Women in Pakistan are rising to demand human rights in ever-greater numbers. Aurat March 2020 was a testament to the fact that the women's movement in Pakistan is gaining momentum. For women’s rights activists, being part of a large mass of people chanting slogans against the patriarchy, gender inequality, lack of female agency over their own bodies and state oppression was a heartening experience.
It was the third consecutive year of the celebration of International Women’s Day in Pakistan. The first Aurat March (women’s march) was held in Karachi in 2018, expanding to other major cities like Lahore, Islamabad, Sakhar, and Multan in 2019 and 2020. Relatively smaller celebrations of IWD were seen in cities like Quetta, Peshawar and Faisalabad. Some slogans from the previous two marches, like “mera jism meri marzi (my body, my choice)” invited a lot of backlash from the religious factions. Despite the online threats and abuses hurled upon the women marchers by the religious rightwingers, a big number of people (estimated between 1000 and 1500 in just Islamabad) came together to celebrate IWD 2020.
Women held placards with slogans like “khud mukhtiar hon, badkirdar nahi (independent doesn’t mean bad charactered ) and “jab tak aurat tang raheygi, jang raheygi Jang raheygi (as long as women suffer, the war will go on)”. But the main slogan, probably as a reaction to the backlash from previous years, remained “mera jism, meri marzi”. Men also participated in great numbers holding placards with messages like “Let's cook together” and “I am marching because my sister says kash mein laRka hoti (alas I was a boy)”.
At the same time as the Aurat March, an alliance of religio-political groups had mobilised male and female religious students. Their assembly was called Haya March (Modesty March) against the Aurat March of secular/democratic alliance of civil society and women activists. What was surprising for many, was the Islamabad administration’s decision to allow Haya March to stand face to face with the Aurat March. As expected, the situation got tense for about 20-25 minutes when the crowd belonging to hard core religious parties on the other side of the canopy started to throw stones, shoes, empty glass bottles at the Aurat March injuring about 5-6 people.
However, the tense situation was soon brought under control with the timely action of police. The Aurat March was diverted to an alternate route to avoid a clash with the bearded men of Haya March standing with sticks on the way to D Chowk where the women's march was supposed to finish. There was a grave possibility of a large scale clash which was thankfully averted and the rest of it went well. But the online backlash/ harassment/ threats/abuse goes on against the women marchers and those supporting it.
The organizers of Aurat March filed an FIR and questioned the Islamabad administration as to why two groups with completely opposite ideologies were brought face to face? Why were the Mullahs (religious clerics) allowed at the last moment to hold a rally at the same place where NOC was given for Aurat March by the Islamabad administration? These are the questions which are under an inquiry but will never find an answer I guess. Yet a large number of women activists have expressed their skepticism over the intentions of state machinery’s willingness to provide security to the women marchers.
It seems that the religious leaders were compelled to bring women from the Madrassah Jamia Hafsa (women’s religious seminary in Islamabad) and other cities to demonstrate their visibility and occupy their space to not let the ‘bad women’ play ‘rights politics’ in an open field. Burqa clad (veiled ) women who claim themselves to be the symbols of piety and consider Chadar and Chardewari (veil and four walls of the house) as women’s only sanctuary came out on the streets face to face in opposition to the ‘bad women’ marching for ‘mera jism meri marzi’. On the contrary, the widespread support for women’s rights has even broken through religious parties. Maulvi- Siraj –ul- Haq, Amir Jama’t-e-Islami,( a radical religious party having a history of opposition to women in leadership positions including Benazir Bhutto declaring it unIslamic) demanded women’s right to property on the IWD 2020.
The very slogan My body, My right opened up a huge online debate pre and post 8th March. As mentioned earlier,last year this slogan invited a lot of wrath from the right wing both online and offline. This year it became a dominant theme of Aurat March. People on both sides of the ideological divide provided contrasting interpretations of it.The secular women’s rights activists came up with more contextualized explanations of the slogan specific to Pakistan. They did not claim the right to abortion or sexual liberties, even then they were labeled as bad women wanting sexual liberties. But of course, a large number of educated class of men/women who opposed this slogan last year were seen supporting it this time, a number of them personally known to me.
Something interesting to note here, is that the placards in the Haya March exhibited most of the demands being made by the ‘bad women’ on the other side of the canopy. Mera Jism, Allah ki marzi (my body, Allah’s will) was the only slogan which exhibited the sharp ideological/non-bridgeable divide between the two categories of women assembled on both the sides of the canopy. A friend of mine with a religious leaning replied to an offensive comment online by saying that “its my body and Allah wants me to protect it from rape and violence so I raise this slogan Mera jism, meri marzi”. Shad Begum, Core Member of Women’s Regional Network (WRN) Pakistan states “The backlash on social media and mainstream media is still going on, which is okay because I see all this conversation a sign of interest in this subject of women's rights and empowerment”. In the words of another Core Member WRN Pakistan, Neelum Hussain who has been fighting for women’s rights and struggled through the worst of Martial Laws in Pakistan:
“The negative fallout aside, women's bodily autonomy is now part of public debate - the issue is being discussed in homes, public spaces, in the press and social media”.
At a personal level, filled with hope, I ignore the backlash, even the stoning. I see it as the reaction of desperate, dying patriarchal forces and an attempt on their part to look relevant in a fast changing world. I am sure they will be on the retreat if democracy continues in Pakistan, and more women inevitably rise up.