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Reflections on Islamisation and the Future of the Women’s Rights Movement in ‘Naya’ Pakistan

Sonia Awan


This paper examines how the Islamisation of education is likely to impact the future of the women’s rights movement in Pakistan. Recently, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI, or party for social justice) government introduced the Single National Curriculum (SNC), a reform of the education system that enhances the volume of Islamic Studies and wherein Urdu, the national language, is promoted as a parallel medium of instruction. The central argument of this paper is that such developments are regressive and that they could prove detrimental to the women’s rights movement. Historically, the formation of the Women’s Action Forum (1981) and its rising against Zia’s Islamic dictatorship (1983) remains one of the most memorable moments of the women’s rights movement in contemporary Pakistan’s history. But in the decades that followed, the movement began sagging and stumbling. The recent Women’s Marches are evidence that deep ideological divisions running within the movement are impeding the achievement of tangible goals. This is a critical juncture because the implementation of an Islamic curriculum will set off the process of the bottom-up Islamisation of society. Gradually, when everything shall be sorted out ‘according to Islam and Islamic principles’, a large chunk of women’s demands will be simply chucked away as un-Islamic, thus inadmissible. Pakistani society will likely become less tolerant than it is already and the few freedoms that women still enjoy shall be taken away one after the other. This is a gloomy scenario, but it is avoidable. Now could be the time for the movement to focus on defining attainable goals and pushing for the achievement and consolidation of women’s human rights. While the Islamisation of education appears like a potential threat to the movement now, activists might as well make of it an element that reinvigorates the movement from the inside and gives it a new direction and sense of purpose.

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  • 1 Naya means ‘new’ in Urdu. Naya Pakistan refers to a rupture from old modes of governance and signal (...)

1This paper examines the future of the women’s rights movement in Pakistan and reflects on the trajectory it is expected to take as Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI, or party for social justice) ‘Naya’ Pakistan vision crystallises.1 Will ‘Naya Pakistan’ embody an era of change for Pakistan’s women, or will it present them with new, bigger challenges?

  • 2 Qamar, a renowned playwright, felt outraged by a few slogans of the last Aurat March. During a live (...)

2During the Zia dictatorship, women’s movements emerged in response to a dictatorial and punitive State, the dismantlement of democratic institutions, and excessive Islamisation of society that resulted in the deterioration of women’s status and their legal rights. That Islamic dictatorship considerably damaged Pakistani society in trying to bring it in conformity with radical Islamic values and sometimes outdated teachings. Zia’s era culminated in what we witness today: a less tolerant and less egalitarian Pakistan. At the time, early activists — including the Women’s Action Forum — took to the streets and demanded the restoration of democracy. Ever since, Pakistani women’s rights activists have continued to denounce the unequal treatment meted out to Pakistani women and their differential rights and status compared to their male compatriots. For the past few years, on International Women’s Day, Pakistan’s women have been marching for their rights. These Aurat Marches have met with a variety of responses ranging from mild disapproval, confusion, and incomprehension at one end, to resentment, disgust, and shaming on the other. Many elements of last year’s Aurat March were qualified as vulgar, obscene, and un-Islamic. The backlash was violent. Men felt ruffled, religious parties outraged and there was disapproval from even within literary circles.2

3Yet, Pakistan’s activists have been attempting to find a middle ground; they invited men to read their manifesto and understand their demands (Vice 2020: 180s). By marching, these women were trying to bring a little change in rigid and conservative mindsets, a tough task given the nature of Pakistani society, its peculiar religious and cultural context and its educational system which treats boys and girls with inherent and persistent gender bias. Indeed, Pakistan has a long way to go when it comes to women’s rights and their condition in society. We are reminded of this by events such as the assassination of the Premier Bhutto, the attack on the young Malala and the murder of Noor Mukadam. Pakistani women have often paid a heavy price for crossing the boundaries drawn around them by men. According to the Thomas Reuters Foundation, Pakistan is the sixth most dangerous country for women and around 99.81% of its population holds at least one sexist bias (Thomas Reuters Foundation 2018). And yet, this is only a glimpse of the fuller picture.

4Since the PTI government came to power in 2018, its leader Imran Khan has shown a renewed interest in the fresh Islamisation of Pakistan, and the overtly Islamic trajectory that governance and policymaking are taking is hard to ignore. Prime minister Khan — a man who has spent much of his life in the West — is endeavouring to lay the foundations of an ‘Islamic’ Welfare State, emulating the model of the city of Medina, the place where the first Islamic government was established (APP 2020).

5Today, risks are that in an already dogmatic society, such ideas — and the reforms that will follow — might pass the wrong message to extremist factions and religious political parties, making them bolder and mightier than ever. The ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), is reforming the education system through the Single National Curriculum (SNC), a reform that enhances the volume of Islamic Studies in the existing curriculum and supplements it with daily Quranic recitals (Nayar 2020). Besides, some subjects previously taught in English — Social Studies and Islamic Studies — shall be taught in Urdu throughout the country (Nayar 2020). If Khan succeeds in fully implementing his radical but not so progressist agenda, chances are that Pakistani women and minorities will be adversely impacted by it.

6It might be pertinent to pause and reflect on what is Islamisation and how it could be problematic in contemporary Pakistan, which is already an Islamic Republic. Islamisation can be understood as a process through which Islamic rules, principles and guidelines are imposed on a society with the view to convert it into an Islamic society and bring it under Islamic rule (Peacock 2017). Islamisation is a profound socially and culturally transformative process that can take several forms and different pathways. In the past, General Zia unleashed the Islamisation of the legal system by imposing Islamic Law (Chari’a), and in doing so, he turned his rule into an Islamic dictatorship wherein the state reprimanded and punished so-called offenders (Burki 1988). It is also under Zia that section 295 C was added in the Pakistani Penal Code, a legislation that targets minorities and is often used against them, as in cases of blasphemy (Ranjah 2015). Forty years later, Khan opted for the Islamisation of knowledge through the education system, a form of Islamisation that is more subtle and slightly more adapted to a democracy (in this case an Islamic one).

