Of Feminism and Fundamentalism in Iran and Pakistan

This paper explores relationships between women and "fundamentalism"--contested though this term may be in the Islamic world-- in Iran and Pakistan. The paper has two objectives: First, to foreground some of the problems associated with perspectives taken on women and "fundamentalism" in the Muslim world. Second, taking an anthropological perspective, it focuses on everyday life experiences of some Iranian and Pakistani women in order to bring out the tension between women's desire for autonomy and civil participation, and the state's and/or fundamentalists' attempt to control women's bodies, limit their movements, restrict their public and political activities, and muffle their voices. I argue that rather than viewing Muslim women form the perspective of the dominant discourse and as more or less "windup dolls" in the grip of all-powerful and omnipotent Islamists, "fundamentalists," and "traditionalist," they ought to be viewed as active social participants engaged in the daily negotiations of power and privileges--however minimal at times--in search of ways to empower themselves.

Giving a brief historical background of Iran and Pakistan, the paper discusses, in some detail, the epistemological problems in studying the "enigma of Muslim women." Long-held dominant stereotypes regarding Muslim women, veiling, and women's active participation are challenged, and the emerging phenomenon of Islamic feminism is considered. The paper concludes that oppression carries the seeds of resistance within it. In both countries fundamentalist measures have brought some resistance, but it has taken different forms appropriate to their different sociocultural and political situations. The irony of the situation, particularly in Iran, is that the fundamentalist revolution raised women's consciousness and not only helped spur the emergence of vocal faction of urban middle class women determined to reinterpret Islam as empowering rather than restricting, but also sharpened women's--and some men's--consciousness regarding their own resilience and resourcefulness. Slowly but sure,y, Iranian and Pakistani women seem to be determined to "remake" the course of their own action, and in the process to help transfer the course of their own destiny and that of their collective history.

Shahla Haeri
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