Aurat March International Women’s Day in Pakistan

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Four years ago, some women in Karachi took a small step that turned into a giant leap for the Pakistani woman…the March of Aurat. Held on the occasion of International Women’s Day on March 8, this annual event sparked mockery, threats, counter-rallies, shame, and stigmatization of participants as “agents of Western immorality.”

This year, the wink for the Islamabad chapter came at the last moment after the High Court got involved and the starting point of the march changed. Pakistan’s Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri has written to Prime Minister Imran Khan, asking that March 8 be declared “International Hijab Day” and that the Aurat March not be allowed to “question or ridicule the values Islamic”.

And yet, the attendance of the event is increasing every year as it spreads to more and more towns and cities, from Karachi to Lahore, Islamabad, Multan, Hyderabad. What motivates young people to go out and participate in the March, in the face of certain and severe backlash?

The responses, from people from different regional, economic and gender backgrounds, have commonalities: watching violent patriarchy in action up close; the realization that systems of oppression are interdependent and require a concerted response; and a sense of urgency that change must come NOW.

Heartbreaking encounters with sexism

Jawaria Abbasi, 28, now a World Bank professional in Karachi, saw her father, a village leader, regularly advising men to “allow” their daughters out of abusive marriages.

Sorath Sindhu, 29, a doctor from Sindh, witnessed parents of sexually assaulted boys trying to cover up affairs. An agnostic born into a Hindu family, Sindhu says the plight of girls subjected to forced conversion brings her “to tears every time”.

Shafique Soomro, 27, a bank worker, saw one too many women with burns on her thumb in Shikarpur – the burnt numbers would prevent them from being able to attest to property papers.

Ayman Fatima, a graduate student from Punjab University in Lahore, realized early on that she would have to work twice as hard and “prove herself every day” to earn the approval that teachers generously bestowed on her students. male classmates.

“The backlash we get is a measure of the impact we have, and therefore a motivation in itself,” says Abbasi. “Everyone in power is threatened by Aurat’s march – feudal lords, politicians, clerics. They claim we are questioning Islam, but they are the ones using religion to deceive people.

Posters of hope, power

Soomro says that for him, staying silent was not an option. “Every other day in Pakistan you hear about horrific violence against women. “Honour” killings abound in a society that struggles to give women respect. Self-proclaimed pious people gobble up their sisters’ possessions, while Islam guarantees girls a share. The Aurat march is an outlet for us to express all that rage and frustration. It’s a place for us to find like-minded people. People parade with slogans and posters they make themselves. It is the expression of a long denied society.

The posters mentioned by Soomro were one of the main generators of outrage over Aurat’s march. Slogans such as ‘mera cum meri marzi (My body my right)’, ‘Apna khana khud garam karo (Heat your food yourself)’ and ‘Lo main seedhi baith gayi‘(Look, I’m Sitting Upright) featuring a woman seated with her legs not delicately crossed)’ had grown men frothing and frothing in the face of the impending collapse of civilization.

The slogans, all the participants are quick to explain, were born out of real stories of oppression: a woman who was brutally beaten for not reheating her husband’s food because she was sick, a 13-year-old who was killed by his father for not making round rotis, as well as the many other stories of women deprived of bodily autonomy. But the backlash over them has seen even some March supporters call for them to be ‘toned down’.

Yet for others, the posters are synonymous with hope and power.

“All my life I have feared authority. From my parents, from society, from the maulvi saab. Before reading some of these posters, I had no idea that authority could be mocked,” says a 22-year-old who wants to be identified only as “ek rooh, ek jism (one soul, one body) “. The 22-year-old from a town in Sindh has yet to understand “my gender or my pronouns”. “I had no tools to answer such questions. I focused my energies on suppressing them. But in 2019, I happened to be near the Aurat march in Karachi and heard some of the slogans and speeches. I suddenly felt much less alone.

Since then, the 22-year-old has been attending “informal counseling sessions” on gender and sexuality. “The fact that some people could laugh at authority, which for me until then had been a suffocating and stunning force, started the process of my release,” the person said.

Of contradictions and solidarity

The slogans, however, also represent some of Aurat March’s contradictions. “For some women, freedom is the choice of clothes. For others, it is about preventing female infanticide. Some dream of seeing many women become CEOs. My dream is a society where the capitalist concept of a high-flying CEO is not celebrated,” Fatima says.

Sindhu says the issue of forced conversions is not as much of a burning priority for everyone as it is for her. “The term ‘forced conversion’ does not cover the magnitude of the horror it represents. Girls as young as 12-13 are abducted, forced to abandon their religion, gang-raped, married against their will. If the case goes to the police, it drags on. I’ve seen women cry, begging to meet their once-abducted daughters, and come back empty-handed. A kidnapped daughter ruins the family. Frightened parents do not allow their other daughters to study or work. We need a law against it, but a collective struggle for it is still a long way off,” says Sindhu.

Women and men carry placards as they take part in an Aurat March, or Women’s March in Lahore, Pakistan, March 8, 2020. (Credit: Reuters/Mohsin Raza)

However, participants also say the march is an opportunity to build solidarity across the divisions that separate them. “Religion is not our only identity. We can make connections on regional identity, on gender identities as well,” says Sindhu. “This march is about giving space to choices and celebrating them. And that involves learning about each other’s choices,” says Abbasi.

Like any mass movement, the March also had to deal with the question of class.

“Some critics of the March have claimed that the women participating in it oppress the servants at home,” Sindhu says. “But what these people don’t say is that the dominant social system allows such oppression, in which everyone is complicit. Our economy is such that only the oppressors, and the very oppressed, stay here. Those who can, get out of Pakistan. I don’t see the Marche Aurat critics campaigning for better labor laws. La Marche is a place where everyone can learn and reform,” she adds.

Fatima says participation from all class layers is increasing. “People think the March is about wealthy women ticking a fashionable box. For middle-class women, it’s a matter of survival. They need to earn a living to feed their families, but this whole process – to study, to get to work, to work, to return to the demands at home – is full of injustices. So they are marching for equal pay, for shared household chores, for safe workplaces.

The proclaimed goal of the official chapter of the Karachi Aurat march this year is “the march for our work”. For the Lahore chapter, it is “legal, economic and environmental justice in the image of future feminists”.

Everyone on the bridge

The march manifestos are the result of the work of the participants throughout the year, creating awareness and collecting points of view.

Fatima is part of a group called Progressive Students’ Collective. Sindhu is associated with The Rise Foundation, which works for social justice. The others say they are active on social networks, in seminars and discussions. Fahmida Baloch, a student who will participate in the Karachi March for the first time this year, says her decision was made thanks to the efforts of these activists.

“A few years ago, I was convinced that all these feminist agendas were just about ruining our culture. But as I read and listened more, I realized that feminism says we deserve equal opportunity, which that we’ll never get unless we fight for them. I’m going to walk this year as a way to be part of that fight,” Baloch said.

“At least our March encourages people to Google terms like feminism,” says Fatima. “For me, this is a victory. A bigger victory came a few days ago – a university student, member of a right-wing group, gave me a poster for their counter-rally at the Aurat march, the “Bint-e-Hawwa march.” I gave him some of my posters and a piece of my mind, he stormed off and I saw him telling his friends about me. That rage and confusion on her face, something that I, every woman, are so used to feeling, made me exult. I now have the power to make my oppressors uncomfortable, all thanks to the Aurat walk.

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