Academic journal article Islamic Studies

Women, Muslim Culture and the Development Discourse: The Case of Poor Pakistani Women

Academic journal article Islamic Studies

Women, Muslim Culture and the Development Discourse: The Case of Poor Pakistani Women

Article excerpt


This paper examines the discourse surrounding poor Pakistani women and their problems, specifically their poverty and powerlessness to change their lives. This discourse has traditionally been constructed by international donor agencies, local elites and Non-Governmental Organizations. The incorporation of poor women's voices into this discourse was intended to increase accuracy in the depictions of their lives. I argue that the process of inclusion is tainted by the needs of the agents participating in development. Instead of improving the representations of women embedded in the discourse, women's voices are used to cement the previously existing representations of their problems.

Strong social and cultural norms restrict access to public services and reduce the economic opportunities of women and girls. Together these factors create obstacles for the poor and vulnerable to partake in the benefits of economic growth, highlighting the importance of interventions that address chronic poverty and vulnerability, and help the disadvantaged groups, including women, participate in economic growth.

(World Bank 2006, 5)

In a society such as Pakistan's, the first order of business for a reformer must be to get women released from the frightfully harsh conditions and constraints under which many of them live Husbands feel free to hit and otherwise abuse their wives for trivial reasons. Vigilantes, roaming the streets as self-appointed moral policemen, pour acid upon and disfigure young women wearing make-up or if, in their view, they do not meet the appropriate standards of modesty.

(Anwar Syed, Dawn)


The image of the poor Pakistani woman, oppressed by her culture and in need of outside intervention to emancipate her, is taken for granted by both the local and the international parties that construct the discourse on women in Pakistan. The consensus on the source of Pakistani women's oppression becomes perplexing when one examines the agents who produce it. These agents include international donors such as the World Bank and the Pakistani elite. These agents are geographically separated and serve different constituencies. Pakistan is a peripheral part the World Bank's client base, while the Pakistani elite are both geographically and interest-wise closer to the poor in Pakistan. Despite this, the World Bank and Pakistani elite produce documents which work together to produce representations of the Pakistani poor that build upon and reinforce each other. Given their different positions with regard to the poor, how is it that the representations they produce are so strikingly similar?

James Ferguson and Larry Lohman argue that while looking at development programmes, an important question to keep in mind is what exactly aid programmes do in addition to their development agendas.1 This question can be modified to ask what exactly aid programmes do through their development agendas and how the representations they promote serve the interests of different agents. If development is an anti-politics machine which depoliticizes everything it touches and conceals political realities,2 than one of the ways to trace the political operations development performs is through discourse.3 What is possible to say within a discourse may seem self evident and natural, but the naturalness is the result of that which has been excluded and is almost unsayable.4 That which is represented as natural may seem true in the lives of some women, but there should be a recognition that the dominant discourse structures ways of thinking about the world. An awareness that the representations embedded in the discourse serve specific social and political interests helps explain their uniformity.

Although poor Pakistani women are represented as the weakest of the poor, and as having limited agency, other agents go to great lengths to incorporate their voices into the discourse through the medium of Non- Governmental Organizations' (NGO) reports and documents. …

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