Recourse to religion and a focus on faith-based organizations as a point of entry for development initiatives has gained momentum in recent years, with serious implications for women’s rights. The case of Pakistan provides ample illustration of these trends. In the 1980s, several women’s research and advocacy groups, such as Women Living under Muslim Laws, engaged with Islamic frameworks to pursue a gender equality agenda. When post 9-11 propaganda targeted “oppressed Muslim women” with blatant hypocrisy, this led to an academic turn in the direction of exploring, rescuing, and in some cases reinventing the agency of veiled Muslim women, even in cases that signified pietistic acceptance of discrimination.
This new scholarship has matured into a full-blown project to challenge and reject the viability of universal, liberal and indigenous secular feminist possibilities in Muslim-majority countries as culturally inappropriate. This thinking permeates tangible development policies and projects across Pakistan, as a celebrated confirmation of the pragmatic possibilities of development subsumed and framed by religion. Ironically, the policy-directed research espousing this framework is often shaped and directed by priorities and actors - such as foreign consultants or academics - removed from the collective developmental, political or activist paradigms of the country itself. Pakistani development activists and feminists who act as subcontractors for these projects may find themselves in a bind, projecting a secular political identity whilst engaging in donor-funded development projects that reinforce the communitarian logic of religion.
Three examples of the policy direction of Anglo-American international development agencies, particularly DFID and USAID, highlight the new directions of ‘donor-driven Islam’ - development assistance that introduces a creeping theocratization of formerly rights-based approaches to gender.
In 2007, USAID completed a project in Pakistan called Respecting the Veil. The purpose was to enable the financial empowerment of home-bound women while respecting their ‘veil’. The project comprised husband and wife teams. While the wives liaised with women embroiderers, husbands dealt with wholesalers and markets. The framework of this project can be explained by its acronym, AWESOME (Association of Women Entrepreneurs in Small and Micro Enterprise). The ‘success’ indicators were the sales projections of USAID whereby the estimated incomes for rural embroiderers would rise to Rs. 1600 per month by 2010 (the government-declared minimum wage in 2008 was Rs. 6000 per month). The subcontractors - the husbands - were strengthened at the expense of the embroiderers themselves who received well below the minimum wage, while the power relations in husband -wife partnerships remained unaddressed and traditions such as the veil were upheld instead of developing or improving the market conditions for women’s mobility. The informal sector was further entrenched under the banner of cultural/religious sensitivity.
The UK Department for International Development (DFID) took a more inclusive approach in its development initiative in the North Western Frontier Province of Pakistan during the rule of the religious political alliance, the Mutahida Majlis e Amal (MMA). As neophytes of electoral victory in 2003, the MMA government in the NWFP imposed shari’a legislation, attempted to legalise gender apartheid, prevented women from voting in elections and even banned female mannequins. Women’s shelters and NGOs were shut down, accused of being western-influenced mavericks. Nonetheless, the MMA government accepted funding from DFID/Asian Development Bank/World Bank on broader development projects to shake off its own fundamentalist image. However, it refused to negotiate on gender and development initiatives. This was a bargain acceptable to DFID.
Ironically, it is commonly recognized that the MMA suffered subsequent electoral defeat due to the failed or limited progress in achieving development objectives. Thus DFID assisted the religious party in the name of development while the MMA was reversing women’s rights, a compromise that was a clear failure in view of the electoral judgment that followed.
The Religions and Development Research Programme (RaD) funded by DFID and carried out by the Universities of Birmingham and Bath in the UK in collaboration with the Lahore University of Management Sciences (Pakistan) has produced a number of Policy Briefs. A background paper on madrasah (religious seminaries) reform in Pakistan, like many others that inform the policy briefs, contains some contradictory and problematic suggestions. The brief advocates for ‘support’ rather than reform of madrasahs. To my knowledge, there are no development or activist groups in Pakistan who agree with or are committed to this suggestion. The brief goes on to say that, ‘The State must win the trust of religious communities’. Given that the state has failed to win the trust of secular or any other communities for that matter, it is unclear why it should concentrate on religious communities. In fact, religio-political entities are the least trusted by the people if electoral performance is anything to go by. The electoral victory of the MMA in 2002 was widely discredited as being the result of the bargain struck between the religious alliance and the army chief General Pervaiz Musharraf who had led a military coup and overthrown the democratically elected government in 1999. Apart from atrophying the two largest democratic parties by sending their leaders into exile and jailing many others, General Musharraf recognised the madrasah - awarded degrees of the MMA members as acceptable pre-requisites for contesting general elections. In return, the MMA did not challenge the legal cover extended by the Supreme Court to allow the army chief to contest subsequent presidential elections. These contrived and unusual circumstances allowed the first ever electoral success of a religious party in the country, commanding enough votes to form the provincial government in the NWFP (now Khyber Pukhtunkhwa).
