A Gentle Breeze, Secular In Nature, Passes… Away

When fundamentalism has started posing a serious threat to the global community, an immanent flame of secularism and feminist theory has been extinguished. Saba Mahmood – the Pakistan-born American anthropologist – died from pancreatic cancer on March 10, 2018.
Scholars across the globe believe that Mahmood – born in Quetta, Pakistan in 1962 – will always be remembered as not just a distinguished scholar, but a person who had never indulged in the dichotomy of rights and wrongs, and tried to explain the complexity of contemporary political philosophy.
Mahmood – who had specialisation in Socio-cultural Anthropology, was widely considered as a scholar of modern Egypt. She arrived in the US in 1981 to study architecture and urban planning at the University of Washington in Seattle. Later in 1998, she received her PhD in Anthropology from Stanford University and joined the University of Chicago as a faculty. She offered her last seminar in fall 2017 at the University of California in Berkeley. Mahmood was also affiliated with the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Berkeley in the Programme in Critical Theory and the Institute for South Asia Studies. The Berkeley Pakistan Studied Initiative, a unique initiative in the US, was her brainchild.


However, the world will remember Mahmood due to her contributions to formulations on secularism and feminist theory. She analysed the colonial and capitalist power through the lens of modern secularism and also formulated various ways of understanding feminism, relational subjectivity, religious freedom, religious injury and rights of religious minorities.
Mahmood considered secularism as a complex political formation, which tends to produce differences by regulating religion. She was of the opinion that secularism is the prisoner of its own religious histories and the concept is highly influenced by the formations of religions that it wants to regulate. In her words: “Political secularism is the modern state’s sovereign power to reorganise substantive features of religious life, stipulating what religion is or ought to be, assigning its proper content, and disseminating concomitant subjectivities, ethical frameworks, and quotidian practices.”
Mahmood also made an attempt to demarcate the distinctions between the essence of Christianity and Islam, thus, bringing a nuanced understanding to the concept of secularism itself. In her publication ‘Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report’ (2015), the professor of anthropology stated that the distinction between public and private was central to secular reason, as it draws its bearing from a modern Christian emphasis on private worship. While the framework of Christianity focuses mainly on belief, the framework of Islam emphasises on the role of embodied practices within religious life, explained Mahmood. Finally, she came to the conclusion that the supposedly secular epistemologies could not take hold of the articulation of Islamic religious values misconstruing both the Islamic subject and the public meanings of its religious practices.
Mahmood further explained the feminist subject in Islam and tried to give the Western world a new way of viewing the Muslim feminist especially through her observations of Egyptian women, who were getting educated in the mosques. “We have to take seriously the concept of a deep sense of love of God without living in a monastery or convent. But I think it’s difficult in our Western mind-set to imagine a religiously devout woman living in a modern and secular world. They are also getting practical advice to difficult social problems,” stressed the secularist. “For example, if you are on public transportation and you are sexually harassed, how do you handle that as a devout person? Often, one of the things women would bring up with other Dai’as is- what does it mean to have a sexual dream? How do I police my desires? What kinds of relationships can I have with my betrothed? Questions like, I found out my daughter has had extra-marital affairs, what do I do about it? Obviously I’m not going to turn her into the state, so what do I do? Women used to be able to write these questions in to a sheikh or call in. But now, women are raising these issues with other women and it’s a very different type of discussion, a much more frank discussion,” she explained.


Asma Jilani Jahangir

It is to be noted that Asma Jilani Jahangir, the noted Pakistani human rights lawyer and social activist who co-founded and chaired the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, passed away due to a cerebral attack on February 11, 2018. Jahangir – famous for playing a prominent role in the Lawyers’ Movement and served as the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, and also as a trustee at the International Crisis Group – was born (on January 27, 1952) and raised in Lahore. Sometimes, the Pakistani spy agency arrested suspects because of their alleged involvement in anti-national activities. However, the agency did not produce them before court. Jahangir used to take up their cases and helped them prove their innocence.
Her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, was a civil servant. He had joined politics after his retirement and spent several years in jail and under house arrest for opposing military dictatorships in Pakistan. Malik was imprisoned many times because of his outspoken views. He had strongly criticised the Pakistani government for committing genocide during their military action in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). That’s why both the father and the daughter were very popular in Bangladesh.
The incidents of Mahmood and Jahangir’s demise create a void that cannot be filled.

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