Performance Anxiety: Women’s Sexed Bodies in Pakistan

Afiya Shehrbano Zia. International Feminist Journal of Politics. Volume 19, Issue 3. September 2017.

Gender and Muslim Identities

Prompted by concerns of Islamophobia and the treatment of Muslims in the West, some scholars have argued that Muslim women’s rights should only be framed through a gendered lens—one which would also include Muslim men’s bodies (Mahmood; Abu-Lughod; Hammer; also see essays in Satterthwaite and Huckerby).

Such proposals suggest that Muslim men and women may be seen as “equal” victims of imperialism and racialized violence. Hammer, writing on Islamophobia, argues that the

role of gender as a category of analysis should not be limited to Muslim women’s bodies or, for that matter, Muslim women at all. In the broader picture it should always be supplemented by rigorous and critical inclusion of how Islamophobia directed against Muslim men is, of course, gendered as well.

Other scholars have cautioned against “weaponized feminism” (Pratt) and complicity in the racializing discourse of the War on Terror (WoT). Some commentators even label feminists who are critical of Muslim men’s violent practices in Muslim societies as “native informants” and “imperial feminists” (Toor; Akbar and Oza).

This academic emphasis on the Muslimness of male and female bodies complicates feminist theorizing and activism, especially regarding cases of violence against women in Muslim contexts. The overdeterminism of the religious identity of the violated versus violator becomes the focus at the expense of the violation itself.

If an all-inclusive gendered approach is compulsory when reading the Muslim female body (as Hammer insists), it implies that the Muslim female body cannot be secular and is always prone to being assessed by and for its Muslimness. Such a case then invites an automatic criticism of its liberal-secular betrayal and collaboration with western feminism and universalism, and even as complicit with Islamophobia.

Akbar and Oza reify Muslim masculinist vulnerability by arguing that Islamic fundamentalism is merely a benign form of Muslim male politics, which is being demonized and exploited by secular feminists in Muslim contexts. This is easily achieved by depicting feminists and human rights activists working on violence against women in Muslim contexts as alarmists who focus exclusively on faith-based violence. These critics of feminist and human rights activists in Muslim contexts argue that all faith-based crimes against women have simple causative links to the War on Terror and US imperialism. This empties religion of political agency or religious actors of divine inspiration.

Such flattened analyses pose a serious political challenge to—and impede—women’s activism on the issue of violence against women in Muslim contexts, particularly with reference to the kind committed by religious militants in Pakistan in the backdrop of the WoT. The cases discussed below demonstrate the limits and hazards of those epistemological objections, which seek to rescue the racialized Muslim male body in cases of violence against women.

Pietist Agency and Bodily Resistance

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault cites the example of paramilitary training as a form of disciplining bodies. Pakistani émigré, Saba Mahmood, has argued a case for the self-disciplinary pietist agency of believing Muslim women even as it may be tied to their legitimate embrace of illiberal or patriarchal religiosity (Mahmood). Mahmood’s influential study is often read as a metanarrative of pietist agency, whereby she redefines docility as a dormant condition signified through Muslim women’s piety. This qualifies as their “agency,” in the light of which submissiveness may be read as a form of, or even substitute to, emancipation (Abbas).

Mahmood cites the pietist women’s movement in Egypt as exemplifying “valuable human nourishing” (217) that is not defined by acts that lead to progressive change (212). Instead, Mahmood’s theory relies on an academic subversion of the concept of feminist agency and her avowed intention is to “uncouple the notion of self-realization from that of the autonomous will, as well as agency from the progressive goal of emancipatory politics” (206).

Such a framing—of the pious, consciously nonfeminist, agentive-docile Muslim woman—prohibits any reading of this body as either sexed, unsexed, political or apolitical. It neither confirms nor corroborates how such agency also has the capability to facilitate political action, or that it is very capable of informing, converting and sustaining subversion and insurgency. Mahmood challenges the conventional (western and male) notion of the docility of Muslim women and offers her own rereading of their pietist agency. In both texts, however, the Muslim woman remains a subject that offers neutral (apolitical), conservative (non)change.

