Pakistan Reader# 166, 16 March 2021
The Aurat March has given new momentum to the women movement in Pakistan.Abigail Miriam Fernandez
On 8 March 2021, Pakistan marked International Women's Day with the Aurat March. Women from different walks of life gathered in different cities of Pakistan, with multiple demands. The list included the following: demanding an end to patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and gender-based violence.
This year's theme for the March was "to highlight the burden faced by women amid the Covid-19 crisis" and highlight the wage disparity among men and women carrying out the same job in particular sectors.
A brief note on the Aurat March in Pakistan: How did it all start?
The idea for Aurat March began in 2018 when a group of women from the Women’s Action Forum (a women’s rights organisation), Women’s Democratic Front (a socialist-feminist organisation) and Hum Aurtein (a feminist group) gathered at the Karachi Press Club on International Women's Day seeking end to violence against women carried out by patriarchal forces as well as state-backed violence targeting activists and communities.
The Aurat March thus began as movement towards collective action and consciousness building for a socially just and equitable society. The movement marched for social, economic, gender and climate justice, built around the theme of empowerment, sisterhood, and solidarity through which they sought to reconstruct the narrative on violence against women's bodies and call for more accountability and support for women who face gender-based violence at home, in public spaces, at workplaces and at the hands of security forces.
In order to maintain their autonomy, they follow a 'no funding' and 'no funding' and 'no association' policy with corporate, NGOs and political parties. Further, to ensure intersectional politics that view gender concerning various oppressive structures their struggle aimed to eradicate brutal and inhuman economic and social systems by imposing gender roles that condemn feminine men, masculine women and transgender people alike. (Dr. Rubina Saigol, Nida Usman Chaudhary, "Aurat March Lahore: Manifesto for 2020," December 2020)
Since 2018, the movement has grown and is no longer confined to marches on International Women’s Day. It has become an ongoing movement that allows women of Pakistan the opportunity to rewrite their place in society. (Shazia Hasan, " In Pakistan: “Mera Jism, Meri Marzi” (My Body, My Choice)," Women Unbound, 19 December 2020) Further, it has evolved into a more significant movement. Today, the movement includes transgender people. The demands also have expanded; it includes better laws to protect women and the enforcement of existing laws, as well as raising awareness and changing attitudes. (Shazia Hasan, "Aurat March to be held on 8 March," Dawn, 6 March 2018)
The Aurat March grows, so does the backlash from the conservative and right-wing sections
The four-worded rallying cry "mera jism, meri marzi," (my body, my choice), hit a nerve in 2019 and continues to stir controversy. Proponents claimed that the slogan highlights women's right to have agency in what they wear and their bodies without fear of harassment or sexual violence. The intention behind slogan was to bring about change, making the male-dominated society safe for females, the weak and oppressed. It also called out for perpetrators to be held responsible, demanding accountability. It emphasised on taking immediate and long-term measure for make sure justice is not a fight of genders but a fundamental human right. The slogan Mera Jism Meri Marzi is for all those females who suffer in silence, live unnoticed, and die without answers. The slogan was an assertion to take control of what already belongs to her, mine and yours. The issue is agency. Its purpose is to define authority and real autonomy. What it connotes is that a woman’s body is her’s, not to be used for self-harm or to damage cultural ethos, but to empower. ("Aurat March of Pakistan: The decoding of Mera Jism Meri Marzi or My Body, My Choice," Gulf News, 5 March 2020) As stated by the Aurat March, "it means an enforcement of a human right every individual is born with, but women, trans, and non-binary person are robbed of." Through Mera Jism, Meri Marzi women are fundamentally stating that society does not get to set the terms of their life, their body, their decisions.
However, a certain section views the slogan as an attempt to impose "western debauchery" in Pakistan, with religious clergy in the country terming it to be un-Islamic. The two mainstream religious parties, including the leader of the religious right-wing political party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), Maulana Fazlur Rehman criticised the march calling on law enforcement agencies to take action to stop the marches. ("Who is against ‘Aurat March’?," The News International, 5 March 2020)
However, the opposition did not come only from the Maulanas, political parties have also been divided over the matter, the PTI and PML(N) are of the opinion that the march should go on so long as ‘the march would not harm honour and dignity of the country’ and that ‘the organisers to take a stance which was culturally acceptable to society.’ ("Opposition to ‘Aurat March’," Pakistan Today, 8 March 2020)
Amid the criticism, numerous members of the movement have received death and rape threats, with posters and murals put up by organizers being vandalized. In 2020, the Lahore High Court was petitioned to place restrictions on the organizers and participants of the March, whom the complainant said had an agenda to "spread anarchy, vulgarity, blasphemy and hatred" against Islam. In 2019, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Assembly passed a unanimous resolution against what they deemed "shameless and un-Islamic" slogans, placards and demands raised at Women's Day marches in major cities across the country.
