Fundamentalism and Social Exclusion

The emergence of fundamentalist movements in Muslim countries, more properly known as Islamism, is being viewed by some scholars as the last wave of anti-imperialism of the 20th century. Muslim fundamentalist movements that show militancy against Western colonial influences include the Hezbollah and AMAL in Lebanon, the HAMAS in Palestine, the National Islamic Front in Sudan, the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Khomeinism in Iran, the Jamiat-I-Ulema Islam (with its multiple splinter groups) in Pakistan, the Mujahideen and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

While the Islamists have different interpretations of the Sharia (Islamic jurisprudence), they believe that all Muslim societies are subjugated and subordinated because of their deviation from the true Islamic path. When Islamists blame the West for co-opting their leaders, they also use Islam as a political ideology to mobilize the disenfranchised Muslim ‘Umm’ (community of believers) against the “corrupting” and “self-serving” ways of the West.

Gender and Muslim Fundamentalism

Women form the core of Islamist debate. Muslim fundamentalists across the board agree on restoring complementary roles between men and women based on their biology – men as wage earners and women as mothers and homemakers. Given the traditional, patriarchal Muslim view of women’s sexuality being ‘disruptive of the social order because of her power to attract the opposite sex,’ Islamists demand that women be veiled and segregated from men at every level of society.

The extremist behavior of fundamentalists and Islamists in particular has proved harmful for the rights of women wherever they have captured state power. Their promulgation of “Islamist” laws and policies in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, have introduced even more patriarchal norms into these predominantly feudal and tribal societies, and attempted to erode their existing diversity.

The Veil and Four Walls – Women in Pakistan

The Islamists supported the military government of Zia ul Haq, who took over in a military coup in Pakistan in 1977 and ruled for the next 11 1/2 years. This was the period when the concept of ‘chadar and chardiwar’ (veil and four walls) was pushed upon Pakistan women. Women began being discriminated against in the workplace and in the streets. The state used the electronic media to mount scathing attacks on working women and projected the “Islamic woman” as devoted to home and family.

The Zia government passed a series of laws against women. The Zina Ordinance (part of Hudood Ordinances, 1979) makes sex outside marriage a crime against the state. It also does not give maximum sentence on the basis of women’s testimony. Discounting women’s testimony has to date resulted in imprisonment for thousands of poor women, who have been accused of adultery or even been victims of rape. In addition, the equality granted to women under Pakistan’s constitution was subverted with the passage of the Laws of Evidence, 1984 (in which two women’s testimony is equated with one man in financial matters) and the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance, 1985 (in which the blood money for a deceased woman is half that for a man). 1

The effects of the Islamist ideology have seeped into the rural areas of Pakistan where customary laws hold sway. In the last two decades there has been an appreciable increase in tribal customs like honor killings in which the unfortunate woman and her lover can be killed by her immediate family and get away with a lesser sentence.

Religious Minorities in Pakistan

The Blasphemy Laws, passed by General Zia ul Haq have deprived religious minorities in Pakistan – Christians, Hindus and Parsees (Zorastrians) – full citizenship. These laws award the death penalty for anyone charged with ‘blasphemy’ against Prophet Mohammed. At times they have been used as a pretext against non-Muslims who might be involved in a land dispute. Blasphemy charges are also used against the Ahmediya community, who offend the sensibilities of the mainstream Muslims by denying that Mohammed is the last Prophet.

Religious minorities in Pakistan have become further isolated because General Zia’s introduction of separate electorates. The latter requires non-Muslims to elect non-Muslim candidates. With reserved seats for non-Muslims, candidates are now required to contest elections on a countrywide basis rather than from a particular region. This, as non-Muslim voters have testified, makes the candidate unaccountable to his particular constituency and leads to a further neglect of the religious minorities.

The Classic ‘Islamist’ State – Iran

Iran has even less diversity than Pakistan in terms of its religious sects, ethnic communities and women’s movements. The Shia clerics who ushered in Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in 1979 had been in power for only two weeks when they decreed that women ought to be veiled and segregated. Iran became the classic ‘Islamist’ state where Khomeni received support from all sectors of society, including women, against the Shah’s pro Western policies. Once victorious, the Shia clerics pushed women into the veil, after referring to those in Western dress as “Westoxicated” and, the “painted dolls of the Shah.”

One of the first acts of the Khomeini government was to suspend the Shah’s Family Protection Act. In one go, women lost all their rights of family law. Although the FPA was restored in amended form in 1992, Iranian laws presently weigh heavily against women. Women are treated as subjects within marriage: men can divorce more easily and remarry without seeking permission from their wives, polygamy is more common, temporary marriage has been re-instituted and child custody made more difficult for women. The legal age for marriage for girls has been dropped to nine years, eliminating their chances for finding a life outside marriage and motherhood.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to middle-class women in Iran is the gender
segregation in education and employment. Female literacy has dropped. At the same time, forbidding girls to be taught by male teachers has significantly narrowed their education opportunities. Women’s employment has increased marginally after the 1979 Islamic revolution, but only because of their induction into sex segregated occupations like teaching, “female oriented” fields of medicine and in government agencies that deal with women.

