Sunday, March 06, 2022
On March 8, women around the world mark a day they call their own – International Women’s Day, highlighting achievements and dialoguing about issues still unresolved. The Women’s Day theme this year is #BreakTheBias, 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 or not they will even be allowed to share their issues on a public forum on this day.
Since 2018, Pakistani feminists have been organising large public demonstrations for Women’s Day called Aurat — the Urdu word for women — March. Opposition to Aurat 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.
Pakistan’s minister for religious affairs has even demanded that the country mark March 8 as Hijab Day. Strange in a country where women are free to wear this headgear that is not part of the traditional garb. Plus there is already an annual World Hijab Day, started on the first day of February in 2013 in New York city.
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 instead of the 200-300 expected.
It was amazing to see women from all walks of life join to raise their voice 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 largely viewed as subservient and repressed.
Many dismissed the massive turnout as a one-time fluke. However, women took it as a wakeup call to continue working on breaking barriers that have held us back in many domains. What conservatives termed as 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 the event receives from conservative elements.
The slogans raised at Aurat March since its inception have created furor “because they challenge dominant norms and gender roles by calling for autonomy, equality, freedom and justice,” to quote PhD scholar Daanika R Kamal at the School of Law, Queen Mary University of London.
The issues raised include tough ones like child rape, sexual abuse, honour killings, transgener rights and more. The manifestos and charters of demands released by organisers of Aurat March - slightly 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 at the 2019 event. This was a call to end gender violence, sexual harassment and bonded labour but opponents of the March said it was call for sexual libertarianism.
“I feel that Aurat March has changed the narrative about women's rights,” says performing artist Sheema Kermani, one of the founding members of 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.
Opponents tag the march as unsafe. Personally I have found 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 shalwar 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, not just opposition, but 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.
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; to receive equal wages; to respect all belief systems; to integrate trans individuals as useful members of society. In short, claim basic human rights.
These demands are reflected in the main themes highlighted by Aurat March events in various cities. Each may have a different focus, but overall, they stress issues that women face in general around 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 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.
— The writer is an educationist and a member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.