“Burka Avengers” and Pakistan’s Gender Structures

women training fight
Photo credit: AFP/ Getty images

by Fauzia Husain

The BBC’s Facebook page recently featured a story from its radio service. The story depicts the sounds of women training to join an elite force of police commandos who will take on the Taliban in Pakistan. We hear the reporter ask the women trainees’ men colleagues how many of them support the induction of women into their unit, and we hear that all of them raise their hands. Meanwhile, in the background, the men say in Urdu and in English that “there is a need for this.” The reporter understands the men’s response and indeed, this training of women commandos, as signaling a shift in the gender system of this war torn country.

And perhaps, that is one possible reading, especially as this news story follows in the wake of media stories about the Burka Avenger, an award winning, made-in-Pakistan animated TV series that depicts a school teacher, Jiya whose alter ego, the superhero Burka Avenger, is engaged in a fight (often against Taliban-like villains) for “Justice, Peace and Education for all.”

However, there is another way to read what is going on with the induction of women into the commando forces in Pakistan. The report mentions but does not particularly focus on what may be key to understanding this commando unit—the women fighters will precede their men colleagues in entering suspicious houses. This particular detail takes on significance if examined in terms of the mahrem, a structuring concept that has a wide but particularistic currency in many Islamic contexts such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, where linguistic and cultural differences create variations in the practice and understanding of mahrem rules. Drawing on data from 45 interviews with Muslim women conducted in Karachi between 2012-2014 allows me to flesh out the particular shape this structuring concept of mahrem rules takes in Pakistan.

Mahrem is an Arabic word, (root hrm; sanctuary), which denotes the forbidden, illicit and taboo. But the word takes on varying shades of meaning in different Muslim contexts. For instance, writing about Turkey where mahrem denotes the private and secluded, Göle (1996) conceptualizes the mahrem as the “ gendered construct of the private sphere,” and draws on this concept to explain the emergence of veiling amongst college students. She argues that these women use the turban (a hybrid kind of veil) as a discursive symbol that protests the elite driven secularization of the Turkish public sphere, signals an orientation to a particularistic and religious definition of the private sphere (the mahrem), and in the process transforms notions of both the public and the private.

In the Pakistani context, the mahrem, (frequently invoked by interview participants, narrating their views about romance) denotes a set of guidelines that institutionalizes gender segregation along a continuum ranging from the more rigid pole that demands formal seclusion through the zenana (feminine domestic sphere) to the looser set of rules that govern public and private gendered interactions in more urban contexts. Theoretically, Mahrem rules delimit who a woman may appear before and under what circumstances and styles of dress she may do so, whom she may marry, whom she may travel with (especially to Mecca) and who is allowed to touch her dead body. In urban contexts women abide by these rules in complicated ways: some women argue that man-woman interactions are fine so long as they are conducted in public and touch upon topics that are professional, while other women refer to co-workers as “brothers” in a complicated attempt to sanctify interactions with these non-mahrem men. Some younger women adjust their desire to date with their perceived need to maintain an image as pious women through an adherence to mahrem rules. This kind of dating is referred to as “halal dating” and incorporates prohibitions against allowing “skin to touch skin,” and against “hanging out” in non-public settings, “Barbecue Tonight [a restaurant] is fine,” these women argue, “just don’t be alone with him.” Additionally, halal dating frequently relies on peers to act as chaperones, thus 25 year old artist, Ameera claimed, “the rule is there have to be more girls in the car than guys, that’s what my parents said, so it doesn’t look like couples.”

Thus Mahrem rules activate various kinds of taboos. These include taboos imposed by the state on individual men and women and taboos imposed upon the state. The state may, for instance, prosecute citizens for illicit sexual activities; uphold rules preventing men and women from swimming together at a private club, or it might regulate how a woman is known on her official documents (i.e. married women are constrained to be recognized as the wives of their husbands rather than as daughters of their fathers but the same rule does not apply to men).

Similarly, mahrem rules render the home a taboo space, problematizing the entry of na-mahrem (non-permissible) men and therefore of the state insofar as it chooses to be represented by the masculine bodies of men commandos. Even outside the home, men police officers may be constrained from stopping or questioning women without women police officers present, insofar as women are aware of these laws (though abuse and assault of women by police officers certainly exists).

For those who abide by these rules, (and for a state that understands itself as Islamic) Mahrem rules can only be transgressed in specific ways: through marriage, divorce or death at the more rigid end of the continuum or, on the more flexible, hybrid end of the continuum via the use of the burqa (see Papanek on portable seclusion) the hijab and halal dating, devices that allow women to appear in the public sphere whilst simultaneously gesturing towards a compliance with mahrem rules.

Thus the induction of women within the elite forces training to tackle the Taliban is not so much a wholesale restructuring of the gender system as it is a restructuring of defense in terms of mahrem rules. Veiled, women commandos represent the state’s attempt to extend its reach into the taboo realm by taking on a feminine form, yet by doing so the state preserves separate spheres for men and women. The induction of women commandos, a form of portable intrusive surveillance, reorders the gender structure whilst simultaneously maintaining its centrality, in two ways. First, the gender of nation conventionally symbolized through the masculine body of the man commando is complicated through the induction of women commandos who wear veils. Yet, the induction of women commandos suggests that it is the state that must adjust to the mahrem order. Second, by taking their place alongside men, these women trouble the boundaries of mahrem rules, yet, they do so as veiled women, signaling through their bodies both compliance and transgression.

The author would like to thank the blog editors, Afshan Jafar and Mahala Stewart, for their invaluable suggestions and Elizabeth A. Armstrong for her encouragement.

Fauzia Husain is a PhD student at the University of Virginia, Department of Sociology. Her research seeks to examine cultural change and competing globalizations through a focus on intimacy and techniques of the body.

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