Butler has argued against some feminist attempts to reclaim the materiality of the body, since she does not see it as a “passive medium on which cultural meanings are inscribed or as the instrument through which an appropriative and interpretive will determines a cultural meaning for itself” (12). Yet, this is the exact premise of my essay. Here, it will be argued that the Pakistani female body becomes “sexed” precisely because it is passifiedinstrumentalized or sexualized via an interpretive praxis (12, author’s emphasis). In cases where it resists the inscription of cultural meanings, or refuses to act as a communal signboard where local patriarchal messages are posted, it is subjected to punitive action. This is a successful formula.

I respect what Butler offers in Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, but am only half convinced by its value for feminist activism on violence against women. My point of departure is from Butler’s and Foucault’s ideas that the body is the locale of both the effect of power and the source of resistance. On this point I think that much more is hinged the other way around, and contingent on who is sourcing power and what the effect of resistance is. These are not the same.

All bodies are not equally (em)powered and all resistance does not have the same effect. Something compelling happens to the body as a result of knowledge and when this bodily knowledge is translated into action, it deserves attention and response too. This is particularly difficult if a body is made sexless, emptied of its sex or denied political agency (replaced by Mahmood’s docile agency).

Further, the idea that a single body can be multiplicitous—by way of being both victim and survivor (raped subject), as mujahideen/holy warrior and terrorist (Taliban), agentive and docile (pietist Muslim woman)—cancels out political resistance to one half of the Siamese twin. Regarding each of these examples, consider the following: we are told in feminist and rape literature that if you have survived the rape, you are no longer a victim (for the importance of such labels, see Hockett and Saucier). We are told that by becoming victims of imperialist terror, we become free to inflict terror—even on other defenseless bodies. Not only are these actions absolved of any guilt, they can achieve “Islamic martyrdom” of a more meritorious variety (Munawar Hasan, former chief of Jamaat e Islami, Pakistan, quoted in “Controversial Remarks: Army Demands Apology”). We are taught through academic theorizing that for those who “actively” chose docility, there is no requirement for realizing the Self any further (Mahmood).

Such analyses of these bodies cancel out the political contestations implied in the acts committed by and upon them. These are sealed by a protective self-encryption that prohibits any political scrutiny of these coded subjects. Nor will poststructuralists and postmodernists permit these to be challenged or decoded according to any external, “given” (universal) codes or keys (Grewal; Brown). At best, the critics of liberal/secular feminisms will not engage with any criticism of power that is not emanating from the West (Terman). Unfortunately though, sexual politics has to appeal to identifiable sexual rights and is dependent on context-specific sexed identities for its political effectiveness.

Within communities where gender relations are tethered by restrictive patriarchal codes (e.g., “honor” codes, Jafri) the anxiety over fractures in the communal codes is particularly high. This is especially so if such a rupture is initiated by the sexed female subject (subjected to violence) at the expense of the larger male collective/community. Many residents would prefer a joint state of permanent victimhood of the collective, rather than support the escape of the renegade resistant woman who rejects any form of victimization or speaks back to the violation she has been subjected to. She may be a victim and survivor, but in order to truly achieve that dual status she has to climb out of her bodily knowledge and scale the community’s resistance to her publicization of such knowledge.

In honor-based cases, she would have twice breached the male code—first by willfully transgressing prescribed gendered or sexual norms, and then by refusing to settle the matter through communal justice and fleeing the community. Very often, the dissenting woman will appeal to the law/state/human rights for justice or protection, or to assist in her right to exercise her “free-will.” In other words, she cannot stay within the same (old, violently or consensually sexed) body or the body politic that has been complicit in and witness to the process.

Postsecular Criticism of Liberalism and Feminism

Some post-9/11 scholars take pride in how they “muddy the waters” (Toor, 151) and trouble the binaries and boundaries that divide Us and Them while resuscitating interiorized subjectivities of Muslims. But when it comes to activating a public and political response to these contradictory subjects, there is no material advice, no guidance out of the swamp of muddiness that they have so generously raked up in order to complicate the linear narrative of the “relentlessly moralizing left discourse of the 1980s” (Brown, 315).

Brown  summarizes the motivation behind the collective arguments found in The Question of Gender by explaining that their yearning is “not only for a post-Enlightenment ethical subject but for an ethics beyond moralism” (315). The cooptation of progressive vocabulary and strategies, including feminist ones, has certainly fed neoconservatism, imperialist wars and free market savagery. However, it is critical to realize that the oppositional camps to such forces are not neutral recipients either. Therefore, such linguistic and strategic cooption and/or outright rejection of liberal and feminist causes are common even among the acclaimed oppressed and (male-dominated) opposing forces to imperialist adventurers (Khan; Shaheed; Sholkamy). The supporters and advocates of Islamic feminism acknowledge the deep and prevalent antagonism in Muslim societies toward liberal/secular feminism. They propose that their alternative effort to work from within the faith is a more pragmatic response to patriarchal attitudes and obstacles toward women’s rights (see Badran).

