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Islamism and Masculinity: Case Study Pakistan

Updated: Nov 14, 2018

How is masculinity affecting Islam? What is the link with jihadism? by Dr. Maleeha Aslam, Cambridge University.


In Muslim societies, men use Islamism and its variants as means of self-actualization and directly in service of matters associated with personhood, masculinity, and particularly honor. This expressive trajectory i.e. exercising masculinity via Islamism holds true in Pakistan and can be broadly attributed to three elements. First, Pakistan’s postcolonial baggage – a well-documented history of rise of Muslim nationalism, and Islamism in the subcontinent; second, western domination and interference in Pakistan’s socio-economic and political domains (as in competition with Islamic heritage and governance frameworks) affecting some segments (and not all) among Muslim youth; and third, decades of authoritarian rule taking turns with weak democratic governments who have largely disappointed in terms of alleviating absolute to relative poverty, marginalization and alienation troubling Pakistani society. Pakistan’s history and contemporary settings both reveal a dissonance between the prescribed, normative and idealized Muslim masculinity imperatives – and the socio-economic and political location of Pakistani men in the real world. Mostly leading dangerous, disenfranchised, and economically deprived lives it is difficult for them to uphold, for example, Quran’s masculine imperative of being a qawwam or an ethnic normative of honor. Islamism becomes one such avenue that increases the possibility of selfassertion and actualization of masculinity imperatives and as they appear in religious and cultural texts, narratives and anecdotes – for instance the theme of martyrdom. The resulting death will not only be divine, but also heroic. In the presence of precedence i.e. in form of documented history highlighting jihadism – this becomes plausible and ultimately adds to individual and collective rationality among Muslims. To develop these ideas further, this article draws upon empirical data sets and historical archival records.

1. Introduction

Whether masculinity is taken as a practice or a performance, or a normative construct (consult Butler 2006; Connell 2005) – it remains transformable and is negotiable. It needs mentioning, however, that expected changes are not sudden, but gradual. Through different time periods and cultures, militant and militarized masculinity is presented as some form of an ideal for example, knight with the shining armour, the warrior king and the rebel leader etc. Here the knight, warrior and rebel become the male archetype – and also a man’s best possible self-representation. The male archetype in Muslim cultures, including Pakistan, is at least partially similar. Pakistan’s militant Islamism is not a new phenomenon but predates the partition of India in 1947, where it appears to emerge as a subculture in response and reaction to the British rule. Pakistan’s historical context, its ethnic normativities, and the contemporary living contexts of its people, i.e. their socio-economic and political standing within and outside Pakistan – all continue to make militant masculinity meaningful causing escalation in militant or jihadist Islamism and vice versa. Unfortunately, these militant Islamists (regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with their agenda), are always susceptible to getting subsumed under terrorist gangs operating worldwide as criminal networks or to kidnapping for ransom while having no tangible, or achievable political targets but only towering rhetoric.

2. Methodology and Sampling

This article is based on two major research studies conducted between 2003- 2007 and 2009-2011.1 Some of the ideas presented here have appeared in my book Gender based explosions, the nexus between Muslim masculinities, jihadist Islamism and terrorism (Aslam 2012). 2 The book explores gender and terrorism and its complex interplay with versions of Islamism that remains largely an under-researched area. The findings are based on archival and historical records preserved by the Government of Pakistan. The empirical research design of the study draws upon Connell’s theory of multiple masculinities. A total of 118 Pakistani Muslim men belonging to similar contexts and within the age bracket 18-40 were taken on board and classified as three stratified samples: low socio-economic group; socially stigmatized and distressed; and university students and professionals. The first group consisted of educated jobless persons who use secondary sources of income for basic survival, daily-wage labourers and non-commissioned government staff. The second group included substance misusers and internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Waziristan and Swat or those directly afflicted by floods, the war on terror and drone attacks. And the third group was comprised of bankers, commissioned government officials, development professionals and MA/PhD students from universities in Islamabad. Empirical findings of this small-scale pilot study are based on multiple sources of evidence (survey questionnaires, focus group discussions, interviews with religious scholars and academics, along with already established and published gender theory). Mainly qualitative in nature, quantitative data and analysis (multivariate regression analysis) was also used during research, however, those statistical data sets are not presented here.

3. Personhood, Masculine Honor and Jihadism

Honor is more a normative than a distant cultural ideal. Honor is not a value that only tribal or feudal cultures are obsessed with but is an integral component of the overall Pakistani personhood; their indivisible, individual selves. Almost Aristotelian, the Pakistani society views women as incidental and not absolute beings, i.e. not really individuals – ultimately placing the onus on men to show how honorable they and their families are. Men choose multiple sites to play out honor politics; at times using domestic violence against women in the name of honor and at times taking political violence as a possibility and means towards exerting, preserving or regaining subjective and collective (family/clan/national/transnational) “honor.” The studied sample described honor as a masculinity imperative mainly consisting of fearlessness, bravery, courage, independence, pride and arrogance, and the ability to take action and then stand by it regardless of the circumstances. A police constable during his interview shared: “A man must look forward – there is no option of looking sideways or backwards. Even when he faces death, he should face it with dignity and glory – not like a coward. We face death every day.”

The understanding of masculinity imperatives as already explained appears to be intense in those with tribal and rural affiliations. For example, Pukhtunwali, the self-representation, and customary code of living of the Pukhtuns, predate Islam, consisting of arbitration laws and tribal sets of living for the two genders. The Pukhtun nation, residing in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Central Asia draw their identity from this code that is principally masculine, egocentric, and orientated towards revenge, and hospitality. The Taliban and Al Qaeda have misused this tenet and sought refuge in Pukhtun households who in the name of brotherhood and in respect of tradition did not deny hospitality.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Abdul Ghaffar Khan aka Badshah Khan – influenced by Gandhi’s non-violence, and Islam’s message of forgiveness – tried to promote non-violence among Pukhtuns through the Khudai Khidmatgar (the red shirts) movement. However, his ideological tilt towards non-violence did not affect future Pukhtun generations. Even today, as also noted by Gilmore (Gilmore 1990, 221), manhood ideologies force men to defend their identity and to prevent any damage to it – a threat apparently worse than death.

