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At the Intersection of a Myriad Societal Axes

Ellora Puri

Edited by Sadaf Ahmad
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2010, pp. 336, Rs. 695.00


This anthology on myriad engagements of social science literature with Pakistani women’s lived experiences comes with two important caveats. In the first chapter, Sadaf Ahmad, its editor, bemoans the lack of a corpus of knowledge on Pakistani women which is nuanced and contextualized, and does not mirror the popular representation of Third World women as homogenized, uni-dimensional subjects encumbered by religion, tradition and patriarchy. She emphasizes that women operate at the intersection of many societal axes, and their identity is situation and time-dependent. She, therefore, calls for further research which takes into account the diversity that constitutes that amorphous entity which is ‘Pakistani women’. In a seeming contrast, the last chapter of the book by Shahla Haeri warns against what she calls a ‘Fascination with Difference’ in the contemporary feminist literature. She urges that the idea of difference be problematized, and its opposite—similarity—probed through the project of shared ethnography in which lives of similarly placed women are chronicled. In this essay, she is particularly concerned about the ‘veiling’ by western feminists of those educated professional women in Islamic societies, who are directly confronting, contending and engaging with modernity, by asking for and acquiring equality in public spaces. The contributions to this book, which are primarily based on anthropological, sociological and ethnographic research, demonstrate the reason for these two ostensibly divergent views about how sound knowledge on Pakistani women can, and should, be acquired. Amina Jamal’s article ‘Gender, Citizenship, and the Nation-State in Pakistan’ is most illustrative in this regard. Taking a cue from current scholarship on Islamic societies, she argues against viewing Pakistani women through the prism of the tradition versus modernity dichotomy. Contemporary Muslim societies, as has been pointed out by this body of work, are a product of two overlapping processes—one, ongoing societal modernization; and two, the imperatives of the modern nation-state formation—which reinforce each other by reifying as well as institutionalizing certain religious-cultural-political characteristics.jamal uses the example of the famous ‘Saima Love Marriage’ case to make this point. Saima, a twenty-two year old woman married Arshad Ahmad against the wishes of her family. This started off a courtroom battle in which Saima’s father challenged her marriage as illegal since it took place without his permission. The debate the case elicited both in the courtroom and society is instructive. The discussion hinged on two questions. One, whether as a sui ...

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