‘When you see the spectacle religion puts on here you don’t want to be a believer’, writes Guy Delise, in his graphic novel Jerusalem. Chronicles from the Holy City. That is how I felt after performing the Umrah two years ago (pre-Covid), a mini pilgrimage to Makkah and Medina that can be performed throughout the year, to pay respects at Islam’s holiest site, the Ka’bah.
Like many organised world religions, Islam remains caught in a conundrum of extreme interpretations, by both Muslims and non-Muslims, men and women (but mostly men). This latter gendered aspect is perhaps the most controversial element within Islam and its believers.
In Pakistan, my country of birth, Islam is heavily patriarchal in its interpretation and women have been its main casualties. From family planning and reproductive health, to child marriages and forced conversions, to inheritance and dress codes, everything is controlled by a sense of religious purpose. But Pakistan, like many other Muslim nations, is also undergoing a tug-of-war between invading modernity and religiously inspired tradition. As more women graduate from university, fewer enter the workforce. As more women attempt economic independence, even more succumb to domestic violence as a form of male subjugation. As more women ask for their rights as equal citizens, more turn to preaching a narrow version of Islam. As more women attempt to follow feminist principles of equality and inclusion, the more their lives are threatened for it by religious zealots. While there is no rule that states tradition and modernity cannot go together, this dichotomy is creating a stark division between how Muslim women want to see their religion themselves (or don’t) and how they are being coerced into doing so by a patriarchal society at large.