Your fear Of my being free, being alive, and able to think might lead you, who knows, into what travails. Kishwar Neheed (Feminist Poet from Paksitan) The imposition of the Zina Ordinances and the subsequent resistance to it by the Pakistan Women’s movement has been a significant moment in the history of Feminisms in South Asia. The Zina ordinances were promulgated during the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haque who had seized power from Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a military coup in July 1977. Within two years of Zia seizing power, Bhutto would be hanged, elections cancelled and all political activity banned. Attributing Pakistan’s problems to an ‘un-Islamic way of life’, Zia launched Nizam-e-Mustafa (Governance inspired by the prophet) that took the form of a purification drive seeking to eliminate impure and undesirable elements through imprisonment or execution.
Broadly, the attempt was to impose a theocratic state and gain control by using Islam and the army. The process of Islamization in Pakistan had already begun during the Bhutto regime with the prohibition of alcohol, declaration of Friday as a holiday and the shutting down of western style discotheques. This was ironic because Bhutto himself was very westernized and enjoyed his drink. When General Zia came to power, Islamic groups were quick to take advantage of the situation. They demanded that all laws be scrutinized to ensure they did not contravene Shariat (Muslim) laws. The nationwide media campaign of Chadar aur Chardiwari (The Veil and Four Walls), demanding the seclusion of women, was also launched. The government issued directives that women in employment and public places would have to cover their heads. These diktats, along with an ‘anti-pornography’ campaign resulted in diminishing the numbers of women on TV and entertainment programmes. Clearly, women were to pay the highest price for the revival of oppressive laws in Pakistan.
It was against this backdrop that the Hudood Ordinances were passed on February 10, 1979. These ordinances (deriving from the word hadd literally meaning ‘limit’ or ‘extreme’) deal with the offences of prohibition (consumption of drugs and alcohol), zina (rape, adultery and sexual intercourse), theft and perjury. Although most women taken into custody for zina crimes were retried and acquitted, the Hudood ordinances resulted in thousands of women being jailed and incarcerated for years on end. In 1982, a couple, Fahmida and Allah Bux, were awarded the hadd punishment of death-by-stoning for zina (adultery).
This outrageous verdict galvanized the women’s movement into launching a vigorous campaign against the Hudood Ordinances. This campaign was eventually responsible for ensuring that the ordinances were invoked less and less even as attempts to haves them repealed did not succeed. Shahnaz Khan’s book is a compilation of testimonies by women who were imprisoned under the zina laws and is also about the dilemmas of producing certain kinds of knowledge within the discursive universe of a first world academy in the aftermath of 9/11. Khan, whose work involves writing about women in Pakistan, is Professor at the Women’s Studies and Global Studies Programs at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. Straddling two geographically and discursively distinct worlds, Shahnaz Khan describes herself ‘as a native informant who is producing knowledge about Pakistani women for a western audience’. She explains, Speaking in Canada is another matter. Here I find myself confronted with the popular perception that all muslim women are oppressed by Islam. I am in a bind. On the one hand, speaking out against the injustices of the Zina Ordinance is important. At the same time, I fear that my critique of the conditions in Pakistan risk reinforcing dominant stereotypes about third world women and muslim women.
The book is a valuable introduction to feminism, law and politics in Pakistan and in particular, the many implications of the Hudood ordinances. The testimonies of the women imprisoned under zina laws allow for an interrogation of the intricate connections between familial relationships and state policies. As the author points out, the narratives of the women disrupt the binaries between the state (public) and the family (private) and challenge the commonly held belief that the ‘innocent and virtuous’ space of the family needs the protection of the state. While this book is certainly useful for beginners, it may disappoint those who are familiar with the existing material on the zina laws and Hudood ordinances.
To my mind, some of the more compelling issues in the book get raised in the chapter ‘A Politics of Transnationality’ where the author engages with what Leela Gandhi has called the ‘dubious good offices of the native (intellectual) informant’. As an expert witness filing affidavits for women seeking gender asylum in North America, she reconfirms that judges, lawyers and immigration officials are ‘saviours’ of Pakistani women. She writes, ‘I speak on their behalf and I am complicit in their rescue and in reconfirming that Pakistanis, Muslims and Third World women are backward and need saving. The discourse that allows women to be rescued, also reinfores Orientalist and imperialist imagery to such an extent that, even as the United States and Canada is deporting Muslim and Pakistani men, these few women are being rescued.’ A more thoroughgoing discussion of this discursive paradox would have added greatly to the value of the book. By not exploring the implications of this conflict any further, the author loses an opportunity to explore what Cornel West has called the ‘disabling double bind’ where intellectuals and cultural critics contesting operations of power within their own institutions remain financially dependent on them.
Shahnaz Khan’s recurring dilemma around the problems of positionality raises important questions. How does one challenge prejudicial institutional discourses through stories that may well serve to confirm it? How does one tell stories of discrimination and suffering without reinforcing the misinformed perceptions that already exist? How does one present narratives of suffering without privileging victimology? These concerns are not unique to postcolonial intellectuals working in the ‘first world’ but to all cultural producers and practitioners who, geographical location notwithstanding, straddle the diverse worlds of the ‘third world.’ In other words, it is not enough to simply state the contradiction and be done with it. The discursive strategies of ‘telling’ must become as integral to the narrative as the stories being told.
Take for instance Who will Cast the First Stone (1988) by Ahmed A. Jamal and Sabiha Sumer, a powerful and moving documentary against the zina laws. Here testimonies of suffering come into conflict with voices of religious orthodoxy. But the women are not defined by suffering alone. They raise their voices to repudiate the restrictions that seek to regulate and reconstruct their sexuality and while so doing, express those very desires that the ordinances attempt to contain. This complicated interplay of agency and victimhood helps to stave off, as one can never entirely prevent, the possibilities of co-option by pre-existing prejudicial discourses. Similarly, the feminist anthology of contemporary poetry titled We Sinful Women (1989) edited by Rukhsana Ahmad, represents narratives of suffering and despair through voices that are resistive and defiant thereby leaving little room for protectionist impulses.
It surprises me therefore that Shahnaz Khan does not allow the narratives of oppression to unfold in a more complex discursive relationship with the protests and struggles of the women’s movement. The prison testimonies rarely move beyond the circumstances that led to their arrest and detention. Consequently, they remain contoured and defined by the misapplication and abuse of Zina laws. The Feminist resistance to the Zina ordinances is surely one of the most inspiring chapters in the history of South Asian Feminisms. Had this narrative inflected the stories of abuse and suffering, the discursive terrain of the book would have been far more complex and difficult to co-opt. When finally, the Feminist groups come up for discussion in the book they are shown to be a spent force, diminished and tamed by the forces and fallouts of globalization. This indeed is a pity because the women’s movement in Pakistan during Nizam-e-Mustafa gave us a language of protest that, no matter how dismal the present scenario might seem, will not be easy to extinguish. I conclude as I began with such words of resistance, written originally in Urdu, by Kishwar Naheed: The law is a rag Worthy of the dust Off the rebel’s feet Dictatorship a curse This government of Ordinances We shall shred in a public square
Shohini Ghosh is Professor, Dr. Zakir Hussain Chair at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.