Socialities of Indignation: Denouncing Party Politics in Karachi: Supplemental Material

This post builds on the research article “Socialities of Indignation: Denouncing Party Politics in Karachi,” which was published in the May 2014 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published several recent articles on violence, including Ruchi Chaturvedi’s ‘“Somehow it Happened”: Violence, Culpability, and the Hindu Nationalist Community' (2011); Daniel Hoffman’s “Violence, Just in Time: War and Work in Contemporary West Africa” (2011); and Lori Allen’s “Getting By the Occupation: How Violence Became Normal During the Second Palestinian Intifada” (2008). On violence and everyday life in Pakistan, see Naveeda Khan’s “Of Children and Jinn: An Inquiry into an Unexpected Friendship during Uncertain Times” (2006). Browse the Cultural Anthropology archive for more articles on Violence.

Cultural Anthropology has also published a wide range of essays on media, politics, and publics, including Rihan Yeh’s “Two Publics in a Mexican Border City” (2012); Ritty Lukose’s “Empty Citizenship: Protesting Politics in the Era of Globalization” (2005); and Gregory Starrett’s “Violence and the Rhetoric of Images” (2003).

About the Author

Tania Ahmad is Sessional Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at York University in Toronto, Canada. Her interests include postcolonial cities, Muslim societies and popular culture. Her ethnographic work traces the emergence of a middle-class category in Karachi, Pakistan: she examines how an Urdu-speaking identity is intertwined with what it means to be middle-class. She is most interested in how Karachi residents residing in neighborhoods widely considered to be the turf of political parties, among them the MQM, articulate being ordinary as both a normative ideal and a distinct position; in other work she has referred to it as bystander tactics. These claims of moral propriety were intertwined with the consumer economy that was growing rapidly in the city in the late 2000s, in part thanks to what was, in retrospect, an especially peaceful time in the history of the city. Building on the connection between morality and consumer display, she found that shifting and complex pious identities engaged religious taxonomies situationally, as terms of social distinction. Currently, her broader research considers the materiality of gendered consumer practices in Karachi: she asks in what ways class and social stratification inflect how Muslim women’s bodies are made into objects to be refined, disciplined and worked upon.

Interview with the Author

Kitana Ananda: Your article discusses moral indignation and the rejection of party politics as an emergent sociality and form of political engagement for Karachi residents amid urban unrest and violence. This stands in contrast to work on South Asia that centers on those spectacular acts of violence. What led you to examine "moral registers of the ordinary" as a mode of political participation in middle-class Karachi?

Tania Ahmad: The decision was definitely ethnographically driven. Despite frequent reports of demonstrations in the news media, I was consistently surprised at how few people seemed to engage in this form of public participation. Occupying public space in such a spectacular fashion held strong connotations of vulnerability, and even people who were enthused about lawyers’ demonstrations did not consider participating in the events. If they hinted at participating, they were quickly admonished or disciplined by family members. Later that year, processions supporting the Chief Justice devolved into urban violence, and a political procession by Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in Karachi was bombed. These events made me consider my own experiences of domestic confinement, and the explicitly critical discourses of indignation following the events of May 12, 2007, as a way to think about the millions of people who had not participated in the processions or rallies. I began to think about the people only interpellated by mass-mediated spectacles of urban unrest: the people who, like everyone I knew, stayed at home until the worst was over. The most amazing thing about the indignation in the aftermath of May 12 was not the critique of the MQM, but rather the growing discourse of not participating in urban violence as something shared, normative, ordinary, and thus morally appropriate.

KA: You write that denunciations of the violence of May 12 were tentative and fleeting, and did not translate to new political solidarities or movements. Have you since observed any signs of how ordinary affects of moral indignation might lead to political action among Pakistan's middle-classes?

TA: In retrospect, given the results of the 2013 general elections, I would definitely associate the rise of a new political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), with the affects that were tentatively articulated following May 12. Founded by former cricket star Imran Khan in the late 1990s, the party was initially appreciated by a very small group, largely consisting of elites, until a decade later. After May 12, Khan’s moralizing and vague narratives about truth and justice, and his denunciations of corruption and inefficiency suddenly enjoyed a massive following, largely by young people. Khan contributed to the circulating discourses of indignation by recklessly stating that he would press criminal charges against the leader of the MQM, who lived in self-imposed exile in London. For the first time, middle-class Karachi residents spoke positively about Khan and his party; my younger informants became staunch supporters over the course of a few years.

In December 2011, the PTI hosted a huge rally in the national monument and park adjacent to a site of significant violence on May 12; this action re-made demonstrations in public space accessible and apparently safer for Karachi’s youth. In the 2013 general elections, the PTI emerged as the third-largest party at the federal level, winning important seats in several areas, including Karachi. I attribute the PTI’s success to its leader’s invocations of normative, respectable morality as an alternative to all that young, urban middle-class Pakistanis rejected as being distasteful about their government and politics.

KA: You discuss how extraordinary events of violence are enfolded into family life. However, your article also prompted me to consider what it must be like to be on the streets of Karachi when such events are not taking place. In what ways do shared experiences of domestic confinement and media spectacles of violence reconfigure residents' everyday experiences of public space when they do venture outside?

TA: I think it is important to emphasize that these moments, of violent events and when-they-are-not-taking-place, are intimately interconnected. I do not mean to suggest that Karachi residents reluctantly venture into public urban space. That is not the case at all. Rather, they build up a sensibility for wariness, anticipation and weighing multiple circumstances against possible alternatives.

