Pakistan’s Aurat March and its Unrelenting Feminists

How a feminist movement in Pakistan keeps growing despite an entrenched patriarchy and continuous media shakedowns

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Pakistan’s Aurat March and its Unrelenting Feminists
Activists of the Aurat March mark International Women’s Day in Islamabad on March 8, 2021/Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images

When Pakistan saw its annual Aurat March take place, no one was expecting the response to the event to be anything less than controversial. On March 8, Pakistani women across the country’s major cities celebrate International Women’s Day by gathering to protest the country’s patriarchal norms that make it difficult for women and marginalized communities to take up the same space as men. Firmly against a top-down approach, the organizers of the March in each city decide their own themes and determine the logistics that work best for them. In Karachi, the March is held at the famed Frere Hall, which is a key part of the city’s infrastructure, while in Lahore and Islamabad, the Marches begin at the cities’ respective Press Clubs and move on from there. Each year, more cities are added to the mix, with events now taking place in Multan, Hyderabad, and Peshawar.

As the March has become an annual fixture across the country, each year has seen a new kind of backlash. A poster with a slogan considered controversial, images highlighting a taboo topic, or videos of women dancing in celebration are enough to trigger a media uproar, leaving the women’s movement open to misrepresentation and vilification in the country. A further problem is that the authorities do little to protect organizers and protesters from this kind of backlash. Last year, when Islamabad’s protesters were pelted with stones from right-wing opposition movements that had started a counterprotest, police did little to deter the attack, and the government’s permission to allow the opposition in the same place only created tension in a space that was meant for peaceful protest.

What no one was expecting, however, was the kind of fallout that occurred following this year’s nationwide event. A chant demanding freedom from patriarchal oppressors was doctored to appear like the protesters were demanding freedom from, and challenging the authority of, God and Prophet Mohammed, an accusation that can lead to blasphemy charges and prosecution.

Pakistani law doesn’t leave any room for criticism of God or the Prophet, and in previous cases, the public has responded with mob violence to blasphemy allegations. As these doctored videos spread across social media, the attendees and organizers of the March feared for their safety and well-being.

For Tooba Syed, a 29-year-old member of the Women Democratic Front party and the organizing committee for Islamabad’s Aurat Azadi (freedom) March, the backlash has been exhausting but not new. After the violent attacks in 2020, she was worried the lack of safety would deter more young women from joining the movement, something the opposition relies on. Syed says that right-wing opposition groups often mobilize through their connections in mosques and use large-scale gatherings, such as Friday sermons, to deter listeners from attending the March. Syed and her team have persevered, but despite their efforts, the controversy around the March means the event still isn’t safe for everyone to attend.

The March has been labeled as anti-Islamic and a source of Western propaganda

For Syed, representing the voices and demands of working-class women in Pakistan is crucial to the movement. “For me, working class and feminist rights go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other,” she says. But getting working-class women involved in the March has been a challenge. The March has been labeled as anti-Islamic and a source of Western propaganda, which raises the stakes for women to attend; it’s not only the risk of violence that women fear but also the social stigma that comes with being associated with the March.

Working women from religious minorities have often pledged their support to organizers, and a group of young, Christian TikTokers offered to share the message for the event on their networks as well. But for a woman who struggles to make ends meet, and given the associated risks, attending the March is a luxury that many working-class and marginalized women cannot afford.

The media has seized on the practical realities that limit women from attending and paint the event as one that is led by an elite group of financially secure and independent women whose aims contradict the country’s traditional social norms and values. For the women invested in the March, this underlines the need to highlight the universalist nature of the movement’s goals.

Regardless of where the Marches occur, women’s demands center on individual autonomy and the right to exist without fear or the need for permission. Whether it be a demand for legislation and protection against domestic violence and workplace harassment or the right for women to safely occupy public spaces, the demands of the March focus on change that is needed for women to feel safe in society.

These demands are especially relevant to the rights of domestic workers and working-class women whose security is vulnerable on public transport or in the homes where they work. Wage disparity, protection against child labor, and fighting against honor killings are all part of women’s demands from a state whose duty is to protect to all its citizens regardless of class or gender. The issue of control is at the heart of these demands, and these demands challenge the fabric of Pakistani society, which, for so long, has tolerated control over marginalized genders.

By challenging the long-standing structures that perpetuate the status quo, the Marches trigger strong opposition. However, the cameras that are focused on the one-day event fail to catch the broader picture of the women who work year-round to amplify women’s voices and create an event that represents the demands and beliefs of Pakistani women, even the ones who can’t make it to the March.

“The communities of women who work low-wage jobs have to work on a daily basis, so if they can’t take the day off to attend, I can’t push them,” Syed says of the relationship she and other organizers have built with these communities. Instead, they note their demands, provide transport for those who want to attend, and make placards for them so they don’t have to spend too much time away from work and can still play an equal part in the movement.

These relationships have been key to building up the movement, which has slowly but surely been spreading roots across the country. In the last four years, the March has spread to Karachi, Hyderabad, Islamabad, Multan, and Peshawar and often has attendees who come from neighboring cities and then take those ideas back to their communities. In Multan, in south Punjab, NGOs have grown through the years to push for change against countless issues, but grassroots mobilization has remained sparse.

Aisha Nazir, who currently works in the development sector, saw the Aurat March and the possibility of bringing it to Multan last year as a way to cultivate those grassroots, youth, and volunteer-led communities that the March has promoted in other parts of the country.