Since the death of Khomeini in 1988, a relatively liberal breed of Shia clerics (presently led by President Khatami) has encouraged “Islamic feminists”. The latter, who are “deconstructing” the Quran and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) work with secular feminists to improve women’s rights in Iran. They have had limited success. Even these “Islamic feminists” occasionally risk the wrath of hard-line clerics by publishing articles by women poets and interviews of filmmakers from outside the mainstream. Even more likely to get arrested are unveiled women or those espousing secular views.

Inside the Burqa – Outside the Decision-Making Process. Women in Afghanistan
The Taliban, a Pashtun ethnic group who have ruled Afghanistan since 1995, rode the wave of Islamic militants brought into the region by the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia to fight the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Though the Taliban has an Islamic fundamentalist image, its practices are tribal rather than Islamic. For example, it allows the ‘Jirga” (consultative body of male tribal elders) to make communal decisions on the basis of the Pashtunwali code of honor and shame. Women are totally excluded from participating in this decision-making process.

Since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, they have imposed the ‘burqa’ – a voluminous covering which women must wear from head to foot with only a mesh for the eyes. Women have been barred even from their Islamic rights of inheritance. Instead, the Afghan tribes are now resorting to a pre-Islamic custom whereby widowed women are being inherited by their brother-in-laws or stepsons. Also, stricken by dire poverty, Afghan farmers (who previously received a bride price for their daughters) are now selling their daughters to pay off loans.

Today Afghanistan tops the list of fundamentalists attempting to stamp out diversity. About 100,000 women teachers, doctors, nurses, administrators and civil servants, who worked mostly in Kabul, have been sent home. Primary schools for girls have been closed (for want of women teachers), while Kabul University – once bustling with female students – has been closed to women.

Religious Minorities in Afghanistan

From time to time, the Taliban clashes with the other minorities – Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks – who remain unrepresented in this Pashtun based government. Tajik leader Ahmed Shad Massoud continues to fight the Taliban from the North of Afghanistan. In addition, the Sunni Taliban and the Iranian Shia militants have been sighting their battles on Pakistani soil. This has created sectarian clashes between the Shai and Sunni population in Pakistan, mostly to the detriment of Pakistan’s minority Shia population.

The Islamic fundamentalists export of terrorism to the West has now come full circle. Indeed, if any lessons are to be derived from the emergence of Islamists, it is to recognize that the West acted short-sightedly in the background of the Cold War and the oil crisis. The U.S. support to the fundamentalist regimes in Pakistan and Afghanistan not only weakened Pakistan and Afghanistan’s civil societies, it sparked the return of illegal immigration, heroin, debt liabilities and terrorism. It is high time the UN, world governments and religious leaders realized that a hard-line approach to the Muslim world will only elicit more fundamentalist responses – to the detriment of all concerned.

Nafisa Hoodbhoy has worked as a journalist for the last 16 years in Karachi, Pakistan for the English language daily newspaper,`Dawn’. In 1995 she was nominated by Amnesty International as a ‘human rights defender. Presently, she is a Visiting Lecturer at Amherst College, teaching a course on the `Regulation of Sexual Activities and Identities’ relating to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.

Source: ICSW

Bank workers resent layoffs, curbs on union activity

KARACHI, Aug 7: Hundreds of bank and other financial institution employees have been transferred, retired, sent on forced leave, retrenched and offered the golden handshake even while their union offices have been closed over the last few months, bank union leaders have claimed.

The union leaders from Habib Bank, Muslim Commercial Bank, Allied Bank and foreign banks interviewed by Dawn maintained that the insertion of Section 27-B, Ordinance LVII of 1962 passed by the National Assembly on May 26, ahead of the privatization of banks, had been a blow to trade union activity – setting back its most active component in the banking sector.

Section 27 B states: “No officer or member of a trade union in a banking company shall use any bank facilities, including a car or telephone, to promote trade union activities… or carry on trade union activities during office hours… nor shall he be a person who is not an employee of the banking company in question.” According to the union leaders, who claim to have lost contact with one another after the closure of the offices, the Services Tribunals (Amendment) Act 1997 had further prevented them from having access to the labour courts, appellate courts or the National Industrial Relations Council, with all labour disputes now to be sent to the Services Tribunal.

“We are expecting the worst after August 14, when there will be retrenchment and the golden handshake will be offered to bank employees ahead of privatization,” said Habibuddin Junaidi, president of Habib Bank General Workers Front Pakistan. Foreign Banks Employees Federation president Mohammed Ajab Khan, secretary-general Mohammed Saghir and finance secretary Farrukh Saleem Khan told Dawn that already the foreign banks, Al Mashriq, Bank of America, Standard Chartered, Hongkong Shanghai and ANZ Grindlays banks had retrenched 30 per cent personnel, foremost amongst them being peons and security guards and replaced their services by personnel from private companies.