7Paradoxically, the fact that Pakistan is an Islamic Republic does not make it more prepared for a thorough Islamisation, neither more receptive to it, and it is probably for the same reason that the government has chosen a modus operandi that seems gradual and less rigid on the face of it. However, outright optimism does not suffice to offset the risks and negative repercussions linked to the fresh Islamisation of Pakistani society. While it is true that Pakistan’s chances of becoming an Islamic dictatorship are thin today, the prospects of its being dangerously Islamised — or radicalised — as well as the risk of young school children becoming indoctrinated through the new curriculum, cannot be taken lightly. Many of the Islamisation policies and regulations imposed in the 1980s are still in place today — the closing of businesses for Jumma prayers or the strict prohibition of eating at the workplace during Ramadan, for instance.

8In the age of globalisation and transnationalism, Islamisation makes the practice of Islam a norm, a standard way of navigating social relations and living one’s life the Islamic way, and by the same effect, it gives some people — including retrograde Islamists — the right to judge and chastise others who do not abide by the same rules. When fully implemented, Islamisation places women and (religious and ethnic) minorities in the crosshairs of extremists and bigots.

9The Asia Bibi blasphemy case is a recent and searing example of the forms bigotry and prejudice can take in conservative societies and how minorities (like Asia Bibi, a woman and a non-Muslim) are frequently the first victims of religious hate and intolerance (Ranjah 2015). Needless to mention, scholars have been warning against the challenges mounted by retrogressive political Islamists (Shaheed 2016). If the national syllabus is Islamised more than it already is, there will only be more of them. Progress on the women’s rights agenda will be compromised as a result and activists will have to find new ways of breaking the stalemate.

10This paper shall examine and intersect three pivotal moments of Pakistan’s women’s rights movement which are its past, present, and future. After a brief prelude to women’s movements in Pakistan, I shall probe the past for which I examine the intense women’s movements that sprung spontaneously under Zia’s regime. To reflect on the present, I shall analyse the recent Aurat Marches to see how these movements have evolved since the 1980s and the direction the movement is taking today. Finally, I shall envision the future of the women’s rights movement in the aftermath of the recent educational reforms. In my view, an ‘Islamisation’ of the schooling system and the uniformisation of the curriculum can be particularly dangerous for women and minorities. If Naya Pakistan turns out to be the refurbished version of a bygone extremist regime, will Pakistan’s women rise to challenge it? While it is not possible to predict what course the Pakistan’s women’s rights movement will take in the coming months and years, a study of their past and present can shed some light on their future and that of the Pakistani society at large.

Contextualizing the Women’s Rights and Feminist Paradigms

11The lines between women’s rights and feminism sometimes tend to be blurred, intertwined, or overlapping — and more so in Eastern, Muslim societies — which is why Pakistani activists and feminists have often co-organized women’s rights movements under the larger umbrella of human rights (Human Rights Watch). In this peculiar context, both women’s rights and feminist movements must be understood and interpreted with regards to patriarchy, which in turn makes their categorisation even more complex and confusing. At the same time, the question of women’s human rights tends to be controversial in the Muslim world at large, to the extent that the intellectual gap between Muslim and Western thinkers on the matter of universal human rights has often been highlighted (Barlow & Akbarzadeh 2006). It is probably with the view to obliterate such conceptual and ideological ambiguities that, in the past, Pakistani activists have often adhered to a shared agenda and pursued common objectives in the realm of the human rights framework.

12Farida Shaheed argues that, historically, many women’s rights movements in conservative Muslim societies like Pakistan might not qualify as ‘feminist’ movements by Western standards, since they are not grounded in modernist, liberal feminist theory (Shaheed 2016). I would like to suggest that, setting aside highly educated, modern, politically engaged Pakistani women, the majority of women who participated in recent Aurat March(es) may be alien to Western feminist theory but knew nonetheless what they were marching for, or against. These women were not strangers to their daily life experiences of violence, inequality, harassment, and injustice, nor were they insensitive to their own and other women’s suffering. In conservative societies, feminist movements — and even the feminist intonations of an overarching women’s rights movement — can be problematic and disturbing since they tend to challenge patriarchy and male domination, even when they are centred around women’s human rights. Hence, a major challenge that Pakistani women’s rights activists have faced has been that of gathering grassroots momentum, reaching out to differently situated women and broadening the base of the women’s movement(s), without being labelled as feminist, un-Islamic or immoral, which would then discredit the movement(s), as a whole. In Pakistan, feminists are conceived as aggressive, anti-men women, which results in lack of ownership of the feminist label, even amongst women actively demanding greater rights for women (Shaheed 2016).

13Henceforth, to focus more closely on women’s rights movements, I shall eschew the unjustified use of the term ‘feminist’, though many Pakistani women’s rights activists do position themselves as such and recent women’s rights movements can be qualified as feminist since they carried in them strains of liberal, radical, and even Marxist feminism. Movements like the Aurat Marches had what Amrita Basu calls ‘feminist underpinnings’, that is when a women’s movement has feminist demands (Basu 2005). We must concede that applying Western feminist theory in the Pakistani context can give rise to a bundle of contradictions, given the peculiar nature of Pakistani society. Each society has its own form of ‘feminism’ which emerges from within and suits it best, which we can refer to as ‘indigenous’ feminism, a form of feminism that is adapted to a specific socio-cultural context and which is rooted there (Shaheed 2016). Such local feminisms might not sit well with the Western understanding of feminism, yet women’s movements cannot be dissociated from the local and indigenous context in which they grow roots (Forbes 1996).

14As it happens, Indian, Southeast Asian Muslim (later Pakistani) women’s movements sprouted from within Muslim communities, thanks to the efforts of upper and middle-class, male, Muslim intelligentsia, and the elite. Many of these initiatives were entrenched in the ongoing nationalist struggle, while others aimed at women’s advancement, their access to health and education, and representation in legislative assemblies (Saigol 2016). These early activisms were anything but secular, and despite the constraints it imposed, religion became the pedestal on which women stepped and sometimes stood out. Positioning themselves as Muslims, these women came to the forefront of the freedom struggle and participated in social and political life. This gave them visibility and brought about an irreversible change in their role and status. Muslim women were able to accomplish feats they had never thought possible: they began leaving their homes unaccompanied, jumped walls, took off their veils, talked to men, handed out pamphlets, spoke in public, marched on the streets, campaigned, and even voted (as in the 1946 legislative elections). Geraldine Forbes writes that:

From liberal homes and conservative families, urban centers and rural districts, women single and married, young and old came forward and joined the struggle against colonial rule. Though their total numbers were small, their involvement was extremely important. Women's participation called into question the British right to rule, legitimized the Indian nationalist movement and won for activist women, at least for a time, the approval of Indian men.

