- Women’s Autobiography in Islamic SocietiesTowards a Feminist Intellectual History
What can be learned from the ideas of women in Islamic societies? I posit some potential answers to this question below through an examination of the autobiographical testimonials of women published on the Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics (PAA) website. By focusing on these testimonials, I shed light on a community that has been ignored in discussions of women’s lives in Islamic societies: those women who identify as atheist or agnostic. As a feminist historian, I believe in the power of providing alternative narratives to the inaccurate and oversimplified ones that often govern public understandings of the region, through an analysis of historical texts. In this case, the oversimplified narrative is one that has been with us for a very long time, in which women are completely oppressed and silenced within Islamic societies. It is also one in which women in Islamic societies are only engaged with as a category and not as individuals with their own experiences and ideas. Life-writing is an especially powerful tool for adding complexity to the historical narrative because, through it, diverse agents provide their own recollection of events. Beyond looking at life-writing as a source of experience, might we also look to it as a space where women theorize? In answering this question, I work towards a new method for approaching the life-writing of women in Islamic societies, one that takes seriously the theoretical claims in these narratives, an approach I term feminist intellectual history.
Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics
In a context of increasing policing of belief, some Pakistanis have found a space online to question the hegemony of particular interpretations of Muslim religious precepts. The Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics (PAA) website was created in 2011 by a group of self-declared Pakistani atheists and agnostics as a safe space to express themselves and form a community.1 The welcome statement to the website reads “To the Atheists and Agnostics of Pakistan—you are not alone.”2 This community unites those who claim Pakistani identity by either living in Pakistan or being shaped by the memory of Pakistan through their families. The group elaborates on its purpose in the “About Us” section thus: “As an organisation we promote secular causes and the separation of religion and state. We advocate the [End Page 153] rights of women and minorities, as well as secular humanist values and free speech.”3 PAA presents women and religious minorities as groups that require advocacy in Pakistan. By emphasizing national belonging to Pakistan while rejecting Islamicness as it is represented and practiced by the state, PAA’s existence serves as a retort to the increasing Islamization of the Pakistani state and society.
To better understand the reasons for the creation of the PAA website, let us examine the ramifications of increasing Islamization for alternative religious expression in Pakistan. Though it was created as a South Asian Muslim homeland, Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah guaranteed religious freedom for all citizens, declaring: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan.”4 Yet violent rejection of non-normative religious expression has plagued twenty-first century Pakistan. In January 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was assassinated for defending a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. Disturbingly, some Pakistanis celebrated the killing of a supposed blasphemer by showering Taseer’s murderer with praise and rose petals.5 Just a few months later, Pakistan’s minister of minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also killed because of his advocacy on behalf of religious minorities.6 In addition to non-Muslims and their defenders, minorities within the Muslim community are also targeted. For instance, in February 2012, in an attack in the Kohistan region, gunmen killed eighteen bus passengers on suspicion that they were Shia Muslims.7 It is in this volatile environment that Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics have attempted to create a community for expression of an alternative religious identification.
Pakistani Atheist and Agnostic women mark themselves as un-Islamic, and testify to the...