Soon after his coup in October 1999, General Pervez Musharraf reassured the Pakistani people that his was not an obscurantist religious agenda. Instead, he referred to the Ata Turk model as his inspiration in his mission to rescue Pakistanis from corrupt democratic governments that had dominated the 1990s. A photo release of him holding two Pekinese dogs in his arms (commonly considered na-paak or unclean by Muslims) and surrounded by his short-haired wife, elderly mother and artist daughter, earned him a seal of approval from progressive upper-classes at home and the international community at large. Unlike the previous dictator, Gen Zia ul Haq, who carried out the oppressive and misogynist Islamisation project between 1977-88, this new-age military ruler seemed to espouse modern, ‘secular’ and liberal credentials. Thereafter began an era that has been dominated by several sociological changes in the country. In this article, three underlying concepts will be explored in relation to these changes and their impact on women. These include a critique of the romanticisation of the agency of women members belonging to the religio-political party in government; the strategic shifts in ideological positioning within the women’s movement; and the impact of the debate over religion and secularism in relation to women’s political reality. This essay discusses the interplay of the understandings and contradictions of Islamic and secular identity politics in the Pakistani women’s movement. The methodology incorporates a reading of existing scholarship as well as observation of feminist activism in the political context of Pakistan.

Author Biography

Afiya S Zia is a feminist activist based in Pakistan. She is the author of ‘Sex Crime in the Islamic Context; Rape, Class and Gender in Pakistan.’ She lectures in Sociology, works in the development sector and has edited a series of books on women’s issues. Her current research focuses on the challenges to secular feminism in Pakistan as the women’s movement confronts growing conservatism and Islamic militancy. In recent years, she has worked and written on democracy, civil society and dictatorship.