Foreign banks union leaders said they had refused to comply with government instructions to vacate union offices and had, instead, filed a writ petition against evacuation in the high court. Muslim Commercial Bank union general secretary Saeed Ghani alleged that while hundreds of employees had been transferred from the MCB (where only 780 out of 14,000 employees were opting for the golden handshake, “pocket unions” were being promoted by the management in a clear cut example of unfair labour practices. At the same time, the union leaders alleged that a number of collective bargaining agents (CBAs) has been bought over by the management. Saeed Ghani, who was in the forefront of the campaign launched during March/April by the Federal Organisation of Bank Employees and Financial Institutions (FOBFI) led by Mohammed Ali Memon of Habib Bank Employees Union (CBA), told Dawn that the top leadership of FOBFI had since advised his MCB union not to go on strike.

While trade union activity is in doldrums, its scattered leadership sharply criticized the government’s appointments of non-technical bank presidents and executive vice presidents “with fantastic salaries” as well as the discretionary powers given to banking heads to advance millions of rupees in loans – “part of which are being used as advances to finance their personal businesses.”

Mushtaq Ahmed Khan Changezi, secretary-general of Habib Bank Progressive Officers Union, alleged that while more than Rs1 billion had been given out in loans by Habib Bank during the last three-four months, only a tiny percentage of the Rs34 billion HBL loans had been returned by defaulters. As a result of the lack of success in recovering defaulter loans, the government had extended the deadline for Habib Bank until September 5, union leaders said.

Mr Junaidi blamed past governments, bureaucrats, bank managements and union leaders for their collective “corruption and incompetence” in bringing banks to the present state of financial ruin. He demanded that while all those who had contributed to the decline of the banks and DFIs should be brought to trial and the “working class should not be victimized.”

In particular, the Workers Front president called for a referendum in Habib Bank. According to him, while the Habib Bank unions had played a leading role in trade union movements from 1974 uptill today, any deviation by the CBAs could only be blamed on the government’s failure to hold referendum since the last four years.

Source: Dawn

Edhi not happy over decline in donations

KARACHI, Jan 14: The onset of the holy month of Ramazan has become a test of popularity for veteran social worker Abdus Sattar Edhi whose Edhi Trust suffered a decline of 40 percent in donations last Ramazan and whose daily receipts have fallen in the same proportion over the last couple of years.

Mr Edhi told Dawn that although cheques for Zakat, clothes and rations had begun to arrive at his head office in Mithadar since Ramazan began on Jan 11, by the 20th of Ramazan he would have a better idea whether donations fetched during the holy month would match up to the funds normally brought in each Ramazan.

Interviewed at his humble Mithadar office, Mr Edhi related that last Ramazan the contributions to the Edhi Trust fell from Rs 40 million to 25 million – with his charitable organisation still not recovered from the set-back. This year, he assessed the situation to have become bad enough to defer the payment of staff salaries till after Ramazan. However, apart from Ramazan, Mr Edhi has suffered loss of ‘khairat’ (charity) normally given by the middle class and business class, with donations falling from an average daily of Rs 700,000 to Rs 400,000. The sharp decline in donations coupled with the severe fall in the value of the rupee has, according to him, forced him to cut down his network of social services across the country.

The experienced social worker said there was a “very small class” that donates to the Edhi Trust. With everything so expensive, they too had been holding back on donations.

Mr Edhi traced the downslide for his Trust as beginning in January 1995 when he returned from a month-long exile in London, undertaken to escape the pressure groups who had been bent on overthrowing the government. He had secretly left on Dec. 8, 1994 to escape the groups (amongst whose leaders he had named Imran Khan and Maulana Israr Ahmed), to prevent them from using him to topple the government.

The veteran social worker said that since the PPP government had been in power at that stage, his departure had created the wrong impression that he was a supporter of the PPP. This was despite his categorical assertion that “I am not a politician”. Mr Edhi declared that he had temporarily fled because he could never collaborate with the vested interests who were dividing people on the basis of being Sindhi, Baloch, Mohajir and Pakhtun. During the ethnic riots, he stressed, his ambulances had been picking up bodies regardless of ethnicity. Despite this, he alleged that “narrow-minded people had been spreading the poison of ethnic differences”.

He was also critical of the Jamaat-i-Islami, claiming that the latter was intent on “bringing the nation to the brink of disaster”. For him, “The only religion I know is that of serving humanity”.

Two years from Edhi’s self-exile, the Edhi Trust is in the throes of a financial set-back, Edhi claiming he is being “punished for speaking out”. He regretted that on its 50th anniversary this year, Pakistan was still far from its goal of achieving unity and the mission elaborated by the Quaid-i-Azam for a comprehensive social welfare system.

Source: Dawn