XQs XIV — A Conversation with Ammara Maqsood

Posted by patwari on August 01, 2018 · 19 mins read

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Fatima Tassadiq for conducting this interview. Previously: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII]

Ammara Maqsood is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at UCL Anthropology in University College London. She has held research and teaching positions at Manchester, Oxford and King's College London, including an ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellowship at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology and a Junior Research Fellowship at St. Catherine's College, University of Oxford. She is the author of The New Pakistani Middle Class (Harvard University Press, 2017).


Can you describe how and why you decided to pursue this project and the central issues that inform your work?

This project was my doctoral dissertation and I had started off with something different but was ultimately led by ethnography to develop it into what it is now. When I had started the doctoral fieldwork, I was interested in new practices in piety but had never thought about them in relation to class. Looking back now, I realize that I had started my doctorate with the exact same kind of thinking in the academic study of Pakistan that I now try to problematize — that is, a fixation with “what went wrong?”. It is partially to do with a national discourse that remains interested in questions of modernization and development, and partially with the western academy that predominantly deals with Pakistan through this frame. I was responding to this way of thinking in that I was interested in new practices of piety in Pakistan from the perspective that this was not part of the plan. In this respect, I was in keeping with, what I now understand as a particular kind of liberal narrative, where new religious practice are viewed as a result of Zia's Islamization policies and his promotion of Wahhabism. But as I started my fieldwork, and interacted with people who represented this shift towards piety, my thinking changed. I continued to see Zia's Islamization policies as problematic and transformative, but I realized that the picture is far more complicated and that thinking within this fixed frame of “what went wrong” tends to wash away these complications. It doesn't allow us to see other forms of politics, the ways in which liberal narratives can also marginalize. So, by dealing with questions of piety and class politics together, my aim has been to problematize this comfortable narrative of “what went wrong” but also to write about Pakistan in a way that is driven by ethnography — it centers on the experience and ways of thinking about whom we write about — rather than meta-frames derived from modernization ideals.

In your book you devote quite a bit of space to tracking the history of class formations in Lahore, their relationship with migration trends, as well as settlement patterns across the city. What kind of archives and secondary sources did you use to trace this history?

I found this part quite challenging. Even though there is some historical and archival work on the pre-Partition demography of Lahore, I found very few secondary sources that directly focused on recent changes. I relied on biographies of writers and government officials who moved to Lahore after Partition, and also some non-fiction work based on 1950s and 1960s. I had very limited access to records on the development of residential areas in the city in 1970s and 1980s, but found it helpful. Predominantly, my findings have been based on oral histories and interviews. I interviewed people who had moved to Lahore after Partition, asked them to describe who lived in their neighborhood, where they have moved to after that and, if they were in touch with/or knew, where their neighbors now lived. I interviewed people who had been involved in planning and development in Lahore in 1980s. I interviewed property developers and estate agents to get a sense of the market that they cater to and the ways in which the property market has changed. In addition, I traced the generational and migration histories of the families of women I met at Quran schools.

There has been significant work on the rise of right wing forces in South Asia and their relationship to institutional politics. What, if at all, is the relationship between the new middle class in Lahore, electoral politics, and popularity of the military establishment?

This is a very interesting question but I struggle to provide a clear answer. I see some affinities, but I do not see any fixed alliances. Broadly speaking, I see the new middle-class as desiring change, but this is not reflected clearly in their political choices. This is a demographic that is sympathetic towards religious groups and religio-political parties, but their support is issue-based, fluctuates and does not always translate into votes. For instance, many of the people I interviewed had engaged with the Jamaat-e-Islami in their college days or had family members who had. But they had not voted for JI back then and, even though they spoke admiringly of JI's calls for social justice now, they rarely vote for it now. I found that voting was largely linked to politics of access and patronage. My fieldwork was before the 2013 elections, and most people I interacted with claimed that they will vote PML-N — this again was not so much about the party agenda, but about the kinds of networks of patronage and support that they were tied to and that could be opened through their vote. I suppose what we can get out of these observations is that, at least among the people that I worked with, there isn't an affinity towards mass politics. The tendency is for issue-based stances and interest-based politics, and while it is sympathetic towards right wing groups, the support also fluctuates and changes.

There is, unsurprisingly, an investment in the national project in Punjab in a way there is not in other parts of Pakistan, and this invariably translates into support for the military establishment. I could definitely see this in my informants' views when it came to ideas on India, or about the general corruption and inefficacy of the political system. But, at the same time, very few thought favorably of military rule. Perhaps this had to do with the timing of my fieldwork — US drone attacks regularly made headlines and Pakistan Army operations in FATA had just started — but there was a slight ambivalence about the military at the time. I also want to point out that there is little economic dependence on military in the new middle-class — others have written about the military careers and employment as path towards upward mobility in Punjab. But the new middle-class in Lahore has been able to come up largely through private businesses, entrepreneurship and investment in urban property, and so there isn't any easy economic alliance here.

The major focus of your ethnographic work is on practices of piety and self-representation amongst the new middle class. But you discuss these in comparison with religious practices of the old middle class. Can you talk a little about how the old middle class engages with religious practices and spaces like shrines? And how does this engagement compare with the working class devotees who usually visit these places?

