A Conversation with a Pakistani Feminist
“We need to focus on the more progressive areas of Islam.” – Saadia Haq
Saadia Haq was born in Karachi and has worked in development and media with Church World Service-Pakistan/Afghanistan, Internews Pakistan, FM radio, peace-building and lobbying the UN on the rights of women and religious minorities. She has traveled and worked in Asia, Africa, and Europe.
Caleb Powell: Tell us about your experience with Westerners.
Saadia Haq: Respecting cultural diversity as a female journalist granted me opportunities to find the unknown stories. During my developmental career I worked with various Westerners; including several American journalists, male, during their stints in Pakistan on floods and quake issues. I found them to be very fair, professional and good humored.
However working with Western women is mixed. Basically they’re obsessed about hijab as opposed to other topics like economic, educational rights and how to their provide assistance. Western men didn’t care whether I wore jeans and T-shirt during desk work which is the usual attire for most of us, or national dress in the rural conservative settings where I’d wear a chadoor; it’s our version of covering.
Although this might be off-track, in September, 2010 UNHCR’s Goodwill Ambassador Ms. Angelina Jolie visited flood struck Pakistan. She was modestly dressed and offered compassion to people by sitting in dirt, debris – offering handshakes to rural people who didn’t even know she’s a global sensation. She respected our cause and thus is appreciated by all Pakistanis.
But most Western women showed annoyance when they’d be forced to wear it during their visits in villages/conservative areas. They’d insist that I am self-contradictory for both wearing Pakistani dresses and jeans. However I’m south Asian and very proud of it, there is “indirectness and distance in our culture” and I can appreciate and criticize its finer and not so fine parts.
I don’t think my body is a mannequin to be viewed, admired, and touched by all and sundry and I don’t require lessons from Western women teaching or belittling me.
Powell: How did they belittle you?
Haq: Well, it’s like why push your totally opposite values in someone else’s country? My feminist coworkers tried entering the Shah Faisal mosque, a tourist attraction, in very revealing clothes in our Europeanized capital Islamabad. That is an insult to not only religion, Islam, but also shows superiority or worse off ignorance. I feel that women in West, however concerned they are for counter-parts in less free places, must also realize that radical protests and campaigns against hijab won’t really work.
Bra burning topless women protestors might work in Western countries, but these stunts won’t really do any good for women rights debates in the less-women friendly countries including Muslim countries. One cannot impose ideology, this creates an East-West divide.
Caleb, probably you have been in Pakistan or Iran, do you think this will work?
Powell: I’ve been to Karachi but not Iran, but I think it wouldn’t work in both places. And I think protests like FEMEN might work to a degree in the West, especially to bring attention to certain problems, but they risk losing followers at the same time, especially with conservatives, who need reform the most.
Haq: Although I’m not a hijab user, I was extremely disturbed that FEMEN activists in France said things like “better naked than the burqa.” They use the removal of clothes in public to promote women’s rights. This reinforces racist discourse and causes damage rather than supports the struggles of the women they call their sisters. Thanks to such public stunts the good that Muslim women feminists could do and already are trying to do gets undone, because the message becomes, like…see, Western women are naked and they want our women to also become naked. In red light districts in Amsterdam or Copenhagen there are all these pictures of naked women and rampant prostitution. Sex trafficking is a global problem. Why not fight that?
Hilariously, I had a strange conversation with a German female coworker who said, “Well, if we want to prostitute ourselves we will as we are free.” I am totally in agreement, but this doesn’t work in Pakistan where women are forced into the prostitution industry.
I am the first one to criticize violence against women within my country, which is getting more and more dangerous with Islamist takeovers. I think feminist groups from East and West have to sit down to debate a middle ground for supporting women in countries like Tunisia, Pakistan, Jordan, etc etc.
Islam has not yet undergone a revolution like Christianity. It would be useful if, globally, feminists united to develop innovative measures of using both Islam as religion and Eastern tradition for women’s rights, instead of rejecting Islam completely. Economic rights in Islam like inheritance from father/husband, even if lesser share for daughters is advocated, is better than nothing and its better than killing daughters in their sleep like what is happening in many parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Right to education and also right to choose partner are equal for both Muslim men and women, but distorted versions of Sharia and gender inequality are promoted and taught by radical Islamists. To undo the harm we need to focus on the more progressive areas of Islam. If we are able to do that many Muslim feminists will not hesitate to stand with feminists from the West; we need a relationship with trust and respect.
It is hard to be rejected and belittled and face intimidation in our own home countries, because most Muslim feminists stand at a middle point. We are targeted by our own culture for NON CONFORMING and targeted in the West for not doing enough.