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Religious Minority Women in Pakistan: Political Activism and Representation in the Social Media Era

by Erin Kelso

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is one of only two modern nation-states founded on the basis of religion. Though their numbers have dwindled dramatically since the partition of British India, there are currently millions of Pakistanis that belong to Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Parsi, and other religious minority communities. These communities have been largely excluded from the national imaginary, in both symbolic and material ways. This exclusion has intensified and, in many cases, become violent as the state’s ongoing Islamization project weaves religion ever more tightly into the social and political fabric of the nation (Saeed 2016).

Today, there is a growing movement among religious minority communities to assert their status as “real” Pakistanis and advocate for the rights and privileges their citizenship should confer. However, the role of women within the movement have remained strikingly circumscribed and their voices conspicuously muted. This is puzzling as the plight of religious minority communities in Pakistan has coalesced around issues affecting women in particular—most notably, the alleged kidnapping and forced conversion to Islam of Hindu women by Muslim men. Activists’ demands that the government address this issue have met some limited success in the passage of the Hindu Marriage Act of 2017, though a more comprehensive forced conversion bill remains stubbornly resistant to consensus, largely due to the influence of conservative elements.

Until now, the figure of the religious minority woman has largely been a silent one in the national conversation on minority rights—the passive object of kidnapping, conversion, violence, and victimization. This project seeks to bring depth of dimension to the “eternal victim” narrative by gathering the accounts of women belonging to Pakistan’s Christian, Hindu, and Sikh communities. My goal is to understand how minority women are represented and their issues taken up by others within the broader movement for minority rights, but more importantly, the ways in which minority women advocate for and represent themselves and their communities.

The research project will have three parts. First, I will examine the intersectional nexus of oppression operating on minority women and how this shapes their lived experiences as citizens of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. I keep in mind that, not only are minority women subject to the same gendered problems and disadvantages facing Muslim women (sexual harassment and violence, limited mobility, male-dominated public spaces) they have the added burden of being a religious minority—and with it, the constant threat of daily discrimination, mob violence, and unjust incrimination under Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws. Here it is important not to lose sight of the fact that religious minority women are subject to patriarchal control from within their own communities as well as from without.

Second, I will look at the ways in which religious minority women are organizing, representing their communities to the wider public, and working to make change. I intend to follow key activists, tracing their role in the religious minority rights movement, and mapping points of convergence and divergence with related organizations and movements (between different religious communities, or with the wider women’s movement, for example).

Finally, I focus on visibility and new media, examining how social media platforms enable religious minority women to organize and speak for themselves in ways that were previously unthinkable. I will pay particular attention to the rhetorical devices used to assert “Pakistani-ness,” or legitimate membership in the national community. However, I will also be attuned to the absence of certain voices as well, particularly those marginalized by caste and class, asking: does social media truly democratize representation or is it just another case of elite actors within a marginalized identity group speaking for the whole—the subaltern again being silenced?