Politics completely altered the goals and activities of organized women. Education, social reform, and women's rights appealed to some progressive women, but the movement to rid the country of its foreign rulers attracted people from all classes, communities, and ideological persuasions. (Forbes 1996: 121)

15By becoming active stakeholders in the nationalist struggle, women learned how to reconcile their feminine and Muslim identities, and in doing so, they chalked out a long-term strategy combining resilience and perseverance. Nonetheless, being a Muslim woman in a 19th century conservative society involved numerous negotiations and compromises. Even as they took part in the nationalist struggle, their participation was always subject to men’s approval and often, women were manipulated by men to further their (men’s) cause. In the words of Anis Haroon, quoted by Leena Z. Khan,

Throughout our history, women have always been brought out on the streets in large numbers, however as soon as the movements achieved their short-term goals, women were pushed back into their homes on the pretext that women’s roles should be within the domestic realm. [] There are many examples in this country where women have been used as a reserve force. (Khan 2001: 4)

16During Pakistan’s early years, democracy, free speech, the emancipation of women, freedom of conscience and tolerance were encouraged, only insofar as they did not tread upon the freedoms enjoyed by men. Ayub Khan obtained a fatwa against Fatima Jinnah, who was a serious contender in the 1965 presidential elections (Hassan et al. 2021). The fatwa decision stated that “to assign the office of the Head of the State to a female was un-Islamic and haram (prohibited) besides being destructive of the country and the nation” (Ahmed qtd in Hassan 2021: 6). Indeed, discrimination and prejudice were always one step away.

The Women’s Movement under Zia’s Islamic Dictatorship: Rising to Challenge it…

  • 3 Women’s movements did not begin under the Zia regime, they only intensified and gained impetus, in (...)

17In post-independence Pakistan, women’s rights consciousness and women’s movements were often fashioned in response to national and global reconfigurations of power. These women’s movements were receptive and responsive in that they adapted to the prevailing socio-political contexts. A diachronic perspective would show how they adapted to change, accepted certain constraints and questioned others, and how they exerted agency at various times and in novel ways, creating space for their own growth, even under retrogressive regimes.3

18Zia’s dictatorship (1977-1988) is the most striking example of women’s resistance, resilience, and reactivity. It demonstrates that despite multiple constraints imposed by the regime, society and domestic responsibilities, Pakistan’s women were anything but despondent. The members of women’s organisations like the Shirkat Gah had no office or headquarters so they arranged weekly meetings at their own homes, with children playing around (Women’s Action Forum). Sometimes these women even had to take their infants to collective events and conferences, yet they did not give up halfway. Paradoxically, the first phase of the contemporary women’s movement was not even a movement for women, but one for social justice and democracy, in which women “rose and resisted the state-led erosion of their legal rights in the name of Islam” (Women’s Action Forum). I use this first phase of the women’s rights movements as a starting point precisely because I wish to explore how a fresh, bottom-up Islamisation of Pakistan affected women’s rights and their status in society.

19Pakistan is an Islamic democracy with a strong, influential, and omnipresent military. Its strategic location (in the vicinity of India, Afghanistan, China, and Iran) and multiple overlapping security considerations and commitments (the long-running conflict in occupied Jammu and Kashmir) do not allow its government to side-line the military, politico-religious actors, and the intelligence agencies, to the point that it is quasi-impossible to envisage cuts in the defence budget. Yet, over the decades, the country’s socio-political dynamics have undergone considerable transformation and there has been gradual social change, a process in which Pakistan’s women and activists played a pivotal part.

  • 4 Today, Shirkat Gah is the Asia coordinator of ‘Women Living Under Muslim Laws’ and though it is sec (...)
  • 5 The man was sentenced to death by stoning and the wife to hundred whip lashes, but the punishments (...)
  • 6 Hudood is the plural of the Urdu word ‘hadd’, meaning ‘limits’.
  • 7 Zina means adultery in Urdu. The Zina section of the Hudood Ordinance prohibited all or any undesir (...)

20In the socialist Pakistan of the 1970s, “female literacy rates rose sharply,” and as a result, women began “participating in both general elections and labor politics in larger numbers.” (Weiss 1985: 863). The democratic and tolerant socio-cultural context of the Bhutto era provided impetus for the formation of the Shirkat Gah — or the Women’s Resource Centre — in 1974.4 At that time, the collective counted amongst its members a dozen of educated professional women who wanted to raise consciousness on women’s rights, for which purpose they collected newspapers clippings and discussed developments during informal weekly sessions. In 1981, their attention was drawn to the case of Fahmida and Alla Baksh, a couple convicted for adultery (Saeed 2013).5 Later investigation revealed that the couple was married but that they had not registered their marriage with the local council. At the time, Shirkat Gah’s women called a general meeting, formed the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) — the Khawateen Mahaz-e-Amal — and decided to challenge the undemocratic repercussions of Pakistan’s forced ‘Islamisation’. The centrepiece of the Islamisation policy was the Hudood6 Ordinance, and the highlight of the ordinance was the Zina7 section that regulated all interactions between both sexes. The Ordinance (Jahangir & Jilani 1990) banned all political activity and rolled back the democratic rights of both men and women, but women were most impacted by it as each of their moves was scrutinized.

21Thousands were then put behind the bars on the least suspicion of transgression. This period of intense repression was also one of indomitable resistance. Artists, intellectuals, and writers found new ways to denounce injustice. The poet Kishvar Naheed wrote her legendary poem ‘Hum Gunahgar Auratain’ (We, the Sinning Women) and Fahmida Riaz wrote hers, ‘Chadr aur Char Divari’ (Behind the Veil and the Four Walls) (Women’s Action Forum). Here is an excerpt from Naheed’s ‘Hum Gunahgar Auratain’:

With chains of matrimony and modesty,
You can shackle my feet
The fear will still haunt you
That crippled, unable to walk
I shall continue to think.

  • 8 The Law of Evidence equated the evidence of two women with that of one man. It also required the wi (...)