The policy brief goes on to suggest that reform should be funded by the government’s educational budget since the Ulama doesn’t trust western donors. Ulama is a vague umbrella term for an imagined clergy which has no constitutional nor democratic legitimacy. The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) is a constitutional government department that works in an advisory capacity only and with appointments made by the government. The CII does not represent clergymen nor madrassa clergy. Its members are not roving Ulama (although they are scholars of Islam) and there is, therefore, no specific legal entity known as ‘the Ulama’. The CII has actively condemned violent and extremist politics by madrassas and their students. Upon consideration, most progressive groups would welcome this streamlining since it is well known that many madaris are covertly funded by Saudi sources and promote hard line Wahabist agendas. Therefore, to be financially dependent upon, and thus exclusively accountable to, the Government of Pakistan would be a fitting recommendation in principle. Except that, the same policy brief goes on to contradict itself by proposing that foreign donors should consider direct funding to the education boards of religious schools. These Wafaqs (education boards representing the different schools of Islamic jurisprudence) are the most conservative, exclusionary bodies and are dominated, to the point of being held hostage, by certain sects depending on the political patronage they receive from provincial governments.
Furthermore, the DFID policy brief ignores the discriminatory history and adverse effects of the Islamisation of mainstream education in Pakistan: the long-term, detrimental impact of such educational policies have been well documented. This is even more paradoxical since development agencies such as DFID have historically supported projects to purge religious-discriminatory content from mainstream curricula and helped to reform textbooks.
Other policy papers within the ambit of this DFID project, relate to a research study on Faith Based Organisations in Pakistan. This study concludes that FBOs may or may not be vehicles for equitable development. The study insists its purpose was not to promote a greater or lesser role for religion in achieving development, and that its findings were primarily meant to “benefit poor people in developing countries". However, in the research findings quoted, there is no evidence supporting poverty-reduction objectives. If anything, the widespread practice of contracting the assistance of local religious leaders for distributing contraception and for other gender-related projects has resulted in the empowerment of a traditionally discredited local clergy. In Baluchistan, in an interview with the author, development activists agreed that these amounted to “Rent-A-Maulvi” projects.
The trouble is that such initiatives end up legitimising conservatism with the added complication that, very often, FBOs use secular rather than faith-based strategies to meet their parochial ends. So how are faith-based organisations defined as such in the first place?
The value of research per se is not at issue here. However, when research begins to morph into projects targeting institutions, or into developmental or educational joint ventures between western governments and home institutions, it presents a danger. There is no internal consensus within Muslim majority countries regarding a singular or even dominant religious or political identity. Muslim women, including feminists, face very different identity issues in the West when compared to Pakistan. Therefore, the strategies that may work for them within a pluralist, secular state such as the UK have very different implications when transposed to Islamic republics such as Pakistan. Thus when Pakistani feminist researchers become implicated in projects that foreground religion in their home contexts, the secular indigenous possibilities and spaces become more vulnerable, and the results become self-defeating.
The contest of political identities has to be fought between and amongst the radical and moderate, the conservative and liberal, the religious and secular. These categories do not have fixed meanings or expressions and are not necessarily binary alternatives, but what is certain is that more often than not these hold different connotations in diverse cultural contexts. In this respect, scholarship that is critical of Euro-Atlantic feminism is valuable, until it begins to claim religious identity as an immutable, valuable cultural resource to replace secular feminist goals, or more minimally, a neutral or equitable development agenda. When Pakistani liberal, secular feminists become implicated in such projects they gloss over the potential conflict between their political and careerist agendas.
To some extent the growing academic interest in Islam is useful and may even help to boost the careers of some academics/consultants who have jumped onto this bandwagon. But it should not divert us from the very real political challenge presented by localised analysis, debate, contestation, understanding and struggle. No academic consultant can engage on all these levels.
The complex realities of the ways in which religious identities play out in Muslim majority countries often bear little resemblance to the findings of the academic exercises mentioned above. Such research needs more rigorous scrutiny not just in terms of its methodology but also of its politics, before it starts informing policy and, more worryingly, starts to shape development interventions.