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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 November, 2003, 12:52 GMT
Pakistan women socialites embrace Islam
Sahar Ali
BBC correspondent in Karachi

Koran translation class at the al-Huda institute.  Pic: Anis Hamdani
A Koran class at al-Huda. (Photos: Anis Hamdani)
A new breed of scholar is inspiring Islamic study among Pakistan's last bastion of sceptics - the educated female elite.

Women like Dr Farhat Hashmi are bringing a contemporary perspective to the teaching of the Koran.

It appeals to followers like Naila Shahid, who always wanted to study Islam in greater depth but balked when hearing the mullahs talk of heaven and hell and the purdah (veil).

"When I heard that, I just recoiled from wanting to go any deeper," says the 40-something mother of college-going children.

Dr Hashmi, a product of a Western religious education, has founded a chain of institutes offering Islamic education to women.

They have had their [share of] sleeveless blouses and coffee parties and are now ready for religion
Razia Latif, housewife

"It is a very practical, very precise version of Islam," she says.

On a typical Saturday afternoon, elevator loads of women pour into the al-Huda Institute of Islamic Education for Women in Karachi.

The silence, save for the exchange of greetings, may be unusual, but al-Huda's congregations are symbolic of a religious revolution in Pakistan - the desire to understand Islam.

Seventeen-year-old Maryam Asif believes an in-depth knowledge of her faith has helped her differentiate between truth and rhetoric.

"People say so many things and often you just can't accept them as Islam," she says.

Rukhsana Yamin, a Karachi-based publisher, says her knowledge of religion had been rather limited because "every time you pick up a volume to educate yourself, it fails to hold your interest".

Charisma

To teach the aspiring students, the new breed of women scholars uses modern methods.

One such teacher, Huma Hassan, addresses weekly informal gatherings at a private residence in Karachi.

Dr Farhat Hashmi. Pic: Anis Hamdani
The expectations of Pakistanis have not been fulfilled in our 50-odd years of independence. There is a feeling of betrayal and despair
Dr Farhat Hashmi

The women who attend are mostly socialites.

Ms Hassan translates and explains Koranic verses with the help of multimedia presentations projected on to a screen.

But it isn't just the modern methods that appeal - the teachers do too.

Bushra Kausar, a regular at al-Huda, says: "Dr Hashmi relates the Koran to everyday experiences."

But Dr Hashmi is diffident about her charisma.

"I have never asked women why they come to hear me," she says in a soft, measured voice.

Her explanation of their quest for religious enlightenment is that people often turn to religion in despair.

"The expectations of Pakistanis have not been fulfilled in our 50-odd years of independence," she says.

"There is a feeling of betrayal and despair. Even political Islam has not been able to address people's grievances," says Dr Hashmi, referring to the Islamisation drive of former leader General Zia ul-Haq, who died in 1988.

"There is a search for direction, for guidance," she says.

Dr Hashmi believes Islam holds the cure. "I wanted to help others experience the peace I felt by reading the Koran," she says.

"When people benefit from something, they will be drawn to it."

Talebanisation fear

But Dr Hashmi's analysis of why the country's female elite is suddenly seeking religious enlightenment is not accepted by everyone.

Medical examination hall. Pic: Anis Hamdani
Traditional dress is the new trend - here in the examinations hall

Mother and social worker Razia Latif says women are just plain bored.

"They have had their [share of] sleeveless blouses and coffee parties and are now ready for religion," she says.

Ms Latif is disappointed that these women do not volunteer to work in hospitals or help other social causes instead.

She says the only outcome of this religious revival has been to cloister women behind the veil.

The proliferation of women in hijab (headscarves) and even the Afghan-style burqa on the streets of Karachi has women like Ms Latif worried that this may be a first step towards Talebanisation.

Student Bushra Kausar disagrees. She says that although the hijab is the most noticeable change among the female elite, it is in fact "the easiest step" on the path to becoming a practising Muslim, which is the ultimate objective.

About 1,200 women signed up for Dr Hashmi's year-long course on Koranic translation in Karachi last year.

Such was the scholar's renown that the last session, open to the public, drew almost 10,000 women from all over the city.

"It's very difficult to give a reason for this trend," says Farah Moazzam, a journalist who heads al-Huda's mass communication department.

She says initially that curiosity and the academic approach draw the educated women, but then the magnetism of Allah's words take over "and then you're hooked!"

Now at social gatherings, women wearing the hijab are increasingly seen alongside those in sleeveless dresses.

With religion the new "in" thing, it is questionable who is now the modern woman.


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