Shenila Khoja-Moolji, Sovereign Attachments: Masculinity, Muslimness, and Affective Politics in Pakistan (University of California Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Shenila Khoja-Moolji (SKM): This book emerges from my commitment to study how sovereignty and gender frame the life of a nation. While in the book I take Pakistan as a case in point, the intersection of masculinity and militarism, and the instrumentalization of Islam to regulate people, are palpable in other contexts too. I wanted to highlight some of these intersections because they produce harmful binaries and calcify gender, sexual, ethnic, national, and religious identities. Studying processes of political violence can enable us to forge alternate politics and imagine more capacious forms of living.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SKM: Sovereign Attachments is a meditation on sovereignty. While sovereignty is often considered an absolute and indivisible quality of the state, non-state actors too stake a claim to sovereignty by exercising violence and establishing rule. The Taliban in Pakistan are a classic example of this, as they have tried to control territory and engage in violence. Claimants to sovereignty, however, have to convince their audiences of their legitimacy. Therefore, the book argues that we consider sovereignty not to be a given but as an ongoing performance that unfolds in public culture. I examine a range of cultural productions, including musicals, magazines, social media, art, and memoirs, to draw out recurring figurations—such as valiant solider, perverse terrorist, dutiful daughter, and mourning mother—which show how claimants to sovereignty hope to convince their audience by mobilizing gender, Islam, and kinship. Sovereignty then is a relationship, an attachment to power that has to be cultivated. Crucially, the book shows that emotions, collective memories, understandings of normative Islam, performances of piety, and masculinity all play a role in how this relationship is established.

There is, however, also an indeterminacy in sovereign attachments that leaves room for the emergence of alternate politics. I show such forms of relationships through the figures of the “unruly daughter” and the “melancholic mother” who refuse statist prescriptions. The melancholic mother, for instance, rebuffs the memorialization of her dead son through the moniker of “shahid” (martyr). The book thus shows the simultaneity of attachment/consent to power and detachment/resistive politics.

J: You put forward ‘Islamo-masculinity’ as a concept to understand how sovereignty is performed in Pakistan. Can you explain more? 

SKM: In my book, I propose that state and non-state actors intensify relationships of sovereignty in the context of Pakistan by performing normative masculinity and Muslimness. I name this melding: Islamo-masculinity. Islamo-masculinity permits performers to mobilize both the privilege of normative masculinity and that of normative Islam, while demarcating aberrant masculinities. It relies on particular figurations of femininities—daughters in danger or the mourning mother, for instance—in order to become relationally legible. It also interlinks with discourses of heteronormativity and modernity. Islamo-masculinity then does things; it mediates the relationships of sovereignty that exist between claimants and attentive publics, between the individual and the collective. It is how we, the public, become attached to power and give consent to its exercise. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

SKM: My first book, Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia (University of California Press, 2018), is a genealogy of the “educated girl.” It emerged from my interest in understanding how “the girl” came to be crystalized as a key figure for education, empowerment, and investment. Focusing in particular on colonial India and postcolonial Pakistan, I explored how this figure appeared and circulated in reformist and state archives between 1857 and 2015. I discovered that discourses on women/girls’ education figure as sites for the construction of not only gender, but also class, religion, and nation. While researching that book I noticed the salient role that the state played in constructing normative ideas about Muslim girlhood. Therefore, for the second book I decided to zoom in on how the state frames possibilities for gender relations and performances, while also highlighting ways in which people resist, modify, and reformulate statist claims.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

SKM: The performances of sovereignty considered in the book help us understand how inequalities—religious, gendered, ethnic—are reproduced. The lifeworlds that I have traced, however, are not a given. My hope, therefore, is that students of gender, Islam, and South Asian studies read the book to think critically not only about how we become invested in power but also how to create different patternings and arrangements of the world.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SKM: I am currently working on a book that examines displaced Shia Muslim women’s memories and creative productions. My hope is to work against the common imagination of refugees as dependent, passive subjects and instead show the place-making and world-making labor that refugees themselves undertake, often under extremely constrained circumstances. My grandmother and mother are such displaced women, so this book is a labor of love for me. I hope to illustrate for my readers displaced women’s joy, faith, and lived ethics. 

Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 6: Managing Affect: The Mourning Mother, pp. 170-172)

The Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) music video, “Mitti de ye maan” (This mother of the land, 2015), recounts the sacrifice of a mother whose son, Captain Ali, was killed during a military encounter with the Taliban. The video shows the mother, lost in her thoughts, gazing at the playground and gardens where she used to spend time with her son. Her flat and somber affect is juxtaposed with scenes from the past where she is joyfully playing with her young child. Images of Captain Ali fighting valiantly are interspersed throughout; Ali is eventually shot and killed. The song creatively invokes maa(n) (mother) to denote both Captain Ali’s mother and the motherland:

Mitti de ye maan

Tera haal maan nay poocha hai

Kaisay khoon bahaya main

Sawal maan nay poocha hai

This mother of the land (motherland)

mother is asking about your condition

How I sacrificed my blood for you

mother is asking about it

The video progresses to show how this mother deals with her loss. Instead of getting disillusioned with the army, she becomes more resolute and proudly welcomes her younger son into military service. She thus performs her duties as an ideal citizen-subject of the state, which require reinterpreting the death of her son as a sacrifice for the national good. This mourning mother continues to tie herself to the state and circulates as a public pedagogy for viewers.

The figure of the mourning mother is often employed during wartime and crises to signify loss. While in some cases the suffering of the mother can be a forceful appeal for peace, in others, the same suffering is used to fan the flames of war or legitimize counterinsurgency operations. Feminist studies scholar Swati Parashar urges us to pay attention to how states ascribe emotions to the bodies of their citizens, for it is through such utterances that they exercise control over both compliant and deviant subjects. In this chapter, I follow the figure of the mourning mother to examine the political and affective work that she performs in Pakistani public culture. I pay particular attention to how this figure has been invoked in the aftermath of the Army Public School (APS) attack as well as during the state’s counterinsurgency operations.

For the state, the mourning mother performs multiple functions: she is didactic in that she teaches appropriate affect management to mothers whose children may have died on the battlefield or during terrorist attacks; like the beti and behan in the previous chapter, she too activates the protective impulses of the masculinist state and male citizens, producing the ideal affective landscape for counterinsurgency; and finally, in the aftermath of crisis, through her the nation materializes as a mourning collectivity, binds itself to the state, and readies itself for revenge. What is remarkable is that this figure also appears in the Taliban magazines, where she helps to reframe the mujahidin’s suicide attacks as sacrifices for religion. In both cases, mourning, followed by detachment from the lost object and reattachment to the sovereign, is prescribed as the normative affective trajectory for mothers.

The state, however, is sometimes met by a counterpublic that coheres not through mourning but through politicized melancholia. I examine the political critique of some mothers of APS students who declined the nationally prescribed ways of managing their grief. Instead, they kept the memory of the lost objects (their slain children) alive, and mobilized it to critique the state. Such mothers emerge as what I am calling, “melancholic mothers.” In his earlier work, Sigmund Freud posits mourning and melancholia as two distinct reactions to the loss of a beloved object. With mourning, the lost object is eventually released and the bereaved ego transfers attachment to another object; it thus becomes “free and uninhibited” again. With melancholia, however, the ego develops a pathological attachment to the lost object and is unwilling to let it go. The melancholic ego internalizes the loss in order to preserve it. Whereas mourning propels one forward, melancholia entails subsisting in the loss. Queer theorists have resisted the pathologization of melancholia, arguing that it can be a creative political force. It is precisely by rejecting nationalist articulations of their loss, and thereby refusing to perform emotional labor for the state, that melancholic mothers simultaneously contest and rework sovereign attachments. Instead of facilitating paternalistic attachments to the state, they perform affective agency that blocks positive collective affectivities toward the state.