The implication in the critiques of liberal/secular feminisms as permanently prone to imperialist collaboration, neoliberalism and even Islamophobia has led to the characterization of this body of work as “postsecularist” literature (Mufti). Abu-Lughod, Mahmood) and some poststructuralist scholars have recognizably led such a critique, and in some cases made clear and connective allegations about how liberalism is the source of xenophobia, Islamophobia and “other such discourses” (Hammer, 35, citing Brown). Acknowledging this does not indict their scholarship as excusing religious fundamentalism.

Rather, like others who have engaged with this postsecular scholarship (Gourgouris; Abbas; Mufti; Terman), one is interested (and affected as a feminist activist) by its discursive contribution and impact on the debates around imperialism, secularism and crucially for the theme of this article, gendered violence in Muslim contexts. This is particularly important when assessing the treatment and usefulness of concepts of agency and “saving brown (Muslim) women” (Abu-Lughod) in postsecularist scholarship, when referenced and read against the various acts of violence against women by religious militants.

Some of these scholars have made more direct linkages between postsecular criticism and its resonance with Islamism. Mufti discusses the “orthodox status” that postsecular ways of thinking have gained in the humanities in the United States (12). He calls for scholarly accountability over how

the polemical use of such terms as Enlightenment and liberalism by [Talal] Asad and those who follow in his wake   …   is not only misleading about the politics of the contemporary Islamic world; it marks a failure to look honestly at one’s own intellectual practice and conceptual apparatus, at its own location within the secular culture of critique. (13, emphasis in original)

Specifically and directly he notes that “Saba Mahmood’s The Politics of Piety is now hugely influential in this regard [and] is in active agreement with Islamism itself when the latter thinks of itself in revivalist terms as a return to the true tradition of Islam” (12).

Similarly, Terman challenges how Abu-Lughod privileges a critique of western imperialism at the expense of obscuring the understanding of violence such as honor crimes in Muslim contexts. Terman notes that while Abu-Lughod’s article acknowledges that ‘honor crimes’ are distinct kinds of violence, in the essay she does not consider the crime to “constitute[s] a legitimate enterprise, while [she does] relentlessly suture [it] to a number of illegitimate projects such as imperialism, Islamophobia and western superiority” (83).

Many societies continue to be cemented by patriarchal structures and captured by their male stakeholders (Shaheed; Sholkamy), so it is key to see which tools of emancipation and strategies for freedom women use within these societies. Simply fretting, in knee-jerk fashion, over how the “imposition” of universal freedoms may not be well received or applicable to specific non-western communities is unhelpful. Universal or emancipatory rights are not necessarily equally received in Muslim contexts but neither are they uniformly rejected, particularly women’s rights. Neither should the cliché of feminists “inviting imperialism” (Toor; Spivak and Zia) be loosely thrown about just because they politic against violent Muslim men.

The two cases below are discussed as corporeal examples in Pakistan of the power base of violence that is sexed. They also illustrate how impunity for these acts may be provided (somewhat ironically) through precisely the kind of “complications” that sympathetic, post-9/11 analysis extends to the perpetrators/beneficiaries of such violence.

Militant Body Politics in Pakistan

The much-publicized cellphone video of a woman being flogged in Swat (north Pakistan) by religious militants of the Tehreeq e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2008 (for more details of this case, see Shaheen), revived gruesome memories of General Zia’s military dictatorship and his regime’s attempted Islamization of Pakistan (1979–88). Under Zia, the state-prescribed Islamic punishment of whipping was enacted and frequently administered during his martial law (1979–85).

The Punishment of the Whipping Ordinance (1979) is instructive in its language. The Ordinance specified the Muslim body that was liable for punishment, as well as the mode and conditions for the execution of the punishment. The law was repealed in 1996. Although other horrific forms of violence against women are widespread, the Swat flogging in 2008 aroused anxiety across the spectrum, triggering flashbacks to the Islamization years, 1979 onwards. This was despite the fact that the comparison was inaccurate.

