Friday, July 7, 2017

Book Review: Women and militarism in Pakistan

Reviewer’s revelation: I have known the author of this book for over two decades.

I bought my friend Aneela Zeb Babar’s book We Are All Revolutionaries Here as soon as I heard about it—one of the first copies SAGE sold, I think?!—because I know Aneela is a very lively writer and an insightful observer of the everyday realities that make up a social moment. Now, I often buy books enthusiastically and then they sit on my bookshelf for years, waiting for that project which would call for them. Aneela’s, I actually have read right through!

The rate of growth of new subfields in security studies is directly related to government investment in their propagation. A couple of years ago, there was a conference in Washington DC on ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ or CVE. In two year, investment in conferences and research projects has grown apace to generate a minor library of studies that largely recycle the same information—a portion of government perspective, a portion of UN/INGO values, a little nod to empiricism and recommendations, directed at anyone who will listen. I know this because I have had my moment with this, having researched and written a short background note on women and CVE last year.

Into this discursive moment, enters Aneela’s book, a compilation of work done meticulously over a decade or longer, reminding us of the kind of research that actually builds knowledge.

What is this book about? Aneela writes about one of the most-discussed puzzles of our time—what draws people towards worldviews that seem extremely radical and even irrational to others of us? She approaches this question with an open mind and heart, and writes with an honesty that allows us to walk with her. We are in those classrooms and living rooms and offices and discussion groups that she attends, hearing people speaking about what faith has come to mean for them and how it enjoins them to live—not as diktat but as choice. The researcher listens with empathy and writes critically.

One of the charming features of Aneela’s writing is that she blends the personal with the external narrative allowing us to understand her location and her baggage.

The first chapter is about madrassahs and the new hybrid seminaries. Outside Pakistan, we get to read about madrassahs but how many of us know about these new institutions that anchor contemporary curricula in religious education? Graduates enter a variety of professions but share “religious values and a network of contacts” (page 34). These networks are emerging as significant and Aneela suggests are an end in themselves. But students grow up with religious—essentially, status quo—values so deeply ingrained that this schooling deprives “their students of the will to change or challenge all that is flawed in Pakistani society.” There is no reinterpretation or will to resist the challenges that face state and society. Rather than engage with these challenges, young people are choosing to express their values through consumerism of a particular sort.

Aneela’s second and third chapters describes a world many of us will never enter—the world of expatriate Pakistani women and their rediscovery of faith and a faith-based identity. She writes specifically of women she has interviewed in Canberra and the influence of Farhat Hashmi’s Al Huda, an organisation that offers religious lectures and seminars for women. In this world view, the “intrusion of women into the public sphere defined as the ‘men’s area of control’ is seen as leading to the disruption, if not the destruction, of the fundamental order of things” (page 53). Dress, and veiling, are of importance to this discussion. The chapter allows us to hear how women see their own journeys to faith and why this leads them to make the choices they do. More than anything, it takes that amorphous image of veiled, devout women in a mass and turns them into individuals who, we learn, have thoughtfully made choices. Aneela closes her second chapter by pointing out that before the Intefada, few Pakistani women wore the veil but that they now do, may ironically signal that women are part of public life (page 74).

The third chapter, which describes Al Huda’s apparoach and work, is also interesting for what it shows you about gender and class relations in Pakistani society. Drawing women away from frivolous pastimes into religious education and then social service (page 88) without upsetting the patriarchal applecart (page 90), is what Al Huda sets out to do. What sort of social service is not discussed here but it is safe to assume it would not be a social change agenda that disrupts traditional equations.

With the madrassas and hybrid schools as well as Al Huda, Aneela points out that there is a homogenizing drive—a simplification of interpretation, an erasure of ethnic, linguistic and maybe theological difference. In her style, she then draws the narrative to herself and underscores what is lost when such essentialism takes over. What she writes about Islam in Pakistan is also true of other faiths in other places.

In ‘Texts of War,’ Aneela shows us that when militarism is deeply entrenched in a society, carrying guns is a common dream among young women as well as men. This chapter literally wanders through the rooms of this reality—with a literature review on the role of the military, its relationship with religion, women in the military and media representations thereof and the mirror image of all this in a society where girls and boys receive a religious education. Where does Pakistan’s only female Prime Minister fit into this picture? “Yes, we did salute her but you have to understand that the elation was not there in the heart of the soldier,” an officer told Aneela (page 122). Interviews with teenagers conducted in 1999 form a part of this chapter.

Ten years ago, almost to the date, the Pakistani army laid siege to Lal Masjid, which along with the attached Jamia Hafsa madrassa had come under the sway of a pair of militant brothers. In that siege, 154 were killed.  Aneela uses eyewitness and first-person accounts to narrate what happened from the perspective of those within the walls of the complex, many of them young girls. In fact, the chapter is largely made up of the translation of one such account by Umme Hassan. The polemics of this account showed that the young women had thought about issues beyond defending the mosque but they were not, Aneela tells us, feminist because they continued to reinforce “traditional, static and unchanging articulations of Muslim women” (page 167).

This book allows us to peer over a neighbourly wall and to eavesdrop on conversations that women are having about life, world and faith, and inevitably, politics. We get to meet the women that do not attend Southasian track two programmes or seminars and we are privy to their journeys. Aneela tells us that we will see a “more firebrand generation of young women” (page 170). When we do, this book will remind us of the influences that shaped them and our time.

Coming back then to this idea of ‘extremism,’ what this book allows you to see is that there is nothing really extreme about it when you are inside that society, on your journey. It is your evolution, seeking answers for your life and following those answers logically. To understand is to justify, and that is one reason to other that which threatens what we hold dear, but without understanding and empathy, can we resolve? Will there be a solution to the violence of this historical moment that is not rooted in understanding and empathy—that you feel as you do because of where you come from and what you have been through, and what you believe is what allows you to make sense of your life? I don’t know. But reading Aneela’s book allowed me to look long and hard and try to learn something about a world that is just outside the limits of mine, but finding its way into my backyard as well.
My big complaint with this book is that it could have been better edited. It is the writer’s prerogative to spill words on a page and the editor’s job to clean, sort and craft them into a higher form of her art. The result is an absorbing text that is sometimes stream-of-consciousness—you get the gist but cannot find the point—or a structure you can recapitulate or argument you can summarise. For a work that is so unusual and important, the apparent absence of editorial engagement is a big setback.   
You can read this book for many reasons. You can read it to learn about what women’s lives are really like in Pakistan and what ideas about masculinity and femininity are now circulating. You can read it for the insights it offers into “radicalisation” and extremism, especially how the state becomes complicit in this process. You can read it for the many stories and anecdotes it is built around, which allow you to visit Pakistan in a way that other academic writing will not. You can read it for the meticulous research that is reported (like translations of original literature, for instance). You can read it because it’s a really good example of feminist scholarship and writing—in its approach, its transparency. But really, if you pretend to have an interest in gender, Pakistan (or Southasia) extremism or social change, you should read this book.

PS: Aneela, please review my review kindly!

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