Yet, regardless of where you’re from in Pakistan, because of the controversy surrounding the women’s movement and the March that represents it, whenever the Aurat March or feminism is mentioned in public, tension is palpable. This is why Nazir felt like she hit a wall when she tried to get a group of volunteers together to organize Multan’s first Aurat March last year.

“Whenever I would mention Aurat March, the response I would get would be that such events aren’t for our communities, that they’re ‘big city issues,’” she told Newlines on a phone call in the days following the March, adding that once she moved past the word and onto what she wanted to achieve, she would quickly find middle ground.

Media representations of the word “feminism” and the constant fear surrounding the March have made Pakistani women feel such labels are alienating. But when they begin to understand how gender ties into the experiences of women across class and that the movement seeks to use their collective voice to challenge the issues they have faced for so long, women outside the movement begin to realize why they need to be a part of it as well.

It is a process of educating working women that feminism and organizers of feminist movements aren’t alien to their plight and that demanding financial security through better wages, protection against exploitation, and rural traditions such as honor killings are goals women share.

“To put it crassly,” Nazir says, “south Punjab is the country’s industrial dump,” and the lack of concern for the working class has led to substandard living conditions and health care and even general mistreatment.

For working women, gender inequality is embedded in social norms, and this reinforces their struggle. This year’s March in Multan was for the bhatta (brick kiln) workers, to demand rights for women laborers, starting with a minimum wage. But while the demands seem simple and straightforward, the goal to empower those on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder poses a challenge to existing power hierarchies. In a traditional society like Pakistan, this is not always welcome.

Rather, the demands of women are often overlooked in favor of less contentious issues. It’s easy to visit an orphanage for young girls, take some gifts and food, and post pictures. It’s far harder to visit areas that lie far outside urban comfort zones and accept that an Instagram campaign is not enough to bring about the level of change that is needed to improve the lives of rural women who are fighting for basic necessities.

The women who took part in the March in Multan sang, danced, and basked in the joy of having a space where their voice was valued. They came together to celebrate the idea of liberation in the company of celebrated activists like Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani human rights activist who spoke out against her rapists after a village council ordered her to be gang raped for crimes her brother committed. She has since become a voice for the countless women in the country who have suffered as victims of rape and sexual assault.

“The smiles on the faces of so many women there, when they saw Mukhtar Mai, and when they heard her speak,” said Nazir. “To see all of these women come together and celebrate the dance and music that has been a part of Multan’s culture for so long was what made all the effort that led to this day worth it.”

Nazir says that even over the course of one year, Multan has witnessed a rise in a student-led, grassroots movement that is vastly different from the region’s dependency on large NGOs, whose hierarchical politics can undermine real change.

The growing discourse around the March has given new impetus to Pakistani feminism.

The women whose demands are now turned into charters are the same women whose issues have long been alien to the rest of the country. While the media tries to bring down these movements by distorting slogans such as Mera Jism Meri Marzi (My Body My Choice), or Khud Khana Garam Karlo (Heat Up Your Food Yourself) — which is intended to highlight the disproportionate unpaid labor that women are expected to take on at home — Nazir and her fellow organizers have spent the last few months sitting down with laborers and farmers to understand their need for basic health care, a roof over their heads, and sustainable wages.

Health care is an especially contested issue in Pakistan. As the government attempts to privatize hospitals at a time when the importance of health care is undeniable, the cracks in the system become all too obvious. It’s not just the laborers of Multan who struggle to receive basic health care; in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, people across the country struggle to have this basic need met.

“Care is at the center of sustenance and humanity,” says Syed. Yet we do not recognize the countless hours of unpaid care work put in by women across the country as housewives and primary caregivers to children and elderly members of the family. This, however, is not the only concern that has come up over the last year. Along with care work, women receive unequal treatment with regards to their health. The abysmal maternal mortality rate is illustrative of this point. For Islamabad’s organizing team, this year has been a reminder of just how crucial it is to support care workers and the health of women, and their demands centered around the theme of Crisis of Care in the country.

Over the course of the last few weeks, Islamabad has been painted with one message: This movement cannot be silenced. Murals have decorated the city, paying ode to the ones made last year that were defaced, a reminder that what is pulled down will come back infinitely stronger, over and over again.

The posters making their way around social media are powerful. Isma Gul Hassan’s poster championing the rights of Baloch women and demanding justice for their forced disappearances, has gained a life of its own since its unveiling. It has become a champion for a group of women who have long been neglected in the historical demand for change.

Art is inherently emotional, and in a movement that is this personal to each and every one of us — indeed, every woman in this country — those emotions give it strength. “It was a very emotional process and, I think, I channeled into it emotions that surrounded me, and emotions I saw and heard in the way Baloch women spoke of the injustices they’ve had to face, as well as in the words and wisdom of the incredible, inspiring women in the organizing team of Aurat Azadi March,” Hassan said of the process of creating this stunning art piece.

Hassan’s experience as a volunteer in the days leading up to the event are a testament to the labor that these growing volunteer communities are willing to commit to stand up for what’s right. “When I make feminist art, I want people to not feel alone because in a capitalist, patriarchal society, we are all so incredibly divided,” she said. “Systems of control do not want us to form communities, share stories, create transformative spaces together. I don’t see my work existing without any of these things.”

Each year, the growth of the movement brings something new, whether expressed in a poster, a slogan, or a story of shared solidarity. These are the women who are fighting for every woman in the country, just as strongly as they are fighting for themselves.

This is a behenchara, a sisterhood that grows with each media attack or attempt to pull it down. Pakistani women have fought the patriarchy for so long and have suffered its consequences too many times. But like before, they have only reemerged stronger for next year.

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