In the Swat case, rather than a theocratic state of the 1980s that was prescribing and inflicting such punishment, the 2008 Taliban flogging was both within, and yet outside of, the imaginary of judicial parameters. The Nizam e Adl (Administration of Justice) of 2009 was a law passed as part of the peace agreement between the Pakistani state and the cleric and pro-Sharia insurgent leader of the Tehreeq e Nafiz Sharia Mohammad (TNSM), Sufi Muhammad (“Militancy in Malakand: Sufi Muhammad Charged with Terror”, ET, January 19). Sufi Muhammad’s movement had been demanding an independent Islamic judicial regime across Malakand division long before the WoT. The Taliban takeover of Swat after 2006 yielded an opportunity to negotiate for this demand in exchange for promises of a cessation of violence (Farooq “MPs Who Opposed Nizam-e-Adl Are No Longer Muslims: Sufi” Daily Times April 18; Farooq “Sufi, Mullah Fazlullah Discuss Peace in Swat” Daily Times, February 20). This agreement by the civilian government (further) ceded the state’s (albeit contested) judicial writ over Malakand Division.

The Sharia of Sufi Muhammad was brought into sharp relief by the Pakistani Taliban, headed by his son-in-law, Fazlullah (known locally as the Butcher of Swat) (Khattak), soon after they seized the valley. Under his regime, the TTP bombed over 122 girls’ schools, implemented a Sharia which allowed for executions and floggings, ruled against women leaving their homes and killed with impunity all those families that had earlier resisted them. Executions of prostitutes and barbers (the Taliban consider maintaining beards an Islamic obligation and shaving these amounts to unIslamic behavior) were followed by public hangings of their bodies, to serve as a warning against any future such transgression. These practices soon spread to adjoining districts.

Many political analysts and rights activists saw the Nizam e Adl agreement as a surrender of constitutional justice, deeming it the result of a long-term neglect by the state and the increasing privatization of religious norms and punishments in the tribal and northern areas of Pakistan (Kamal). Feminists have also argued that ever since the institutionalization of Islamic laws in the 1980s, their discriminatory intent, spirit and application has extended impunity to men who commit crimes against women (Mumtaz and Shaheed; Zia; Khan). However, the Nizam e Adl signaled a more disconcerting shift—one that has been responsive to the argument of a tribalized cultural specificity with religious overtones. The law was passed with no parliamentary debate, and certainly no discussion about protective conditions or assurances of rights for women, or how this legal regime would be interpreted vis-à-vis their citizenship rights.

Over the last few years, the call by Islamic political leaders, clerics, scholars and (what are termed) moderates in Pakistan to replace universal human rights modes with more “indigenous” laws and punishment has also opened the doors for justifying “culturally relevant” justice. This has resulted in absorption of Islamic laws that dovetail into and bolster local patriarchal codes that determine vaguely defined traditions and customs (Kamal; Shaheed). In many ways, this may be linked to the effort on the part of some within the women’s movement to reclaim religion from male theocrats. This campaign to work for women’s rights within an Islamic rather than broader human rights framework has not failed—it has been lamentably successful.

Today, issues in Pakistan related to women’s rights, punishments, citizenship and public and private roles are fixed and discussed in limited terms of what is religiously appropriate. The only contestable space, thanks to those who argue for a liberation theological approach to rights is that women must fight to reinterpret texts (but also, many practices that are derived from oral traditions) in their favor. This limitation, within a state that is complicit in the violence perpetrated against women, makes Pakistani women’s very survival dependent on such interpretations, rather than an inalienable, indivisible, universal basic guarantee to protection and security of life, regardless of belief or creed.

Swat Flogging Case

There are divergent accounts of the 2008 Swat flogging case, but the central offense may be read as a mixed account of a lay honor crime (punishable under Pakistan’s Penal Code) and a suspected Islamic crime of adultery (punishable under the Islamic Hudood Ordinances of 1979). It is said that the accused man, who was previously engaged to the accused woman, Chand Bibi (not her legal name but an affective reference/pet name), came to her house in Kabal, Swat, under the pretext of making electrical repairs. The insurgent Taliban, who were in command at the time, were immediately informed about this. The man was seen escaping from the rear of her house, thereby confirming Chand Bibi’s guilt of an illicit meeting. Allegedly both the suspected man and woman were flogged but it was only the woman’s public flogging by the Taliban that was recorded on a cellphone by one of the spectators on the scene. Certainly, it was not the first public punishment of women in the country, but the Swat case received wide electronic media coverage and therefore immediate audience response (Walsh; Zaidi and King).