In the book, I have been careful to not represent the differences between the old and the new middle-class as representative of a battle between the secular and the religious. The reason for this is that I don't view the old middle-class as secular — in the sense that religious has no role in public and social life — and I don't think that there is a consensus there on the role of religion in national life. So, I have focused more on the differences in religious practices between the two groups and, in particular, how they manifest in displaying a Muslim self to the outside world (as well to each other). The engagement of the old middle-class with spaces, such as shrines, is intricately linked with these cultural politics. In old middle-class circles, attachment to aspects of Sufi culture, music and spaces is linked with distancing oneself from an Islam and an Islamic identity that centers on a textual understanding. However, this appreciation does not translate into an easy acceptance of all popular practices and beliefs associated with working-class devotees at shrines. I do not want to generalize on working- class practices as it is not an area I have done any work on, but I can say that for old middle-class groups, practices such as pir-muridi, and belief in miraculous healing powers of and visitations from dead Sufis are generally not viewed favorably. Neither, do I think, that the attachment of working class devotees to shrines pivots on the same kind of cultural politics and perceptions of an imagined outside audience.

In your book you are careful in attending to the particularities of Lahore and refrain from making sweeping generalizations about the entire country. Can you talk a little about how class dynamics in Lahore may compare with those in other major cities in Pakistan?

Most within Pakistan — and those familiar with the country — often say that Lahore is a big village where everyone knows each other, and contrast it to Karachi, which they view as a proper big city and with an actual middle-class population. I have tried to dispel this assumption in the book, arguing that this stereotypical perception holds true only when one views Lahore through a lens focused on the old middle-class and, in fact, the city is much bigger. Since writing the book, I have done some fieldwork in Karachi, and I feel that I have a clearer perspective on the particularities of class in Lahore. Without going back on my claim to not underestimate the middle-class population in Lahore, I think what I find different is the ethnic diversity of the middle-class population of Karachi. Lahore, despite the growth in size, is not only more homogenous ethnically, but also more integrated in that ethnic difference — even when present — is not discussed and articulated in the same way as it is in Karachi. This, of course, has to do (among other things) with the privileged position of Punjab in the national distribution of resources. One of the big differences in Lahore and Karachi is that, in the latter, the middle-class is not only more diverse but also more disparate in how it views itself. This holds true among old and new urban groups — unlike Lahore, in which the old middle-class, although not ethnically homogenous, was small and interlinked, Karachi's older urban groups are more diverse and separated. And, this means that its class dynamics are quite different.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about the book was your attention to your own positionality in the field as a Pakistani based in a western university and how it often elicited certain responses from your interlocutors. What are some of the challenges of doing fieldwork at 'home'? Were there any surprises or issues that you did not anticipate?

Linking back to Q1, I think that, for me, one of the biggest challenges was to undo a way of thinking about Pakistan — and about religious life, in particular — that I had grown up with. And, even when I had succeeded in doing that in my thinking, I was unable to change my interlocutors' assumptions about me, whether it was my background or my position as a researcher from the west. Ultimately, I dealt with these challenges by bringing them into the narrative of the book, and discussing the underlying politics that they represented.

As a “native” researcher, though, what I continue to struggle with is the difference between my politics and activism, and the politics of the people I write about. I realize that how I conceive of the country and the future that I want to see for it does not always align with the people I write about. As an anthropologist, I feel that my academic role is to write and explain the worldview of my informants. But that does not always conform to my own politics, and I find this division difficult at times.

Can you tell us about the process of turning a dissertation into a book? What were some of the sections/arguments that did not make it to the book?

I had to rewrite the monograph to change its tone and make it more conversational. But I also wanted to reach out to an audience that is not familiar with South Asia or is necessarily academic, and so it was a little challenging to balance between providing contextual background and keeping the tone conversational, just as much it was to avoid anthropological/academic jargon.

Can you suggest 5 books that you think can be read in conversation with yours?

Humeira Iqtidar's Secularizing Islamists? Jama'at-e-Islami and Jama'at-ud-Da'wa in urban Pakistan (University of Chicago Press, 2012) for a parallel argument on competition between different religious groups in Lahore, and Markus Daechsel's The politics of self-expression: the Urdu middle class milieu in mid-20th century India and Pakistan (Routledge, 2006) for a discussion of middle-class life pre-Partition Lahore. I would also recommend Laura Ring's Zenana: everyday peace in a Karachi apartment building (Indiana University Press, 2006), not so much for that it can be read in conversation but because it offers a perspective on middle-class life that is missing in my focus. Thematically, I think that Lara Deeb's An enchanted modern: gender and public piety in Shi'i Lebanon (Princeton University Press, 2006) has many parallels with my work although she does not directly address class. In addition, I would recommend the works of Filippo Osella and Caroline Osella on Islamic reformism in Kerala, particularly for the ways in which they have captured and described the ambiguities of reform movements and their relationship with modernity.

What are some of your next projects?

Image Credit: The Friday Times

Since the book, I have been involved in two different projects. I have conducted more fieldwork amongst middle-class groups in Lahore and Karachi, focusing on ideas about romantic love, intimacy and conjugal life. I am also involved in another collaborative project that focuses on displacement due to infrastructure development in Lahore and Colombo. My work in Lahore is based on the displacement due to the Orange Line Metro project.



Lastly, what are your hopes and expectations for scholarship on South Asia and particularly Pakistan moving forward?

I think that this is an exciting time for academic scholarship on Pakistan — in the past few years there have been several new monographs and there's new and thought-provoking work on the horizon by a new generation of scholars. I am particularly excited that some of this work tries to move out of the security-centric analyses or the “what went wrong” narrative and is very much led by ethnography and research. I hope we see more of this in the future.


Fatima Tassadiq is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is an urban ethnographer who works on Pakistan. Her research largely centers on political ecology of infrastructures, urban development, and formations of citizenship.