Similarly, the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting pushed the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority to order all media channels to stop telecasting slogans like "Mera Jism, Meri Marzi" in an attempt to curb 'moral indecency' associated with the Aurat March. (Kazim Hamdani, "Explainer: Why is the Aurat March so controversial?," The Express Tribune, 22 February 2021)
Aurat March in 2021: Gathering Momentum
The Aurat March for 2021 presented a feminist healthcare manifesto in Pakistan, calling it a 'Pandemic of Patriarchy,' the demonstrates demanded the government increase the health budget to five per cent so that women may get better healthcare. Women, girls, transgender and non-binary people, and men of all ages, attended the March carrying anti-patriarchy slogans on placards. This year, the Aurat March also demanded state investment for rehabilitation of victims of gender-based violence and the formation of sexual harassment committees in hospitals, clinics. Further, it called for reflecting on how women-friendly laws can be implemented, arguing that while passing legislation is one side of the battle, the other is to bring out societal change and address internalized misogyny. ("A celebration of women," Dawn, 8 March 2021)
Each city chapter of the Aurat March wrote separate manifestos.
Aurat March expands in geography: Celebrations in the provinces
A noticeable development in 2021 was the expansion of the Aurat March in provincial capitals and cities. In Karachi, it took on patriarchal violence. This year's theme looked at how existing harmful structures are perpetuated by the State and institutions as well as our social fabric itself. Organisers Soha Tanwir Khan and Moneeza Ahmed said, "Our manifesto, for example, demands incremental institutional changes, such as the addition of women and transwomen medico-legal officers, criminalizing the two-finger test and questions related to sexual history conducted during rape investigations."
In Lahore, the manifesto included a 35-page document that looks at healthcare with an emphasis on gender and sexual minorities. A volunteer at that March said, "We wanted to co-opt the pandemic and the urgency created by it, to make everyone realize that the patriarchy is also a pandemic and that it has been an ever-present and painful part of our lives."
In Islamabad, the manifesto was motivated by the pandemic as well. The 2021 theme is "feminist care in the time of the coronavirus crisis." Termed as the Aurat Azadi March, the Islamabad version was based around economic justice and the manifesto demands different actions that can help alleviate financial burden and pressure from the public at a time when the pandemic has left most battered. (Luavut Zahid, "Why do women March? A look at the Aurat March 2021 manifestos," Dawn, 22 February 2021)
Aurat March in 2021 is inclusive; unions and transgenders join
Under the banner of Aurat March, various unions and organizations took the opportunity to hold their own rallies. At a rally organized by the Home-Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF) and the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF), speakers reiterated that without having equal participation of women in decision making roles, the development of society is impossible.
Issues such as violence against women belonging to minority communities forced conversions and the like were raised during the rally. The Aurat March also served as a platform to raise awareness about trans rights. For instance, illustrations representing transgender were dismissing the misplaced belief that transgender people are immoral. The message of the tableau said, "immoral are those who ridicule and make fun of their child." (Oonib Azam, "Marchers mark International Women's Day with demands for equality, end to violence," The News International, 9 March 2021)
The right-wing has its own March
The Jamaat-i-Islami organized a march too, focusing on the rights granted to women by Islam and called for the establishment of a religious society to ensure that these rights are given to suppressed segments. The group called for setting up a religious society that would create an environment for women to exercise the rights guaranteed to them by Islam. In a strange turn of events the largely left-wing led rallies in the capital city of Islamabad, by Women Democratic Front (WDF) and Awami Workers Party (AWP) from the National Press Club to D-Chowk. (Kalbe Ali, "Women's day rallies held amid strict govt guidelines," Dawn, 9 March 2021)
Backlash in 2021: A doctored video and accusation of "West Sponsored"
Days before the Aurat March was scheduled to be held, social media trends opposing it began going viral. One hashtag claimed that the Aurat March was foreign-funded and promoting Western agendas. People also said that the March was contrary to religious beliefs and that women already had rights in Islam.