Other widely publicized cases, such as the alleged live burial of women in Baluchistan (Shah) and the Tasleema Solangi attack by a dog as part of retributive justice by a landowner in Sindh (Hussain) were seen by horrified urban media consumers as evil deeds committed by atavistic tribesmen or feudals. However, the Taliban flogging, in which the woman was not murdered but survived the brutality, elicited a wider reaction.

While these “normative” honor crimes and anti-women jirga (informal male tribunal) decisions focused on culture, tradition and patriarchal practices, the nature of the punishment in the Swat case triggered a broader debate on Islamic prescriptions regarding expected gender behavior and justice. In the other cases, extrajudicial punishment for women who transgress male community codes is considered part of a privatized (and technically illegal) resolution involving the family, community or biradari (clanship/endogamy). Yet, in the Swat case, the Taliban whipping of the woman in public was deliberately “performed” (by the Taliban) as their alternative interpretation and execution of Islamic justice. Under the cover of the Nizam e Adl, the punishment challenged the state’s normative judicial and penal system itself (which has outlawed whippings) (Walsh).

The commonality in all the above cases is based on the process of designating women as identity markers of male honor and heterosexual normativity (Jafri; Haroon). Once each of these women was given this identity (or, sexed), the penalty exacted on them was adjudicated on the rationale for the need to regulate their sexuality and mobility within the assigned and associated boundaries of normative behavior. In the other cases, the custodians would be perceived as legitimate exactors of punitive measures, as they were family members or economic patrons. The difference in the Swat flogging case was that the Taliban were neither recognized by the state nor communally sanctioned guardians of the women they targeted.

The state, meanwhile, predictably distanced itself from engaging in such epistemology (Walsh) and condemned the “barbaric and archaic” nature of the Taliban—even though it had executed the same form of punishment that was, until 1996, on the statute books of the Islamic Republic.

In this Swat case, the Taliban used the female body for playing out their power politics to their advantage. The modus was to first ban female bodies from public spaces under the legal cover of the Nizam e Adl, which allowed them to redefine the very notion and domain of gender justice. This then provided them with the opportunity to punish the un-Islamic transgression of Chand Bibi according to the imaginary of their Sharia norms—which is clearly not limited to “lapses” in public spaces only. Through their public performance of flogging her on suspicion of illegitimate contact with a non-mehram man (i.e., permissible for marriage according to Islamic prescription), the Taliban were able to supersede the already restrictive traditional gender norms of society. Now they could effectively demonstrate how they planned to institute a more severely gendered order to the wider body politic that witnessed the prosecution.

Mainstream conservatives and Islamists either denied the flogging and/or distanced themselves from the extreme interpretations of the militant Taliban (Baabar). Some progressives believed that their outrage and verbal condemnation of such spectacular violence earned them the title of being liberal and secular. These sympathetic men did not comment nor politic against normative violence against women nor the (Islamic) laws and policies that provide impunity to such crimes. One scholar predicted incisively that the male accused would resettle much sooner after the incident due to his higher class and social status, and verified that women have been the worst sufferers of militancy in the country (Shaheen).

According to feminist researchers, Chand Bibi has merely pleaded for anonymity in the aftermath of the domestic and international attention to her ordeal. They confirm that Chand Bibi was whipped, but did not wish to pursue the case and forfeited this in the tradition of the community, rather than seek judicial resolution of such crimes against women. She has moved out of the community and works in a city where she wishes to retain anonymity.

This could be read as an effort to recover control over her Self, which had been captured and physically marked by the Taliban who flogged her. This scarring was deepened by the repeat playing of the video on domestic and international media channels. It also led to her ostracism from the community for the shame that the event brought to the village. According to her interviewers, the villagers were not dishonored by her suspected sexual misconduct, nor did they approve of the punishment by the Taliban or their vicious regime. Rather, they felt disgraced by the widely publicized video of the event for inviting ignominy on the village.

In this way, Chand Bibi’s punishment served as a double humiliation for her, but it yielded conflicting dividends on behalf of the male body politic. She served as a spectacular symbol of the Taliban’s punitive sociosexual order, even as she was resented by the locals for globally defaming them as primitive and backward.

