Afiya Shehrbano Zia

Feminist Researcher, Scholar
University of Toronto, Canada

"Prognosis for Pakistan: Secular Feminism or Post-secular Polio?" 
Pakistan is one of two remaining countries where the preventable poliomyelitis disease is still endemic. Some 202 cases of polio were registered in 2014 and the World Health Organisation has imposed travel and visa restrictions and warned of sanctions - if polio continues to spread. In 2012, over a dozen women health workers and twice the number of security personnel assigned to them were assassinated while they were administering polio vaccines to children in poorer communities. They continue to be the target of religious militants who consider polio vaccines anti-Islamic and a conspiracy to sterilise Muslims and that women should not be involved in public health services.

An unprecedented amount of influential scholarship on Islam and secularism has been produced in the post 9/11 decade. Apart from critiquing Enlightenment ideals, modernity and secularism, nearly all of this body of work scorns “Western feminism” and human rights and the racial underpinnings considered inherent to them.

This paper challenges this post-secularist theoretical turn and argues that the disproportionate academic and policy attention awarded to Islamic politics as defined by Muslim women’s piety, docile agency, postfeminist alterity, wardrobe and performativity, has come at the cost of their secular, working-class politics and identities. It also delegitimises the contributions of local secular feminist activists and their struggles for women’s rights against the collusion between mainstream Islamist discourse and international development organisations.

Citing the cases of women health workers, this paper will argue against the limits of religious agency. It will demonstrate how faith has become a convenient tool to depoliticise feminist politics and undermine the socialist bias that has tended to define secular feminism in Muslim contexts such as, Pakistan.