Islamisation of the law and society in Pakistan, under the rule of General Zia ul Haq, initially created new opportunities for women to negotiate change. Opponents of the General’s Islamisation of his rule and civil society actors were harassed, imprisoned or chose to leave the country. Civil space was empty in the face of the insecurity unleashed by the processes of Islamisation.
Enter women activists. For a significant period of time the insecurity created by the rapidly changing political, social and religious conditions gave women open doors to pursue change. Women demonstrated publicly, confronted the General’s rule, and challenged religious leaders. They were vociferous in their demands for equality for women under the law and in the constitution.
Scholarship in the Western academia has laregely focussed on how insecurity threatens men and their masculinity, arguing that this leads to exaggerated displays of masculinity. Those who do not display this sort of masculinity are then mistreated as part of this hyper-masculine behaviour.
But, is this always true? In the case of Pakistan insecurity saw space for women open up in new ways, opportunities created and grasped, and gender norms renegotiated. Women’s activism in Pakistan has continued as public advocacy with the government, society and religious authorities. Patriarchal norms were reinforced through the religious framing of the laws, but at the same time women reimagined the challenge to those norms. ‘… [R]esearch on masculinity in various parts of the world suggests that during times of social, political, and economic instability, women may be treated more equally or gain opportunities they did not have during more stable times.’ (Kucinskas and van der Dos, Gender Ideals in Turbulent Times: An Examination of Insecurity, Islam, and Muslim Men’s Gender Attitudes during the Arab Spring, Comparative Sociology 16, 2017.)
There is significant evidence that demonstrates how when men feel threatened they can resort to hyper-masculine behaviour which often involves violence against women. The increased rates of violence experienced by women during Covid bear witness to this. UN Women presented data that described violence against women as the unseen pandemic during that time. (https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/in-focus-gender-equality-in-covid-19-response/violence-against-women-during-covid-19) France was just one country where there was a reported 32% increase in reports of domestic violence.
I am not wanting to deny this reality, that insecurity often sees increased violence against women. There is, however, another side to the story.
Research into several MENA region countries concluded that men who live with economic and political insecurity are often more open to gender egalitarianism, suggesting that this is because these men are dependent on women when under such pressure. Their research went on to indicate there is a strong relationship between political Islam and patriarchal gender attitudes. (Kucinskas and van der Dos, Gender Ideals in Turbulent Times: An Examination of Insecurity, Islam, and Muslim Men’s Gender Attitudes during the Arab Spring, Comparative Sociology 16, 2017.)
What happens when there is insecurity? Much greater attention must be given to context in examining and extrapolating outcomes. Complex dynamics at play between politics, religion, social organisation and patriarchy means the results vary significantly.