22The poet Habib Jalib supported the WAF’s action and spoke against the extremist regime (Women’s Action Forum). On 12 February 1983, the Women’s Action Forum organized a sit-in and hundreds of men and women walked down Hall Road in Lahore (Women’s Action Forum). Prominent women, female lawyers and others protesting the Law of Evidence (Weiss 1985: 873)8 suddenly changed the political realities in a country where the military was omnipotent till then. The demonstrators were treated brutally, baton-charged, shelled with tear gas and dispersed. But within a week, the WAF gathered seven thousand signatures and the High Court dismissed the case (Khan 2001: 6). This is how Shaheed recalls it: “Ironically, we were not even trying to start a women’s movement” (Vice 2020: 175s).

23While the nationwide movement led by the WAF did not result in the reversal of the Islamisation policy in toto, the dictatorship did come to an end with what seemed like divine intervention. On 17 August 1988, General Zia died in a plane crash, after having terrorised Pakistani society for eleven years. But the struggle of the Women’s Action Forum did not end here. Counter-intuitively, the movement born in opposition to women put them permanently on the national agenda of diverse political actors, the state apparatus and even amongst its opponents in the politico-religious parties (Shaheed 2016: 7). Their journey had only begun.

Forty Years of the Women’s Movement — One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?9

  • 9 One step forward, two steps back is a clin d’oeil to Farida Shaheed and Khawar Mumtaz’s co-authored (...)

24Since the first women’s march in February 1983, Pakistan’s women and activists have come a long way. While it is not possible to put forty years of women’s rights activism in a nutshell, we must leap backwards and see what happened between now and then. What do recent Women’s Marches in Pakistan tell us about the evolution of the movement over the past forty years, and how is the women’s movement expected to progress in the future?

  • 10 From 24, the number of seats held by women in the assemblies had fallen to 2 since the reserved sea (...)

25At the end of the dictatorship, the women’s movement was losing purpose, and over the next eleven years (1988-1999), the country’s political instability did not help make much progress on the women’s rights agenda. Though the WAF remained politically unaligned, the quasi-invisibility of women MPs in assemblies highlighted the need of forging alliances and fighting for women’s political representation.10 The election of Benazir Bhutto as the country’s first woman premier seemed like a huge feat, but her rule was short-lived and chaotic as the country witnessed its worst ethnic and sectarian violence in history. Up to the late 1990s, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Nawaz) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) formed another four transitory, alternate governments, while right-wing parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami gained terrain (Khan 2001).

  • 11 In 1996, Hina Jilani (a human rights activist and renowned lawyer) set up herself the first autonom (...)

26With successive governments failing to prioritise women’s rights, the agenda remained in the hands of NGOs like the Women’s Action Forum, the Karachi-based Aurat Foundation and Faisalabad’s Women’s Welfare Network, which has resulted in the NGO-isation of women’s rights (Shaheed 2016: 10).Most initiatives coordinated with government agencies became stuck in bureaucratic channels or lacked support or funding, thus failing to materialise.11 Women’s rights organisations and activists were cognizant of the need to forge and maintain linkages with other actors and stakeholders, but few collaborations stood the test of time (WAF Archives). Activists and organisations reached out directly to different communities at the grassroots level and, spreading out, the network contributed to gradually raise awareness on issues concerning women. Just as women gained awareness on their rights, activists became increasingly aware of the different forms of violence and discrimination that struck these women in their daily lives (Shaheed 2016:11).Shaheed writes that “the experience of working with differently situated women brought to light how untenable it was to demand rights for women exclusively in terms of the narrow yardstick of whether discrimination is based on sex alone, ignoring the differences in women’s lived realities (Shaheed 2016: 5).

27Indeed, living and working conditions for Pakistan’s women have never been homogeneous, and as activists witnessed variegated ground realities, they discovered new facets of the lives of women across the country (Saeed qtd. in Khan 2001: 8-10). There was a stark contrast between the life of an urban, middle-class, working woman and that of a rural peasant woman. In cases of gender-based and domestic violence, female victims faced different impediments, ranging from the inability to access local police to being dissuaded and shamed by family members or the local village council, known as the jirgah. In retrospect, the WAF’s secular stance is no mere coincidence. Many of its founding members — like Hilda Saeed and Aban Marker — were highly qualified, professional, non-Muslim women who had grown up under Ayub’s martial law and gone to university in a more liberal and democratic Pakistan under Bhutto. When Zia’s reign began — as he got closer to the Jamaat-i-Islami and Sharia Laws entered into force — these women foresaw the dangers of a radical Islamic ideology and Islamisation, and how it would push vulnerable individuals and groups against the wall — women, minorities, and minority women. They knew the combination of military power and religion to be lethal, which is why they resisted Islamisation so forcefully.

28Anis Haroon of the Aurat Foundation believes that rightwing parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami have their own reductive worldview in which women have a limited role confined to the private sphere (Haroon qtd. in Khan 2001: 5-7). For instance, the Jamaat-i-Islami and other politico-religious parties have vehemently resisted the draft Bill on Domestic Violence for the past 19 years, despite the surge in the number and gravity of cases of gender-based violence (Dawn 2021). Precisely because the success of the women’s rights movement depends on the attitude of the government, the latter’s inertia gives the wrong message to Islamist factions and politico-religious parties, telling them that policymaking is subject to their approval. To counter inertia and make ripples, Pakistan’s women march. For the past few years, on March 8, thousands of Pakistani women have marched in major cities to celebrate International Women’s Day. They marched against the patriarchal system and the restraints it imposes, and against the gender-based violence and discriminations that strike Pakistan’s girls and women on a daily basis. Some women marched demanding freedom, while others walked along the symbolic funeral procession of patriarchy they call pidr shahi. For the weeks and months that followed, they (the women) were the talk of the town. The feedback was discouraging, ranging from conditional approval and confusion to incomprehension and sheer disapproval. Not surprisingly, despite the annually swelling numbers, and the increasingly diverse social composition of the marches, every time there has been a new kind of backlash (Anmol 2021).

29But their major accomplishment was their ability to draw attention and disturb, even if in return they (the women) were vilified and tagged as bold, shameless, and their slogans labelled as un-Islamic and obscene. The marches’ high ‘nuisance’ value lay in the fact that women took to the streets and made noise, as they crossed the imaginary boundaries of the veil and the homestead, taking pride in the transgression. In the streets, they stood as agents of their own empowerment, in a society where patriarchs — fathers, husbands, brothers and sons — decided and defined the rules. In the words of Anis Haroon:

No one wants the family system to be disturbed. If women are out constantly, and taking part in public life, then naturally their thinking and psyche is going to change. They’ll become empowered and begin to talk about their rights. (Khan 2001: 5)

  • 12 Private interview with the author. The name of the informant has been changed.

