Is Pakistan male?


As common idioms go, the Pakistani nation is perceived and personified as male. Its female citizens are ‘his’ avatars who are validated through kinship – either by virtue of birth or marriage. This explains how the title of Mother/Daughter/Sister-in-law of the Pakistani nation has usually been the exclusive privilege of those women who have been either proxies or progeny of male leaders.

One early candidate was the maternal figure in the form of the Madre Millat, Fatima Jinnah. Later came the iconic Daughter of the East, Benazir Bhutto, who scaled national symbolism and morphed into this regional scion. More recently, we have the Bhabi of the Nation, Reham Khan, cast into this appropriately demure and once-removed role after her marriage to PTI leader, Imran Khan.

The exception in this competitive imaginary has been the Pakistani-origin neuroscientist and (according to US courts) indicted terrorist, Afia Siddiqui. (I omit Malala Yousufzai only because while inspirational, her nomination was the most hotly contested and controversial and so, makes the claim an unsettled one). Ironically, Siddiqui is the only candidate who may have independently achieved, rather than have been ascribed her autonomous status as Daughter of the Nation. But she was not even consciously competing for the honour. Instead, this title was anointed on her by an opportunist Jamaat-e-Islami in order to exploit her as a symbol of perceived Muslim innocence and victimhood. She also served as an agitprop at pre-election PTI rallies and for all shades of Islamists’ from Yemen to Bangladesh to serve their anti-America rhetoric.

There are two broad considerations that should be kept in mind when weighing the figurative, symbolic worth of female kin of the (Muslim) Nation. First, in the post-9/11 decade, the post-secularist lobby has been pushing the bid that Muslim women have the right to aspire for a ‘different’ kind of equality (non-liberal and not ‘western’ freedoms), and that they have the right to organised spiritual piety as may be found in their hijabs, darses, mosques and madressahs. My recurrent question has been: what’s in it for these women in a non-abstract, non-transcendent and material, political sense in relation to the state? The second concern is: which social class is benefitting most when a political issue becomes displaced by an individual when she shines her distracting, bright, celebrity or divine light?

When Angelina Jolie visited Pakistan in her capacity as UN Ambassador for Refugees in the wake of the devastation of the 2010 floods, she was painted in overtly sexist terms by some sections of the Pakistani press. The main target of such attacks was the government of the time for appropriating Jolie’s celebrity status as a public relations stunt and a clumsy personal, social-climbing exercise. However, what was missed out in the barrage of such criticism was the inherent limitations of celebrity humanitarianism, especially when the volunteer is a woman.

The trouble is that the humanitarian gaze through which the crisis is seen by the world is that of the privileged celebrity tourist rather than those of the suffering community and this becomes a form of voyeurism rather than political solution. When the ‘helper tourist’ is a woman, it sentimentalises the problem as if the crisis simply needs empathy and a loving touch rather than, again, a political solution.

In the 1990s, severe criticism was aimed at both PMs, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto for turning visits to rape victims into photo-ops, rather than dealing with the structural causes behind such crimes or redressing the commonality of injustice for survivors. When human rights and NGO activists conduct their mundane humanitarian work, it invites suspicion and cynical mocking. But if a pretty young wife of a political leader should visit the now popular tourist destination for humanitarian work as the Florence Nightingale of Fata, suddenly this becomes a cause for admiration and a reflection of a non-partisan purity of political purpose.

Why is it that the Zille Humas, Parveen Rahmans, Aasiya Bibis, Mukhtara Mais, the Bushra Arains, Okara peasant women, women councillors, the women’s cricket team, Swat’s female performing artists and Malalas do not deserve the title of Women Who Sustain Communities and Nations?

These are not ‘ordinary’ women nor ‘heroines’ who must be valorised simply because they are active, working-class women or, victims. Nor are their identities derived as consanguineal Wives, Daughters or Sisters of any man or abstraction called ‘The Nation’. These are exceptional women because they do not uphold, but are targeted or often survive and subvert the rotten and male-beneficial, class-entrenched national status quo – the patriarchal and capitalist status quo.

It is these women who deserve to become the definers of the nation, rather than that class of status quo women who are recruited by multinational ad campaigns to promote consumer products. Running or working in profit-oriented enterprises in the private sector does not qualify as a ‘Miracle’. Rather, such tactics simply gloss over and glorify domesticity because most individual Pakistani women who are defined as ‘entrepreneurs’ are actually teaching, cooking and tailoring for profit by running expensive private schools, bakeries and over-priced clothing boutiques.

Reinforcing the insidious logic of capitalism and female role of domesticity does not make Miracle Women –- no matter how much Ponds attempts to spin its glossy campaign with pretty whitened faces and the token, brave disabled and/or, upwardly mobile middle-class woman. Such gloss simply shines its deceptive veneer over the structural roots of the obstacles that prevent women from being equal in the workforce or achieving equality overall.

According to the Citizenship Act of Pakistan and the legal process for applying for citizenship, women in this country have no sovereign status and single women seem to be just fictive not authentic kin unless validated by men. Discriminatory property laws and distribution practices are a whole other discussion.

Obviously then, Pakistani women can only be affinities to the Nation through marriage and birth, rather than directly related sovereign subjects or representatives. Is that a western liberal goal or can Muslim women be allowed to step out of their infantilised marital roles and pietist desires and just be recognised as direct, independent, active and equal citizens of their nations?

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