Subversive Bodies

The attempted murder of the teenage girl, Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012, once again put the Swat Valley under a global spotlight (Husain). By this time, the Pakistan armed forces had wrested the valley from the Taliban’s control, and Fazlullah had escaped. However, the insurgents persevered with their sporadic attacks and revenge killings (Ali).

The Taliban’s spokesman confirmed their attack on Malala through a series of press releases (ET; Sherazi). They sought to justify the attack by blaming her for defying their warnings that girls should not pursue non-madrassah, lay education. Furthermore, an editorial in ET October 17, 2012 noted the TTP’s claim that they attempted to silence her because of her attempts to “secularize society.” In other words, Malala posed a threat to them not just because of her physical defiance by insisting on attending school, but, in fact, the Taliban’s entire body politic felt vulnerable to subversion by what they termed her “secularization project.”

After this surprise turn in the narrative of Islamic militancy, spurning hitherto proud claims of not targeting women or the weak (Sweeney), there was a wider backlash. In the national media, denial that the attack ever happened acquired dominance, and the 15-year-old victim became an object of suspicion and hostility (Jilani; Zia). Meanwhile, there was much apologia for the supposedly “real” victim (of imperialism) (see Iqtidar): the Taliban, who had proudly claimed responsibility for the attack (Waraich). The apologia ranged from excuses that the attack was revenge for children killed in drone strikes in the tribal areas (which the Taliban categorically denied), to the conspiracy theory that the entire episode was a ruse conjured up to vilify the militants (Zahra-Malik). By this time, the TTP had already systematically bombed hundreds of girls’ schools just in Swat and even explained why they saw Malala as a legitimate target.

“I Hate Malala” campaigns surged through the Islamist discourse and the youth following of the populist Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf political party (which is extremely active on social media) (see Zahra-Malik). This sentiment also resonated in the private sector, including in what are called elite “English medium” schools, often thought of as bastions of liberal thinking. Malala’s autobiography (I Am Malala) was banned by the All Pakistan Private Schools Management Association and Private Schools Federation in all their affiliate schools and libraries (Aziz and Buncombe). They claimed that Malala “represents the West, not us” and that she is “a tool in the hands of Western powers.” (Aziz and Buncombe).

The backlash prompted one feminist argument (Zia) for a strategic return to the framework of violence against women (VAW) rather than a reliance on the more ineffective, diffused and donor-led neoliberal developmental notion of tackling gender-based violence (GBV). The core argument was that GBV takes the attention away from the violated female body and attempts to “deflect the direct responsibility of a crime away from the individual and place it on the breadth of society, government, the state, global powers or imperialism.” The article argued this is problematic because it “empties the perpetrator of criminal motivation and refills him with a higher, larger-than-life, mission.”

As an observer, Manchanda objected to this suggestion to conceptually recover the motivating core of such cases of violence in the context of the WoT. The original article argued that a VAW lens would clearly identify how patriarchy leverages its expression through control over a defiant female body. Instead, Manchanda’s advice to Pakistani feminists was to avoid the trap of holding responsible “those caught on the scene and in the immediate act of the crime, as it were.” She objected to how those men of criminal intent are then cast as “violent Islamic fundamentalists” and how this enables “Us” liberal, peaceful, secular recipients to act as victims of the pain that “They” inflict. But Manchanda did not offer to delve into, or engage with, the impunity Islamic law extends to acts of violence against women. Nor did she consider how her argument chimed with Islamists and conservatives in the country who sympathetically cast the Taliban as victims of imperialism and deem them incapable of hurting women and children, thus reinforcing suspicions that are cast over women who suffer violence, accusing them of faking assaults to seek attention.

Manchanda’s argument follows the same logic through deflection that Terman finds in Abu-Lughod’s treatment of honor crimes. The question Terman raises is why practices of violence against women such as honor crimes should

be categorically dismissed as a valid scholarly enterprise or political concern (as Abu-Lughod repeatedly suggests it should) as soon as people attach it to projects we don’t like, even if they don’t make the same arguments we make, even if there are good reasons to keep it. (83)

By retaining the gauzy frames of GBV strategies as the recommended driver of feminist activism, Manchanda relied on common and inaccurate misconceptions among critics of women’s rights activism in Pakistan. One of these was the accusation that faith-based crimes against women (Malala or Chand Bibi) uniquely provoke shock and outrage among women’s rights activists because they focus exclusively only on crimes committed by Islamic fundamentalists/militants. This is completely inaccurate, as Pakistani feminists regularly work on and write about a wide range of cases of VAW, including those that emerged around the same time as the cited cases and were widely publicized in the mainstream media (e.g., “Sherry Condemns Killing of Khairpur Girl” DT, October 28; “Civil Society Protests Honour Killing of Women” DT, September 2; and Zakaria “Six Pakistani Women” Daily Times, September 6).