30Just as the experiences of women varied from place to place, so did their slogans. Dr. Sabah — a co-organiser of the Lahore March — regretted that the slogans had not been reviewed by the organisers, and that many failed to convey the intended message.12 In fact, the Aurat Marches failed to rally the support of the respectable middle-class — young housewives and mothers, middle-aged parents, senior citizens — a large group who otherwise supports women’s rights and condemns violence against women. The marches, it seems, could have gathered more popular support by passing concise and unambiguous messages that most people could relate to. The visibility and high ‘nuisance’ value of the marches could have been exploited more strategically. This observation is not a criticism of the Women’s Marches, instead it is a reflection on their scope, impact, and ethos. The point being made is that marching for an equal, easy access to education and healthcare is not the same thing as marching for an equal, easy access to education and healthcare, by first toppling patriarchy. In developing countries like Pakistan — where the State fails to provide basic human and citizenship rights — fathers are the ones who protect and provide, and many of them do it well and without much bias.

  • 13 Four points were directly relevant to the women’s rights cause: End of harassment; Reproductive Rig (...)

31By the same token, it must be noted that all empowered, emancipated, and modern Pakistani women do not hold a negative view of the patriarchal system and of what it has to offer. Only recently, the views of Pakistan’s supermodel Sadaf went viral when, sharing about her own experience of marriage, she spoke in favour of gendered roles and the differential position of men and women in marriage (ARY News 2021). Her posture was that a wife must be attentive to her husband’s needs, ranging from food to socks and everything in between. While activists and feminists condemned her for compromising women’s cause, this example only shows that Pakistan is a deeply traditional society where many modern independent women can be expected to hold traditional views on gendered roles, patriarchy, and power relations. Unsurprisingly, Fiza was hailed by the sweeping majority, the ‘respectable’ traditional middle-class, who still believes in the traditional Muslim family. For reasons such as these, the women’s rights movement needs to focus on an agenda that is not too divisive or controversial. Today, the Pakistan women’s rights movement suffers from profound ideological divisions in which different groups seem to be moving individual, contradictory, imported and sometimes irrelevant agendas that do not contribute to the cause. For instance, in 2021, the Manifesto of the Lahore March13 had nine points of which only four were directly related to women’s rights, and the remaining five had radical feminist and Marxist leanings and hence, were less relevant to the cause (Luqman 2021).

32In my view, turning the Pakistan women’s movement along radical or Marxist feminist lines can be dangerous since neither Pakistani society, nor the movement itself are prepared for that. Building bridges with other global women’s movements and grounding the Pakistani women’s movement in feminist theory can be beneficial when done with care, but transposing imported ideological or theoretical frameworks to the Pakistani socio-religious context — without first adapting them— can be counterproductive and detrimental. I argue that the women’s movement must remain centred on the achievement of realistic goals, for instance women’s human rights, because these are relatively compatible with Islam and less controversial.

Islamisation and the Future of the Women’s Rights Movement in Naya Pakistan

33Now could be the time for the women’s rights movement to converge towards a focal point and pursue smart and tangible objectives. Those who need a purpose need only consider what the first Islamisation did to Pakistan and what another one might end up doing. If the thorough Islamisation of the education system took place and syllabi all over the country came to be supplemented with more Islamic and Quranic studies, how would that impact the women’s rights movement? While there can be no simple answer to that question, we must remember that it has happened before and that no one foresaw all the consequences.

34Historically, Pakistan and Islam have always been indissociable. Long before its inception, Pakistan was imagined as a separate homeland for India’s Muslims. As early as 1930, renowned poet and thinker Iqbal thought of forming a Muslim state by combining India’s various Muslim majority provinces: the North-western Frontier Province (with a mostly Pashtun or Pathan population), Sindh (with Sindhi speaking people), Punjab (with Punjabis) and Baluchistan (with a Baloch majority) (Jaffrelot 2000). A few years later, with the imminence of India’s decolonisation, leaders like Muhammad Ali Jinnah — who was not a devout Muslim himself — built their argument for India’s Partition around religion, projecting the Indian National Congress not as an Indian but as a Hindu political party. By the same effect, the Muslim League became the mouthpiece of India’s Muslims in the late 1930s. This was a robust and convincing strategic move that worked well for two reasons: first, it provided the unifying factor required for India’s Partition (because 19th-century British India was ethnically so diverse that it was impossible to divide it along ethnic lines, an attempt that would have resulted in the formation of dozens of autonomous states) and second, it obliterated ethnic cleavages for some time and succeeded in creating a façade of unity. Pakistan’s birth in 1947 was followed by that of Israel in 1948, two homelands founded on a religious basis.

  • 14 As the core of Muslim faith, the kalima is the verbal declaration of belief in one God and in Proph (...)

35In 1956, Pakistan’s first constitution stipulated that all citizens were to organise their lives in accordance with the principles of the Quran and the Sunna’h (or the Prophet’s tradition). In 1958, when he seized power, General Ayub made sure the Constitution did not contradict the Sharia. Two years later, during the Indo-Pakistan war, he rallied Pakistanis in the name of the kalima-e-shahadat.14 In the conflict with East Pakistan, Pakistani armed forces used religious militias like Al-Shams and Al-Badr to crush Bengali insurgents (Jaffrelot 2000).Then in 1973, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto enshrined the Islamic character of Pakistan in the Constitution, making it an Islamic Republic and elevating Urdu to the rank of national language.

  • 15 The Sunnite Muslims see themselves as followers of the Prophet Muhammad whereas the Shiite Muslims (...)

