Saigol’s Pakistan: a feminist reading of the nationalist project

By Kaveri Qureshi and Laila Rajani

 What archives and methods do we need to conduct a feminist analysis of nation-building? How do feminist movements locate themselves in relation to religious politics? This review of the late Pakistani feminist scholar Rubina Saigol’s work offers us a rich sense of what she left us to think with.

In August 2021, feminist scholar, educationalist and activist Rubina Saigol passed away. Though she herself is no longer with us, her analyses remain vital and necessary. This commentary canvasses her immense contribution as reflected in The Pakistan Project: A Feminist Perspective on Nation and Identity, a summative monograph bringing together much of her life’s work. Originally published in 2013, this book tracks how feminists have intervened in Pakistan’s central political debates post-independence. As a feminist analysis of Pakistan, Saigol’s book is uniquely historicized and historiographical. This review will explore the historicised, and then the historiographical arguments of the book, before turning to some questions and observations on its wide-ranging implications.

The book begins with the history of Muslim cultural nationalism in the crucible of the encounter with British colonialism. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, architect of the two-nation theory, advocated vocally for English education among Muslims as a way of retaining class privilege, but appealed to the Muslim elite to prevent their daughters from imbibing Western, modern secular education. Saigol critiques Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s speeches on women’s education as reflecting “immense nationalist anxiety and schizophrenic splits typical of the agonised colonized man, desperate to hold on to the last bastion of male superiority in the home while entering the modern and scientific world of statecraft, politics and commerce as an unequal partner” (p.52). Deputy Nazeer Ahmed’s stance was at first glance different, in insisting that women should learn secular subjects related to the ‘public sphere’ as well as religion and domestic arts. However, his writings ultimately served the same end, in envisioning women’s place as “modern, rational, and enlightened mothers” (p.62). Subsequent chapters turn towards Pakistani social studies and history textbooks from the 1960s to the 1990s and explore how male identity is “visualised in terms of his rights as an individual citizen of the state”, female identity is “predicated upon her duties to the nation/state as a mother” (p.109). Going further, Saigol shows how the state textbooks are little different than the materials used in girls’ religious seminaries, and thus “there seems to be a marked continuity between the imperatives of pre-colonial cultural nationalism, post-colonial state policies, and the aims of the faith-based organisations in terms of containing and controlling female sexuality and curtailing the right of women to make choices in life” (p.168).

Midway through, the book pivots to representations of history, which Saigol explores again in the state-mandated textbooks as well as in nationalist military songs. In the textbooks, Saigol explores how historical accounts are gendered and sexualised. The Muslim male figures typically in a hyper-masculine form as conqueror, liberator and subjugator, whereas the female historical figures – Hazrat Khadija and Hazrat Fatima – are extolled in feminised terms, as pillars of tolerance and forbearance, sacrifice and self-abnegation. Against these hyper-gendered representations, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Englishmen/Christians, and Bengalis – who are cast as Others, as foils against which to elaborate the Pakistani nationalist self – are more ambiguously gendered. They figure both as masculine perpetrators of cruelty and treachery, as well as feminine, when defeated. The war songs deploy similar gendered ideology, glorifying military martyrs such as Major Raja Aziz Bhatti and Rashid Minhas and figuring women as mothers of strong, brave sons ready to fight to the death.

Saigol has a brilliant literary imagination in reading the gendered discourses and imagery and drawing out their pedagogical implications in perpetuating gender inequality. As readers, the book leaves us with questions regarding the effects of this gender ideology, and the extent to which literary analysis of these texts can capture what people take away from them. Studies of reception emphasise the control that readers exercise over the meaning of the texts (eg. Qureshi 2018). However, where Saigol’s book provides glimpses on this, the reception seems largely to reiterate the terms of the discourse – like the mohajir women interviewed in Karachi, who have imbibed the gender politics of cultural nationalism in embracing their figuring as mothers of martyrs in the ethnic conflict (p.273-4).

The political implications of the book are drawn out in the final chapters which address Islamisation. Here, Saigol’s life work as an activist comes across in terms of her commitment to secular feminist politics, especially via the Women’s Action Forum. Saigol insists that feminism should steer clear of religious arguments because “it was an ideology that was so loaded against their rights that the self-appointed guardians of religion would always win on their own wicket” (p.334). On this point, Khan and Kirmani (2018) critique Saigol, amongst others, for promoting a binary framework in which secular feminism in Pakistan is siloed apart from Islamic feminism, ultimately leading to impasse in the women’s movement in the country. By contrast, they point to recent gender justice movements emerging independently at grass-roots level, including the Lady Health Workers’ movement and transgender activism, and draw out their effectiveness despite their lack of linkages to either camp of established feminism. Whilst this is true, we would suggest that Saigol’s analyses contain valuable food for thought for those at the vanguard of these newer forms of activism. Those concerned with the Lady Health Workers’ movement may take interest in Saigol’s repeated conviction that the women’s movement must work hand-in-hand with the “labour movement… to win back the state” (p.132). Similarly, transgender activists may find Saigol’s centring of sexuality and desire within nationalist imaginaries utterly fascinating, as with her luminous analyses of the homoeroticism in Akbar Allahabadi and Allama Iqbal’s poetry (p.76-100) and in textbook representations of Hindu and Muslim places of worship (see p.183-4). In sum, Saigol’s historical approach is richly generous.


Khan, A. and Kirmani, N. (2018). Moving beyond the binary: gender-based activism in Pakistan. Feminist Dissent, (3), 151-191.

Qureshi, K. (2018). Marriage, the Islamic advice literature and its women readers. Contemporary Levant3(1), 32-43.

Saigol, R. (2013). The Pakistan project: a feminist perspective on nation and identity. New Delhi: Women Unlimited.

Author Bios

Kaveri Qureshi is a senior lecturer at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.

Laila Rajani is a doctoral candidate at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.

This blog was cross-posted from the Lahore University of Management Sciences Gender Initiative’s Gender Bi-annual’s January 2023 issue.

Image: Rubina Saigol’s page