The second misplaced criticism against feminists/human rights activists relies on the now less common but dangerously repeated romanticization of the Taliban “policies” and their appeal to the women of Swat (Iqtidar; Manchanda). Both Manchanda  and Iqtidar cite these with reference to the “governance” of the Taliban after their capture of Swat in 2006, which won some initial support among women. However, the idea that the Taliban’s proposed religiosocial ethos was consciously embraced by the women of Swat toward their own oppression is simplistic and misleading. Researchers have challenged this and argued that the tentative acceptance of the Taliban in Swat was due to the overlap between the prevailing restrictive gender norms and the prescriptions of the Taliban (Haroon). Brohi’s interviews of women councilors of Swat finds that Fazlullah offered an interruption in local patriarchal norms. His preachings encouraged women to defy and override the decisions of the local men of their families and to follow the Taliban’s promissories instead. At first Fazlullah promissories gained him popularity amongst the women in Swat but after his take-over of the valley and his murderous and oppressive regime that followed, the same women supporters turned resentful and opposed his misogynistic rule. (cited in Brohi).

It seems that after its revisitation by Mahmood, Abu-Lughod and others, “agency” can no longer be associated with feminist politics, nor can Muslim women’s expressions of agency be read as willfully liberal or secular in aspiration. Since agency has been redefined with reference to Muslim women, it seems it cannot be studied as a form of resistance in Muslim contexts anymore. “Agency” for Muslim women seems to have become permanently hinged to and accommodative of the Muslim faith. It is not surprising, then, that Hammer would extend such reasoning (citing Abu-Lughod, and Hirschkind and Mahmood) to support her critique of “the feminist service of empire” (34) and assert the need to focus on how Islamophobic agendas are mapped onto Muslim women’s bodies, but would not mention how those bodies may be targets of other forms of intra-Muslim violence.

Hammer cites Wendy Brown to conclude her thesis with regard to the apparently singular source of the exploitation of Muslim women’s bodies in this regard: “[i]t is necessary to perceive xenophobic and other such discourses as part of the ideological production of liberalism” (35). In contrast and according to such a thesis, conservatism, religious agency or Islamism are not perceived as ideological contributors to xenophobia or gender-discriminatory views or practices as they are mapped across women’s bodies.


To recast violence against sexed bodies in the post-9/11 era as a sexless or apolitical act (almost accidental or innocent) is to risk turning the very specific cases of violence against women into a residual dustbin. To privilege the conditions and context of the religious militant and recast him as the anti-imperialist, racialized, socially misguided and gender-ignorant Muslim man is to deflect the crime in contexts where there is reluctance to assign responsibility anyway, and where methodological and legal impunity already benefit men and discriminate against women.

It is difficult enough to chip away at the multiple expressions of impunity extended to male violence against women, which can range from specific Islamic laws such as the Qisas and Diyat to all the other laws that render women and minorities lesser citizens/Muslims and therefore make them justifiable targets. Also, customs and traditions, as defined by patriarchal interests, retain impunity for sexual violence against women as part of a successful, logical practice that helps them maintain social sexual order and gender norms.

The academic proposal of “decentering” Muslim women’s bodies in order to thwart an imperialist trope and the subsequent insistence on a joint-gendered analysis of Muslim male and female bodies seem to be attempts to analytically entomb the female bodies of those who otherwise choose to politicize their resistance. The cases of violence against women discussed above in the context of the War on Terror demonstrate how resisting bodies refuse to be disregarded or seen simply as manufactured parts of the “context.” Instead, the resistance offered by these women or their will to survive also needs to be centered and counted as expressive of desiring humans who wish to redefine and revalue their bodies against the way they have been sexed by the gatekeepers of the “context.” The denial (by men and some academics) of these women’s efforts to overcome their circumstances and contexts through bodily resistance seems to be simply reflective of an overarching anxiety over the performances of female Muslim bodies. This is not a meaningful contribution toward recognizing and dealing with violations of the sexed body or violence that is committed against the female body.