36Pakistan’s radical Islamisation is often attributed to Zia-ul-Haq, but he only stepped in to consolidate a process which had begun long before him. With few exceptions, most leaders in the country’s history have acted as if they were vested with the divine mission of taking Islamisation one step ahead, or that of making Pakistan the bastion of Islam in the East. But Pakistan’s dictators have also used Islam and religious rhetoric to galvanise the credibility and ethos their regimes otherwise lacked. Zia-ul-Haq did the same. In 1981, he constituted the Majlis-e-Shura, a 350-member council whose task was to chalk out the details of the Islamisation policy. The context of the Cold War worked in his favour, since in return of his strategic support in the War against the Soviets, the U.S turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear program and its internal affairs, notably Zia’s trampling of democracy and his Islamisation policy (Shams 2016). Unobstructed and emboldened, Zia then set out to introduce Islamic laws, he Islamised the educational curriculums, opened thousands of religious seminaries (madrasas) across the country, inducted Islamists at all strata of the government and created institutions headed by mullahs to oversee the running of the country (Shams 2016).The induction of soldiers was followed by their indoctrination as each regiment had its own Deobandi15 mullah (Bocquérat 2018).It is also under Zia that Jamaat-i-Islami became a structured and highly influential politico-religious party.

37Nevertheless, parties and factions like the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamaat-i-Ullema-Islam-Fazal never had a vote bank of their own, nor could they significantly influence the outcome of any election. Yet, every Pakistani leader has intuitively known that turning against mullahs and Islamists meant risking one’s life. Imran Khan probably acted similarly, acting cautiously and hoping to (stay alive and) stand in the next general election. Islamisation — not for the sake of Islam but instead with the strategic socio-political goal of creating a society that is united and devoid of ethnic tensions — has always been the dream of nearly every Pakistani leader. Throughout the decades, Urdu has been used as a unifying factor and a political tool by most leaders, many of whom were not even Urdu speakers themselves. Jinnah was the first leader to adopt this position, and Imran Khan is only the latest example.

38However, Khan does not seem partisan to a strategic ploy and, at times, it even seems as if he is close to Pakistan’s Islamists and extremists. Deep within, he is a man of the East, a Pathan, traditional, conservative; over the past three years, he has made his stance clear. He is vested with the divine mission: Islamisation. When his government came to power in 2018, Khan repeatedly iterated the desire to lay the foundations of an Islamic Welfare State. His government launched several state-funded welfare programs like the Naya Pakistan Housing Project, Mera Pakistan Mera Ghar (an affordable loan scheme) and Kamyab Jawan (a youth entrepreneurship program). Nonetheless, a major area in which Pakistan lingers in terms of access and quality remains education. The Naya Pakistan education reform includes the re-enrolment of school dropouts, education vouchers for out-of-school children and inclusion of information technology modules in the curriculum (Mehfooz 2020). But the most controversial element of the education reform is the Single National Curriculum (SNC) meant to ensure that all pupils follow the same curriculum, both in the private and public sectors. This is an ambitious endeavour.

39Since the 1970s, Pakistan has a highly fragmented education system, with elitist private schools at the top, followed by average, middle-class schools, then state-funded public schools and, at the bottom, the religious seminaries. Private schools follow foreign syllabi — such as those of Oxford and Cambridge — but they have the obligation to include a minimum of Islamic and Quranic Studies. These schools have highly qualified teachers and access to a wide array of resources. Throughout the country, fee structures vary from one school to another and so do the facilities and resources available to students. State-funded schools follow the syllabus approved by local education boards; the syllabus is often written in Urdu and taught by teachers who did not have access to higher education themselves. Finally, seminary students spend their days learning the Quran by heart and are taught by mullahs. Now that it has been implemented, the problem with the SNC remains that it cannot upgrade the level of public schools and seminaries because these institutions do not have qualified teachers and resources required to teach an upgraded syllabus with IT modules. Instead, the syllabus of private schools is being further Islamised to bring them in conformity with public schools.

  • 16 It is impossible to give precise numbers here but during the survey that I conducted during June 20 (...)

40While private schools continue to follow a large chunk of their foreign syllabi, they are still required to enhance the volume of Islamic studies (Islamiat), teach Islamic Studies in Urdu and Arabic, and include daily Quranic recitation. Besides, Social Studies which used to be taught in English is now being taught in Urdu as ‘Muasharti Uloom’. Since these reforms came into effect, Pakistani expatriates have been the first to criticise these as archaic and regressive.16 Visibly, when the education reforms were being chalked out, the PTI government did not take into consideration that the majority of students in top-ranking private schools belong to the Pakistani diaspora and that such reforms might not be to the taste of those expatriates who move to Pakistan for relatively short stints (between one and five years). Parents have also expressed dissatisfaction with the medium of instruction (Urdu) and the amount of compulsory Islamic education, which many parents qualified as excessive and unjustified.According to A. H. Nayyar, a teacher, “policymakers believe that a greater dose of religious education will produce more honest and useful citizens. Through the SNC, they seem to be promoting influences that are antithetical to critical thinking.” (Mehfooz 2020)

41My interpretation is that Khan’s ideas on the Islamisation of education are rooted in the Maududi school of thought. Abdul Ala Maududi was an Indian Muslim scholar who opposed Jinnah’s Islamic nationalism, just as he condemned the Deobandi and Barelvi sects for their orthodoxy (Boquérat 2018). In 1941, he laid the foundations of the politico-religious party that we know as Jamaat-i-Islami today. Maududi believed that the political and cultural renaissance of the Muslim Ummah (the global Islamic community) could be achieved only through bottom-up Islamisation; this process then made them ready for the next stage involving state intervention and top-down Islamisation (Boquérat 2018). Once Muslims were sufficiently groomed and indoctrinated, they became ready to adopt Sharia as a way of life. It is yet to be seen if Khan succeeded where Zia failed. Islamisation — bottom up first, top down next.

42At the beginning of his term in office, Khan stood against hardliners, only to step back in the face of Islamic backlash (Afzal 2018). However, the sole mission of parties like the Tekreek-e-Labaik is to obtain the full implementation of the anti-blasphemy law. Imran Khan has been tilting more towards such extremist factions and progressively he has adopted a rhetoric loaded with references to Islam, Islamic society, and the revival of Islam. During a recent televised address, he called Muslim-majority countries to take a united stand against blasphemy and to lobby Western governments for its criminalisation (Hashim 2021). Yet, this is hardly surprising.

