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  • Transnational Feminism as Critical PracticeA Reading of Feminist Discourses in Pakistan
  • Amina Jamal (bio)


This essay is a speculation of some conceptual strategies that could enhance our understanding of feminist politics and rhetorical practices in the nation-state of Pakistan. I hope that this process will also aid efforts to delineate the emergent configurations of the cultural political space of the transnational as it has been altered by the events of 11 September 2001 and the ensuing war on terrorism. In their struggles at a variety of family, community, and state1 levels, self-defined feminist and human rights groups in Pakistan have traditionally resorted to liberal notions of citizenship, gender-neutral ideas about rights, and universalism of the public sphere. Their reliance on these universalist concepts of rights and freedom has intensified in the past two decades as a strategy against oppressive regulation of political and social life in the name of Islamization. Given the present international pressure on Pakistan to crack down on "extremists," we can expect an intensification in accusations of "anti-Islamic" and "Westernized" against those who are pursuing a secularist agenda in Pakistan. These processes, along with their mirror opposite, that is, the hysteria that the spectre of Muslim terrorism raises in some Western societies, are hardening the rhetorical divide of Islam versus West. At the same time debates about the relationship between Islam and democracy have intensified among Muslim scholars following September 2001. In [End Page 57] challenging the obscurantism of Muslim leaders and appealing for democratization in Muslim communities, many scholars, including Muslim feminist scholars, present their arguments in a manner that often reinscribes rather than disrupts the dichotomy between tradition and modernity—Islam and the West.2 In this situation, I argue that feminist critical theory faces urgent demands to reject the division of the world into zones of traditionalism and modernity, particularly in questions related to women, religion, and the postcolonial nation-state. We need intensely nuanced accounts of the relationships among Islam, women, and modernity in a manner that highlights the specificity of Muslim women's appropriation of modernity in different contexts of struggle.

It is important to situate Pakistani feminist discourses in the latest world order in which Western democracy and culturally specific notions of universal human rights and freedom have become the major discursive weapons in a conflict of "Western civilization" versus "Islamic obscurantism." For we cannot simply assume that third world activists' deployment of modernist and Enlightenment concepts somehow exonerates these notions from their tendency to univeralise, essentialize, or construct abstract subjects as argued by some feminists (e.g., Moghissi 2000). Conversely, we cannot deny the appeal and strategic importance to feminists in Muslim societies of the universal rights and equalitarian impulses of modernity when compared with the parochial, culturally relativist, and exclusionary agendas of ultra-right groups. I argue that attention to the local, national, and global context of feminist activism in Pakistan may help move the analysis of Pakistani—and other Muslim—feminist discourses beyond notions of either an essentialist, global feminism modeled on the first world or false consciousness about the colonial origins of modern political concepts that needs the corrective logic of contemporary Islamist activism.

Liberalism, Postcoloniality, and Catachresis

Noting the importance of the contemporary feminist insistence on "difference" as opposed to a globalized notion of sisterhood, Deniz Kandiyoti (1995) has pointed to the disjuncture that exists between feminist theorizing and activism at the transnational level and the strategies of feminists in many Muslim societies similar to Pakistan. She recalls [End Page 58] that it was the activism of various groups of women, whom mainstream Western feminist theory and practices traditionally marginalized, which directed feminist attention toward power differences rooted in the structures of race, culture, class, histories of colonization and migration, sexuality, and so on. While this challenge to universal feminism has enabled more contextualized analyses of women's lives and opened new spaces for coalition building, it has unsettled traditional feminist demands for gender equality that were based on developmentalist and modernization discourses (Kandiyoti 1995).

In addition to women's activism, Kandiyoti also points to a number of global influences that have changed the context for international feminist discussions...


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