Women are Vulnerable, Symbols of Community

Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal is the director of South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies at Tufts University in the United States. Her latest book 'Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia' has been published in India by Permanent Black. Along with her earlier book, 'Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam Since 1950', Jalal has been tracing the complex history of Muslim thinking in the subcontinent. In an interview, she talks about the position of women in contemporary Muslim society, which is grappling with religious fundamentalism.

Q. Are Muslim women affected more by the rise of religious fundamentalism?
A. I do not think women alone are affected by the fundamentalists. Children are the greater victims of extremism. The whole community and society is affected by the rise of fundamentalists. It's, of course, true that women are vulnerable in this process. They are seen as the symbol of the community.

It is necessary to distinguish between what is attributed to the Qur'an, with regard to restrictions imposed in the name of religion, and what is social. Many of the restrictions have more to do with tribal customs, and these should not be imputed to the religion. This is especially so in the case of Pakistan's frontier areas.

Q. There is also the case that while on the one hand we have the example of fundamentalists imposing crippling restrictions on women of the community, we have, on the other hand, the phenomenon of many Muslim women in Britain, the United States and elsewhere opting to wear the veil and scarf on their own. How does one explain this?
A. It is true that many Muslim women are voluntarily opting to wear the various degrees of the veil - there are so many variants of them from the full 'burqa' to the scarf - in the Western countries. They are doing so as an expression of their religious and cultural identity. I find the response of the governments in France and Turkey to Muslim women wearing a scarf to be harsh.

The Qur'an mentions 'haya' (modesty), but there is nothing in it about what to wear and how much. It is more about decency. Secondly, 'haya' does not lie in the dress but in the mental attitude as well.

This should be seen in a broader perspective. It is not a clash between a monolithic Islam and a monolithic West. That is a misinterpretation. There is a struggle within the community. This is a struggle for the identity of the community, for the soul of the community.

All this reduces religion to the question of identity. It is not any more seen as an ethical way of life, which goes beyond custom and that which transcends the world.

Q. Are you surprised by the presence of women fundamentalists like the 'Dukhtar-e-Islam' in Kashmir and at the Lal Masjid in Islamabad?
A. There is nothing surprising about it. Women have participated in nationalist movements. Fundamentalism is also a similar movement. The idiom is different, that's all. There is nothing unusual about women being part of the fundamentalist movement. In the case of Kashmir, there is an undercurrent of nationalism as well.

Q. Are you arguing the point that 'jihad', as much else about the Muslim profile, is more a regional phenomenon in your new book, 'Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia'? 
A. Yes. On the one hand, it is rooted in the material culture, the political economy of the place. In the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) in Pakistan, the local youths are paid double of what they would get paid in the frontier constabulary. I am not denying the ideology aspect of 'jihad'. But the fact is that the Taliban in the area is awash with opium money. For them, 'jihad' is business. 

I am also saying in the book that 'jihad' is a more complex thing than what it is made out to be by the strategy experts in the West. It is not just war against infidels. There has been continuous internal debate among Muslims about the many meanings of 'jihad'. The ethical and spiritual aspects of the word 'jihad' are just being overlooked. In my book, I have tried to detail the debates over 'jihad' in south Asia. 

Q. What are your thoughts on gender history?
A. I think it is important. But I would want it to be part of the mainstream of history. Gender history should not become a secluded discipline. Yes, important work has been done by historians of gender.

Q. Are you working on a new book now that you have published 'Partisan of Allah'?
A. I want to write a history of Pakistan. I cannot say when it will be done. Books take a long time to write.


More by :  Srinivas Parsa

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