Manhood ideologies force men to defend their identity and to prevent any damage to it – a threat apparently worse than death.

The culture makes weaponry an essential part of Pukhtun male identity. It is on the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan that adolescent Pukhtun boys are expected to demonstrate their bravery and maturity and association with Pukhtunwali by participating in battles (Hawkins 2009, 17). Pukhtun tribes operate in a soldierly fashion and use war to display and safeguard personal, family and tribal honor.

Churchill, who fought against Pukhtuns wrote: “Every man was a warrior, politician and theologian and clans maintained their hostility and conflicts over generations” (Hawkins 2009). Participants of the research sample consisting of men from Swat and Waziristan who were affected by drone strikes and military action explained:

In order to understand the culture of revenge, we need to understand the concept of Pukhtunwali. […] The way expectations are of me to take revenge […] these expectations are not of my sister. She is after all just a woman. But I am required as a man to practically maintain our honor. Revenge is part of masculine honor. Pakistani courts delay settlement and, of course, once matters go to court, the option of revenge is eliminated. Many times men prefer taking revenge to close a matter in a more acceptable [to family and/or community] manner.

An understanding of the local and tribal customary codes of conduct may reveal more about the mindset and making of jihadist or militant Islamists and/or terrorists than perhaps any other thing.

4. Islamism in Service of Muslim Masculinities

Men use Islamism and its variants as means of self-actualization and directly in service of matters associated with personhood, masculinity, and particularly honor. There are three substantive explanations that I present below in support of this argument. The analysis is seated in Pakistan’s history, its location in a globalized world, and its multifarious systemic decline.

4.1 Militant and Non-Militant Islamism and the Rise of Muslim Nationalism in the Subcontinent

Jihadist or militant Islamism, and rhetorical Islamism in contemporary Pakistan need to be located within the country’s postcolonial context and the rise of Muslim nationalism in pre-partition India. British rule redefined both gender and political identities of Indian Muslims in major ways. First, while interacting with both British men and women and competing against Hindus in the job market,

Muslim men began to realize that keeping Muslim women uneducated and domesticated would ultimately affect the principle political objective, that of freedom.

Second, Pan-Islamism became the defining feature of Muslim political identity under colonial rule. Put differently, British rule allowed redefinition and renegotiation of both gender identities and political identities for Indian Muslims.Having stated this, it needs to be mentioned here that gender norms and roles started to transform only gradually. Ahmed Khan’s Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College at Aligarh (1877) and the All India Mohammedan Educational Conference aimed at men, not women. By 1906 Khan’s followers made functional Aligarh Girls School which by 1937 became a degree college. It would not be incorrect to argue that the supposedly enlightened Muslim men, initially reserved for the male gender modern education; English clothing, mannerisms, and skills that were needed for the public domain such as the English language. While interacting with the British, Muslim men adopted western mannerisms and dress but women were denied integration into British customs. This peculiar gender ordering that reveals the double standards of a society full of contradictions is visible even today. Pakistani men wear business suits, and women traditional clothing with their heads covered. Muslim masculinity was constructed as privileged, and was principally fashioned around objectives such as identity reassertion; anti-colonial resistance; religious revivalism through jihad and tabligh. It is important to identify here the practices in Muslim masculinity under colonial rule. Mainly religious scholars, parties and movements dictated and standardized religion for Muslim men and women. If Ashraf Thanvi set standards for Muslim women through a book titled Behishti Zevar (i.e. Ornaments of Paradise), Mohammed Ilyas of the Tablighi Jama‘at standardized religious practice mainly for men. Around the midst of the twentieth century Jama‘at-i Islami politicized Muslims by making Sharia, jihad, and the notion of umma (i.e. collective, transnational Muslim identity) integral components of individual identity. Men spearheaded all such actions. They had taken these tasks upon themselves. These activities defined their contexts and out of these contexts emerged proactive Islamist masculinity.

Jihad was not restricted to militancy, but included journalistic, judicial, political and intellectual activism: there were for example periodicals such as Azad’s Al Hilal, Muhammad Ali’s Comrade, Zafar Ali Khan’s Zamindar; Hali’s Musaddas which served these objectives. Segments of Muslim men also participated in diplomacy and accordingly made attempts at redefining Muslim cultural ethic.

Keep reading and access the full article here.

Suggested citation: ASLAM, MALEEHA, Islamism and Masculinity: Case Study Pakistan (2014). Historical Social Research 39 (2014) 3, 135-149. Available at SSRN:

Dr. Maleeha Aslam, member Wolfson College (Cambridge, UK) is an interdisciplinary social scientist with fifteen years work experience. She has served academia, research, policy, development and civil society sectors in and outside Pakistan. She is a Cambridge Commonwealth Scholar and has PhD and MPhil degrees in Development Studies and a Post Doctorate in Peace and Governance from the United Nations University Headquarters in Tokyo. Aslam is the author of Gender Based Explosions: The Nexus between Muslim Masculinities, Jihadist Islamism and Terrorism (2012). Distinguished Professors, such as  Akbar Ahmed,  Raewyn Connell,  Micheal Kimmel and Vesselin Popovski recognize Aslam's research contributions in the field. She has served the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (Quaid-e Azam University), the World Bank, and the UN.


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