Choosing when and whether to stay indoors also indexed a social field of political affiliations, relative perceptions of vulnerability and neighborhood status. During my fieldwork, I attended sewing classes at a women’s community center in a part of Karachi known as the heartland of the MQM. In the week following May 12, 2007, the instructor reprimanded students for not coming to the previous class. The instructor said that she had come because she would not be paid otherwise, and because failing to show would have suggested that she was not reliable as an instructor. A student in the class told those of us around her end of the table that only three or four girls out of the thirty-something students had come to the previous class. She poked fun at us, asking why we hadn’t come. Had we been afraid? She smirked, saying that nothing had happened (kuch nahin hua), it had all been fine. The women who had come to class all lived in the neighborhood—an MQM stronghold close to party headquarters—or nearby Liaquatabad. The girl next to me turned and asked me if I had come to class. I said that I hadn’t. Were you scared, she asked in a playful but dismissive tone (darr gayi kya?). I said that my aunt had not allowed me to come (phupho ne mana kiya). Several girls made fun of others for staying at home too. This indicated that the women in the class, and perhaps by extension their families, had differing perceptions of space, mobility and danger. They knew the reputed political affiliation of their area, but seemed to be actively anticipating the notoriety of the party to subtly tease or torment their classmates.

KA: Toward the end of your article, you write about the discourse of respectability that figures middle-class Karachi's condemnations of political violence, which is then described as "hooliganism," while its participants are positioned as "uncontrollable" within generational and gendered familial hierarchies. Could you say more about this positioning of young men who participate in street violence and/or party politics?

TA: A number of researchers have worked on this question in the particular context of Karachi. Oskar Verkaaik is probably most well known for considering the generational tensions that were fundamental to the rise of the MQM and the street politics, as well as turf wars that became increasingly common in Karachi since the 1970s. Verkaaik and Nichola Khan take distinct ethnographic approaches to exploring the complex subject position of the so-called hooligans. Both emphasize the generational position of young men in relation to parental expectations as well as, in Verkaaik’s work, hopes for fun or adventure and desires for independence, and in Khan’s findings, neighborhood-based affiliations that persist amid processes of self-realization through the experiences of inflicting violence. These particular masculinities combine the predictable social privileges of patriarchy and mobility with concomitant vulnerabilities. Farid Bhai, who is mentioned in the article, once pointed this out. He contrasted the stakes for girls, who had to worry about their reputations, by which he referred to an implicitly sexualized respectability, with how young men navigated a potentially perilous and implicitly politicized social field that carried the threat and historical burden of violence and mutilation. “Boys,” he said, “boys have to worry about getting holes drilled through their palms.” His comment raises the issue of how the increased, and perhaps less cautious, mobility of young middle-class men in Karachi also makes them aware of their disproportionate potential exposure to very particular forms of gendered violence.

KA: Your article incorporates the voices of family members with whom you stayed during fieldwork. Can you tell readers more about how familial relationships positioned you in the field and shaped your ethnography? Did your living situation present any methodological challenges or benefits in your research?

TA: Staying with relatives during fieldwork is part of what made my research feasible, but also positioned me analogously to the Karachi residents I interacted with: situated within kinship networks of intimacy, mutual obligation and gendered norms of respectability. The benefits and challenges of this situation overlapped. Sometimes, I felt that it would have been easier to be less accommodating to family norms inflected by kin connections to other residents if I were not always already mediating a close relationship with a third person. My aunt reminded me of this when she occasionally threatened to tell my father about my fieldwork activities. On the other hand, my access and subjection to kinship networks was an important form of participant observation that helped me better understand how moral registers were relational and contextually specific, inflected by religiosity in addition to socioeconomic class, gender, life cycle, kinship position, ethnicity and social trajectory. I realize that as researchers, anthropologists generally write about their host families but not about their kin connections, and despite decades of reflexivity, we are still supposed to have the privilege of entirely elective access to the contexts we hope to explore ethnographically. If we are to take seriously, however, the ways that both our experiences and those of our interlocutors are limited or enabled by gendered norms of sociability, foregoing such privilege might be an inducement to recognizing it.

KA: What is the significance of your fieldwork for the discipline of anthropology and your "field" of urban, middle-class Pakistan? What kinds of conversations would you like to start--or contribute to--with your work?

TA: I hope to contribute to the growing scholarship on the global middle classes, as well as to considerations of public culture in Muslim societies that is shaped, but not determined by, Islamic piety as a normative ideal. In the context of Pakistan, I would like to build on a legacy of structuralist Marxist analyses by thinking about the micropolitics of social distinction. This article, in particular, helps me articulate an obverse to the excellent work that focuses on violent events through the lenses of perpetrators and victims, and think instead about formations of moral hegemony positioned as ordinary. This involves thinking through publics and public spheres, as situated by those who invoke their own privilege in terms of respectability and decency. Finally, I hope to participate in conversations about tentative and momentary socialities that are neither organized, nor resilient, nor entirely forgettable in contexts with conflicted histories of political coercion and democratic experimentation.

Related Links

Society for Cultural Anthropology Perspectives on Pakistan

Cultural Anthropology’s Hot Spots collection, ‘The Politics of “Post-conflict”: On the Ground in South Asia

Related Reading

Khan, Naveeda, ed. 2010. Beyond Crisis: Re-Evaluating Pakistan. New Delhi: Routledge.

Khan, Nichola. 2010. Mohajir Militancy in Pakistan: Violence and Transformation in the Karachi Conflict. New York: Routledge.

Khan, Nicola. 2012. “Between Spectacle and Banality: Trajectories of Islamic Radicalism in a Karachi Neighbourhood.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 36, no. 3: 568–84.

Verkaaik, Oskar. 1994. A People of Migrants: Ethnicity, State and Religion in Karachi. Amsterdam: VU University Press.

Verkaaik, Oskar. 2004. Migrants and Militants: Fun and Urban Violence in Pakistan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Warner, Michael. 2002. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books.