The Sunni Rabta Council staged the protest at the chowk and demanded registration of FIRs against organizers and participants of the Aurat March a gathering of over 150 persons from State Youth Parliament Muslim Talba Mahaz and Muttahida Talba Mahaz also gathered at Aabpara chowk in the afternoon and staged a protest, due to which, traffic remained suspended at Khayaban-i-Suharwardy and Srinagar Highway during a protest staged against the recently conducted Aurat March. Similarly, officials of the capital administration and police said that Sunni Rabta Council, State Youth Parliament Muslim Talba Mahaz and Muttahida Talba Mahaz staged separate protests at Aabpara Chowk. (Kalbe Ali, "Protests staged against Aurat March," Dawn, 9 March 2021)
Following the March, there was a heated debate on social media against and for the March with a doctored video being posted showing the participants chanted that "Allah should also listen." An organizer tweeted saying, "The Aurat March faces severe backlash every year. Our videos and posters are targeted and manipulated, spreading misinformation and maligning the March. This year, one of our videos was doctored and heinous allegations are being placed on us." Arguing that that in the original clip the participants chanted that "Mullah should also listen", but in the doctored video sound "M" was deleted and the women were showed saying "Allah should also listen", instead of Mullah. ("Video doctored to defame marchers, say organizers," Dawn, 12 March 2021)
An audit of four years of the Aurat March:
Can become a role model for South Asia
Since 2018 Pakistan has witnessed a significant shift in the gender discourse, which marks a significant departure from previous articulations of feminist theory and practice. The inception of the Aurat March, marks the fourth wave of feminism that has transformed the feminist landscape in the country. (Dr. Rubina Saigol, Nida Usman Chaudhary, "Aurat March Lahore: Manifesto for 2020," December 2020)
This is the fourth year that Aurat March has been organized around the country. An unquestionable outcome has been the push for more conversation in society. Through the Aurat March women in Pakistan have raised their voice for their rights in a highly patriarchal society where manifestations of the same are seen in the structural framework of both society and government. (Dr Rizwan Saigol, "Understanding why women march," The News International, 8 March 2021)
Over the last four years, women's activism has travelled through the length and breadth of the country and now stands alongside the global conversation because of the brave women who in Pakistan who organize the Aurat March. Increasingly, the event has been taken over by more radical young feminists who demand rights to health, reproduction, freedom of movement. ("Marching on," The News International, 8 March 2021)
The Aurat March has also brought in the vernacularising of the fight for women's rights. Feminism most often is viewed as a Western construct that marginalizes non-Western identities and it is most often this western hegemony over feminist movements that has fed into a repulsion towards feminism found in countries such as Pakistan. The Aurat March with its terms such as 'pidar shahi' (patriarchy) and 'aurat' march (women) has created a space in the larger narrative for women of this region to identify with resulting in women voicing out concerns and struggles peculiar to their society. Slogans such as "ghar ka kaam, sab ka kaam", (house work is everyone’s work) "khud khana garam karo," (do your own work) "consent ki tasbeeh roz parhein" (The Rosary of Consent is on the day) and "paratha rolls, not gender roles" have given a local flavour to how feminism and gender can be spoken in this part of the world. The Aurat March has also given space for the expansion of feminism in regions that often oppose the idea because of its western connotation.
International Women's Day in Pakistan has been changed forever with the Aurat March has become a visual repertoire, from the vocabulary, signs and slogans that are used to speak of women's rights and issues becoming part of the revolutionary impact that the Aurat March. From conventions posters to women escorting coffins with "pidarshahi ka janaza" (the funeral procession of patriarchy) it not only shows the level of creativity but the sight of women carrying a janazah (funeral) through the streets of Pakistan is something revolutionary. More importantly, women's mobilization in the form of the Aurat March dispels the belief that women are not conscious of their own oppression. Women will and have always resisted patriarchal forces in their own ways; sometimes subtle, or in a loud and glorious way like the Aurat March. The mere idea of women gathering outside the home, when all institutions of society are conspiring to push them down, carrying out an endeavour such as the Aurat March is no easy task. Moreover, events like the March allow women to create opportunities for themselves to lead from the front. (Zuneera Shah, "Why the Aurat March is a revolutionary feat for Pakistan," Dawn, 22 January 2020)
Lastly, the Aurat March is none like any in South Asia. Across the region, women face similar issues. However, in Pakistan, the Aurat March has become a hallmark movement that has not only given new momentum to the feminist movement but has become a platform where women can raise their voices. The Aurat March could become a model for the rest of the region's fight against patriarchy. However, for Pakistan with the Aurat March, the fight has only begun and it progresses the crowds, their voices are only set to get bigger and louder.
About the author
Abigail Miriam Fernandez is a Project Assistant at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore. As a part of her research focus at 'Pakistan Reader' she looks at issues relating to gender, minorities and ethnic movements. She is also a Teaching Assistant to the NIAS Certificate Course on Contemporary Pakistan.