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Jeans to salwars—all welcome to demand rights at Aurat March. But some Pakistanis can’t digest it

Aurat March put out slogans like 'Mera jism, meri marzi' among its many demands. And Mahira Khan, Sheema Kermani have come out in support.

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On 8 March, women around the world mark a day they call their own — International Women’s Day, highlighting achievements and carrying dialogues about issues still unresolved. The Women’s Day theme this year is ‘Break The Bias’, underscoring the idea that it is not enough to acknowledge the existence of bias. Action is necessary to achieve equality.

While the rest of the world is devising strategies to improve conditions for women, Pakistani women face the challenge of whether they will even be allowed to share their issues on a public forum.

Since 2018, Pakistani feminists have been organising large public demonstrations for Women’s Day called the Aurat March. Opposition to the march has grown in proportion to its popularity and impact.

I have attended the past four marches — the first two in Karachi and then in Lahore, joined at different times by my aunt and daughter, friends, husband, and work colleagues. This year, I am away from Pakistan and will miss marching with my comrades-in-arms.

In 2020, the organisers had to obtain a court order from a Lahore court to be allowed to go ahead. The situation has cropped up again this year, with even more vehemence directed against the march.

Pakistan’s Minister for Religious Affairs Noor-ul-Haq Qadri has even demanded that the country mark 8 March as Hijab Day — strange in a nation where women are free to wear this headgear that is not a part of the traditional garb. Plus, there is already an annual World Hijab Day, 1 February, started in 2013 in New York City.

Also read: Aurat March scares men of Pakistan, like the men of Iran

The numbers that grew

When women organised the first Aurat March in Karachi, no one expected such a large turnout in this largely patriarchal society, but multitudes of women turned up at the historic Frere Hall gardens.

It was amazing to see women from all walks of life join hands to raise their voices for basic rights. Issues raised through placards and speeches included inheritance rights, right to education, access to health services and equal wages, unpaid labour, domestic violence, demand for safety at work and in public spaces.

It was a strong statement by a section of society that is largely viewed as subservient and repressed.

Many dismissed the massive turnout as a one-time fluke. However, women took it as a wake-up call to continue working on breaking barriers that have held them back in many domains. What conservatives termed a malaise spread across Pakistan.

The event got bigger in subsequent years. Women emerged in throngs to march in multiple cities — Karachi, Hyderabad, Lahore, Multan, Islamabad, even Hunza valley. Men began to join the event with their families. The numbers have continued rising despite the increasing threats received from conservatives.

Also read: How ‘Pasoori’ dancer Sheema Kermani resisted Gen Zia-ul-Haq by wearing ‘un-Islamic’ saris

What the Aurat March demands

The slogans raised at the Aurat March since its inception have created furore “because they challenge dominant norms and gender roles by calling for autonomy, equality, freedom, and justice,” said PhD scholar Daanika R. Kamal at the School of Law, Queen Mary University of London.

The issues raised include child rape, sexual abuse, honour killings, and transgender rights. The manifestos and charters of the demands released by the organisers of the Aurat March — different in each city — reflect these slogans.

The opponents of the march seem to be totally unaware of these and never engage in dialogue about them.

There was great opposition to the slogan ‘Mera jism, meri marzi (My body, my choice)’ raised in 2019. This was a call to end gender violence, sexual harassment, and bonded labour, but opponents of the march said that it was a call for sexual libertarianism.

“I feel that the Aurat March has changed the narrative about women’s rights,” says performing artist Sheema Kermani, one of the founding members of the Aurat March. “It has shaken the very foundations of patriarchy and brought the dialogue on women’s rights into every home, every family, in offices and on the roads.”

Celebrities like actor Mahira Khan came out in support of the march and explained the real meaning behind the slogan.

Women defiantly continued to chant the slogan at subsequent events.

Also read: Yes, we still need a Women’s Day. But it’s not about flowers, cards or discounts

A ‘motley’ march

Opponents tag the march as unsafe. Personally, I have found the Aurat March the safest of any public space in Pakistan. No incidents of jostling or eve-teasing have been reported at any of these events.

Aurat March demonstrations are inclusive events attended by women from different backgrounds, thoughts, and beliefs. Large numbers of women in burqa and hijab march in harmony with women in salwar kameez, some with dupattas, some without. There are women in saris and in jeans. Everyone is welcome. It provides a chance to engage in dialogue to understand other perspectives. That is how civilised societies find solutions to the problems they face.

And yet, threats to the event have only grown. This reflects a deepening societal divide on moral and social values.

False allegations and social media disinformation campaigns attempt to discredit the event. Placards are photoshopped to distort the messages. Last year’s backlash was the worst. Someone doctored a video of the Karachi March, making it seem as if the activists had committed ‘blasphemy’ — a charge that in Pakistan can lead to the accused being killed by vigilantes. It wasn’t until Geo TV anchor Shahzaib Khanzada investigated the issue and showed how the video was falsified that the controversy died down.

Also read: Afghanistan is facing severe crisis under Taliban. It gets worse with its ‘women situation’

Multitude of rights — but in same spirit

The Aurat March has proved to be a phenomenal success, forcing society to acknowledge women’s efforts. It has also sparked nationwide debates about the rights that women are entitled to but denied.

The women of Pakistan want to develop collective communities of care, building on existing support. Why is it such a bad idea to build supportive communities that hold themselves accountable, have mechanisms to address abuse, support victims of violence, and create awareness around health issues and legal rights?

Why do many in Pakistan see their demands as a threat to society? Access to safe public spaces, the right to voice their views, equal wages, respecting all belief systems, to integrate trans individuals as useful members of society — in short, basic human rights.

These demands are reflected in the main issues highlighted by Aurat March events in various cities. Each may have a different focus, but overall, they stress the issues that women face in Pakistan.

Aurat March Karachi is calling for Social Security, demanding ‘Ujrat, Tahaffuz, Sukoon’ — wages, security, peace. Lahore is focusing on ‘Repair and Reform’, calling for justice for rape victims, reproductive health, and transgender rights. Multan is calling for ‘Reimagining the Education System’.

Those who oppose the Aurat March must realise that it is important for all of us to work together to break the biases that hold back half our population.

Nadra Huma Quraishi is an educationist and a member of the Human Rights Commission of
Pakistan. Views are personal.

This is a syndicated article published at South Asia Peace Action Network.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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