Saigol’s The Pakistan Project: A Feminist perspective on Nation and Identity is commendable, for it not only discusses the idea of Pakistan, but it does so from a feminist perspective, which is even rarer.
The book details historical perspectives on the cultural nationalism of Pakistan. What makes this analysis different from other such endeavours is that it examines the body of work of four pre-partition Muslim scholars who tried to come up with the idea of Muslim womanhood and Muslim manhood, following the anarchy and upheaval caused by the war of 1857 and the loss of the Mughal throne.
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, though considered an advocate of women’s education in present-day Pakistan, was of the view that women should not be taught “geography” as they are not active in public spaces in any capacity (economic, political or social) in a non-familial way. The emphasis was on containment of women to the more traditional roles of mothers, wives and daughters.
The other writer whose writing Saigol deconstructs is Deputy Nazeer Ahmed. His novel Mirat-ul-Uroos is considered a guide on “how to be a good Muslim woman” for over a century and if its status in Pakistani pop culture is any indication (it gets remade every few years in a television serial and is part of secondary school curriculums), it remains extremely relevant. Saigol states that unlike Syed Ahmed Khan, Nazeer Ahmed believed that women should be taught secular subjects, because a well-rounded education makes them outstanding mothers and good administrators who run their homes smoothly. But he too believed in keeping Muslim women away from the public sphere. His book states many times that a good Muslim woman must never consider herself equal to a man.
Saigol concludes this section by discussing Muslim manhood, as imagined by Akbar Allahabadi and Allama Iqbal. Both consider Muslim nationalism rooted in past glories, machismo and conquest. Akbar Allahabadi blamed all the social and economic evils on women shunning purdah and entering public spaces, and linked nationalism with controlling women’s mobility.
Just like Allahabadi, Allama Iqbal’s poetry also glorifies the distant past of Muslim colonialism. For him, the idea of nationalism was rooted in the exploits of “mard-e-momin” — a Muslim man, or a Muslim Superman as Saigol likes to call him — of the past who conquered lands and had control over women’s sexuality. With British colonisation of South Asia, that masculinity was lost and could only be regained by reviving the glory of past Muslims; rediscovering faith and regaining control over sections of society that are not mard-e-momin, i.e. women and children. Saigol firmly believes that these ideas of masculinity and femininity espoused in the poetry of Iqbal and Allahabadi have greatly impacted the gendered consciousness of Pakistan.
Saigol cites examples from Pakistani text books about how women have been viewed; not as direct citizens, but as subordinates to men who enjoy primary citizenship rights. As state and nationalism are both very masculine in the Pakistani context, men are its natural citizens who mediate relations between state and women. Saigol points out that in Pakistani curricula; citizenship is constructed around the concept of masculinity. The father is the head of the family; he brings home the disposable income, pays taxes and makes economic decisions. There is mention of respect accorded to mothers, wives, sisters and daughters in the society, but not to women in general. Male identity has rights; female identity is defined in terms of duties, to ensure that they stay confined to traditional roles that enable social and sexual regulation.
No piece of academic literature that discusses feminist perspective on Pakistani nationhood and identity would be complete without a mention of how the constitution categorically denies its female citizenry some basic rights. Saigol cites the usual pieces of legislations like the law of evidence, Qisas & Diyat. Law of evidence considers the value of a woman’s testimony in a court of law half in comparison to that of a man. Qisas & Diyat also diminish the value of a woman’s life by half. Naturalised citizenship is also shackled with constraints of gender. A male Pakistani can marry a woman from any part of the world, and she would be granted naturalised citizenship. A foreigner married to a Pakistani woman would not be accorded the same right.
Saigol’s book is praiseworthy for many reasons. It not only critically examines the poetry of Iqbal — the national poet, hence an untouchable figure — but also quotes Azad’s prediction about Pakistan’s future Balkanisation. It raises questions that many in a religiously conformist state like Pakistan are afraid to ask. It questions the standard feminist perspective of viewing everything with a secular lens, and points out instances where women are trying to forge an identity within the religious framework — at times supporting patriarchy — but creating a space for themselves nonetheless. It questions if women should give up the idea of citizenship in a state that views citizenship in terms of masculinity. It questions the idea of creating a hostile Other in the curricula — usually a religious minority or ethnic minority — which gives rise to further masculation of the idea of state. She tackles a tricky subject without drama and comes out with an academically sound, cogent and coherent feminist perspective on Pakistani nation and identity. This book is recommended to everyone who is curious about Pakistani ideology, the role gender plays in the construction of that ideology, its historical roots and how that ideology came out of disorder and is creating more chaos.
But if The Pakistan Project should be admired for just one reason, in my opinion it would be coining the term “Iqbal’s Muslim Superman.”
Originally written for The Sunday Guardian
Book Title” The Pakistan Project: A Feminist Perspective on Nation and Identity
Writer: Rubina Saigol
Publishers: Women Unlimited/Kali for Women
Pages: 388 Rs. 650