43Scholars have long been predicting the resurgence of Islam, and Pakistan is not the only country dealing with an identity crisis or standing at crossroads between modernity and tradition. Anita Weiss argues that the conflict we see in Pakistan is mirrored elsewhere in the Muslim world and calls it the push of modernity (industrialisation etc.) versus the pull of tradition (Islam and Islamisation) (Weiss 1985: 864). This contradiction took distinct forms in various contemporary Muslim countries. For instance, Tunisia and Turkey introduced radical Islamic reforms in family law, whereas Egypt and Morocco did so with moderation; Iran and Saudi Arabia adopted more conservative and drastic stances as they incorporated Islamic law into their systems (Weiss 1985: 865). The major risk in implementing Islamic policies is knowing when to stop and where to draw a line. It is not just about how far the process goes, but instead whose Islam is chosen for the divine mission and how inclusive that Islam turns out to be. At the time of Pakistan’s first Islamisation, the entire history of the Shiite sect was removed from Islamic Studies, leaving behind textbooks that recounted only part of the story. That obliteration of Islamic history provoked the marginalisation and minoritisation of Shiite Muslims who are still barred from strategic posts in the military and the government.

44Having resisted Zia’s Islamisation policy in the 1980s, Hilda and Anis know the stakes. Both believe that “when a State declares itself to be consciously Islamic, […] it then proceeds to define what and who a Muslim is.” (Khan 2001: 11). For Anis,

if Pakistan was made into a theocratic state […] then religion would be codified and would take over personal lives. It would not be in the interest of minorities or of women. […] The ruling elite have been the army, the bureaucracy and the feudals. If you also give them religious sanction it becomes lethal. (Khan 2001: 5-6)

45Naya Pakistan’s education reform might not seem sinister or radical right now, but it is far more insidious than Islamisation from the top, precisely because it is almost inconspicuous. As it becomes part of the daily lives of parents and children, most might even forget it even happened. For now, there is talk of an Islamised curriculum, but sanctions and restraints will follow in due course. Once Pakistan’s children get thoroughly indoctrinated, they will be the ones to sanction, condemn and chastise Pakistan’s sinning women.


46The aim of this research paper was to highlight the grey areas of the Naya Pakistan education reform — the Single National Curriculum (SNC) — by contextualising it with regards to the women’s rights movement in Pakistan. It is not intended as a critique of the Naya Pakistan reforms in toto, nor is it an attack on the PTI government. Imran Khan’s government made considerable advances in some policy areas where others have failed before, i.e. tax collection, health insurance, etc. Furthermore, it is certainly possible to analyse the contemporary Pakistan women’s (rights) movement from other angles and link it with other policy areas (health, social welfare, employment, etc.), just as the implementation of the SNC can be interpreted in contrasting ways. The issue(s) that I raised and assessed concern the impact of the Naya Pakistan education reforms on the women’s rights movement.

47As we bring together the various threads laid out earlier, it can be inferred that Naya Pakistan might not be the era of change and progress that Pakistan’s activists and women were hoping for, in part because the Islamisation of education will hinder the progress of the women’s rights movement. There were challenges in the past and there will be more in the future. To maintain momentum, Pakistan’s activists will need to define a sustainable line of action, pursue clear objectives in the realm of women’s rights and pick one battle at a time, as they have done so often in the past. A mitigated posture will help rally the support of the middle class who are not only observers but also active stakeholders. In prevailing circumstances, the women’s movement might consider continuing as a movement for human rights led by women, and with an emphasis on women’s rights.

48Looking back at the journey of the movement, Farida Shaheed writes that in the 1980s the movement was reactive, adversarial, and state-focused because it rose in opposition to an Islamic dictatorship. But as the first battle was won, the sense of urgency vanished, and the movement has been flagging since then (Shaheed 2019). Early women’s organizations professionalised and turned into “dynamic places of employment” instead (Shaheed 2019: 159). I share her point of view. Today, the presence of diverse actors with divergent perspectives and agendas is putting the movement’s unity to test. The recent Aurat Marches were disconnected from the ground realities of Pakistani society. Pakistan’s new-age activists and feminists campaigned and marched for radical and Marxist feminist changes, overlooking that Pakistan remains at some rudimentary stage of its own growth. Pakistan’s girls and women need basic human rights: access to education, healthcare, employment, and a sense of entitlement. The rest will follow once these are achieved and consolidated.

49Today, according to the UN’s Human Development Programme’s Human Development Index (HDI), Pakistan’s overall literacy rates range from 57-60%, with male literacy at 71% and female literacy at approximately 49% (UNDP 2020). Primary school dropout rate is around 22.7% (Pakistan ranks 3rd after Bangladesh and Nepal) whereas the number of children out of primary, secondary, and upper secondary level is 5.6, 5.5 and 10.4 million respectively. According to a report published on the finance ministry website which quotes the 2019 HDI, “Pakistan has not exhibited improvement in key educational indicators, such as literacy rate, gross enrolment ratio and expenditure on education, as compared to regional countries.” (Pakistan Economic Survey 2020:197). According to this survey, Pakistan’s human development index for the year 2019 is 0.557 – corresponding to the medium or average human development category – which places it 154th out of 189 countries. Maternal mortality ratio is 140 deaths per 100,000 live births while adolescent (15-19 group) birth rate stands at a soaring 38.8 for 1,000 births (UNDP 2020). Paradoxically, Pakistan has one of the largest out of school population in the world, but it is also a major exporter of students at the higher education level.

50PTI’s government does not seem to have probed Pakistan’s inherent contradictions before introducing the recent education reform, and the SNC will only accentuate those contradictions. As the country becomes increasingly Islamised, the women’s movement will be systematically pushed to the margins and de-prioritised. Islamisation, whatever form it takes, will eventually lead to a rejection of modernity, change, and gender equality. Imran Khan may not have staged an attack on democracy, nor did he rescind women’s rights, but in aiming to achieve a classless and egalitarian Pakistan through Islamisation, he set off a process that will reform the country internally and profoundly.

51The neighbouring Afghanistan is a sad reminder of what Islamic rule can look like and how, in retrograde regimes, girls and women are forced to live like second class citizens who must comply with the whims of patriarchs and mullahs. In such Islamic regimes, girls are systematically taken out of school at puberty (that is, if they go to school at all), married at fourteen and refused medical care during and after pregnancy. This is a gloomy scenario and there is no reason for it to be replicated all over Pakistan. While the status of women in Naya Pakistan is the core contention of this paper, there are several side issues that deserve almost as much attention.

52The promotion of Urdu as a parallel medium of instruction is not a divisive or dangerous measure if it helps reaching relative national unity, but Pakistan is not a homogeneous nation, and never will be. As per statistics, Urdu is mother tongue to only 8-10% of Pakistanis (Pakistan Bureau of Statistics 2021). Punjabi (48%), Sindhi (12%), Pashto (8%), Balochi (3%), Saraiki (10%), Hindko (2%) and Brahvi (1%) are other regional languages most often spoken in Pakistan as a mother tongue. In addition to these languages, dozens of local dialects are spoken and understood throughout Pakistan. Historically, Urdu was the language of the Mughal emperors and poets, and over time, it was inherited and adopted by the British Indian Muslim elite and intelligentsia. Then, in 1947, Urdu ‘migrated’ to Pakistan with Urdu-speaking mohajir (migrant) communities from India, after which successive Pakistani governments attempted to transpose it on the newly born nation state and its people (most of whom were Punjabis).

53Stricto sensu, Urdu language is not rooted in Pakistan but, over the decades, it has flourished here. In contemporary Pakistan, most educated, urban Pakistanis speak Urdu because they have learnt it as second language. Being an Urdu-speaker implies being upper-class, educated, and urban, which is why, in my view, it is not by promoting an ‘upper-class’ language as a medium of instruction that the foundations of a classless society can be laid. Elevating Urdu to the rank of language of instruction will not obliterate ethnic and linguistic divisions; on the contrary, its forced implementation will induce more learning difficulties. Given Pakistan’s already low literacy levels, this reform can be expected to reinforce prevailing negative trends and result in a further decline of literacy levels and subsequent rise in school dropouts. These are a few potential risks linked to the Single National Curriculum (SNC) and its implementation will contribute to the creation of an Islamic society where everyone will have to comply with prescribed, Islamic gender norms and rules. Once Islamisation is consolidated people themselves, rather than the State, will chastise one another on the least transgression and, in a few years’ time, Pakistan’s children will have become the wardens of Naya Pakistan’s ideological prison.

54In the eventuality that Pakistan’s women came to lose their rights and freedoms once again, the women’s movement might find a new purpose — that of resisting and challenging Islamisation. Otherwise, as its name promises, Naya Pakistan will be a new Pakistan that controls and oppresses its women and minorities in novel ways. Once Pakistan’s education system is fully reformed and its children indoctrinated, then Pakistani women will have to march for more than just their own emancipation. They will need to reclaim control over their own lives, and their children’s. There is no question of whether they will rise to the challenge because they have done it before. And for those who need a sense of purpose right now, it is there for them to see. Islamisation. Bottom-up first, top down next.

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1 Naya means ‘new’ in Urdu. Naya Pakistan refers to a rupture from old modes of governance and signals an era of change, democracy, and reform.

2 Qamar, a renowned playwright, felt outraged by a few slogans of the last Aurat March. During a live debate, he expressed his discontent with overtly feminist slogans like ‘heat your food yourself’, ‘We do not accept this’, or ‘I will not share your couch’. In conservative societies, such rhetoric can be difficult to embrace even for educated men like Qamar.

3 Women’s movements did not begin under the Zia regime, they only intensified and gained impetus, in response to the combined negative repercussions of dictatorship and Islamization.

4 Today, Shirkat Gah is the Asia coordinator of ‘Women Living Under Muslim Laws’ and though it is secular, it understands that activists need to know women’s right under Islam to be able to answer their questions.

5 The man was sentenced to death by stoning and the wife to hundred whip lashes, but the punishments were never implemented.

6 Hudood is the plural of the Urdu word ‘hadd’, meaning ‘limits’.

7 Zina means adultery in Urdu. The Zina section of the Hudood Ordinance prohibited all or any undesirable interaction or relation between a man and a woman (even consensual) and treated it as adultery.

8 The Law of Evidence equated the evidence of two women with that of one man. It also required the witness of two male pious Muslims in reports of rape, which in most cases was hard to provide for the victims.

9 One step forward, two steps back is a clin d’oeil to Farida Shaheed and Khawar Mumtaz’s co-authored 1987 book Women of Pakistan: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?

10 From 24, the number of seats held by women in the assemblies had fallen to 2 since the reserved seats had been slashed during the dictatorship.

11 In 1996, Hina Jilani (a human rights activist and renowned lawyer) set up herself the first autonomous women’s shelter for victims of gender-based violence.

12 Private interview with the author. The name of the informant has been changed.

13 Four points were directly relevant to the women’s rights cause: End of harassment; Reproductive Rights; Political Representation of women and other minority groups on quota basis; Fair representation in media. The other five points included: Human rights and end of exploitation; environmental justice; minority rights and end of forced conversions; disability rights for special people.

14 As the core of Muslim faith, the kalima is the verbal declaration of belief in one God and in Prophet Muhammad as the last of prophets.

15 The Sunnite Muslims see themselves as followers of the Prophet Muhammad whereas the Shiite Muslims are the followers of the descendants of the Prophet, Imam Ali and his sons, Hassan and Hussein. Pakistan consists of 85% Sunnite Muslims who are further divided into two major schools of thought: Deobandi and Barelvi, born in the Indian cities of Deoband and Bareilly respectively. The Barelvi school is more moderate and mainstream, but it is also more turned towards Sufism and the cults of pirs and fakirs. The Deobandi school is more orthodox, structured, less superstitious, and rather hard-line. Mullahs are clerics, preachers, and prayer leaders. Each sect has their own mullahs.

16 It is impossible to give precise numbers here but during the survey that I conducted during June 2021 in Bahria Town Lahore (Pakistan), many parents who had moved to Pakistan during the pandemic and had enrolled their children in high-ranking private schools like Beaconhouse School System said they were disappointed with the education reform and the SNC. At the time, these expatriate families were in discussion with the school administration to find a solution. The schools, to my understanding, were reviewing these demands on case-to-case basis and were granting exemptions to dual-citizen Pakistanis.

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Electronic reference

Sonia Awan, Reflections on Islamisation and the Future of the Women’s Rights Movement in ‘Naya’ PakistanAngles [Online], 14 | 2022, Online since 01 April 2022, connection on 19 August 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Sonia Awan

The author has worked in an international organization for the past 17 years where she oversaw defence policy, military logistics and procurement. More recently, she has been dedicating most of her time to her PhD at Sorbonne Nouvelle university and to her teaching responsibilities in France and in Pakistan. She is an active member of the MIDIB, CRECIB and SAES research networks. Contact: sonia.awan [at]

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