Pakistan’s Women Marched for Their Rights. Then the Backlash Came.

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Pakistan’s Women Marched for Their Rights. Then the Backlash Came.

What made the Aurat March controversial?

Pakistan’s Women Marched for Their Rights. Then the Backlash Came.

Pakistani women rally on International Women’s Day in Karachi, Pakistan, March 8, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Muhammad Rizwan

On March 8, International Women’s Day, thousands of women in Pakistan came out and marched to show solidarity with their fellow women to push for accountability and restorative justice against violence, harassment, and injustice. The rally was called Aurat (Women) March. it was open to all and no organization or society tried to own it. The women gathered for the march under the banner of “hum Auratain” (we women), which is not an organization or group but a label which they have given to all women of Pakistan.

Aurat March started last year in Karachi and spread to the whole country this year. It has emerged as a new wave of feminism in Pakistan — and with that, the march organizers have been receiving rape and death threats online.

Nighat Dad, founder of the Digital Rights Foundation, is one of the organizers in Lahore. She received rape threats on Twitter in reply to one of her posts on the Aurat March. Five other women reached out to her nonprofit organization, which works for digital rights in Pakistan and runs a cyber-harassment helpline, to complain of receiving rape and death threats.

Dad took to Twitter on Wednesday to announce that complaints had been filed against dozens of social media accounts that were inciting violence against women marchers and organizers of Aurat March.

A number of established politicians, religious scholars, and actors also attacked the Aurat March, calling it against Pakistani cultural values. Minister of the National Assembly Aamir Liaquat Hussain requested that Prime Minister Imran Khan run an inquiry to discover the actual actors behind the march and their agenda.

Sindh Assembly lawmaker Abdul Rashid registered a complaint with the police against the organizers of the Aurat March for promoting vulgarity. He also protested in the assembly against placards displayed at the march, demanding that the provincial government take action.

A video of a well-known Islamic cleric is making the rounds on social media, in which he is visibly furious over a placard at the Aurat March. The sign read, “Mera jism meri marzi” (my body, my choice). He threatened women with rape, saying that if they claim to right to their bodies, men can also claim that right to rape women.

This video has more than 67,000 views on YouTube.

What Is the Aurat March?

Last year, more than eight NGOs working for the rights of women in Karachi came together with a plan to organize a march on International Women’s Day open to all women and transgender and non-binary people. They decided to keep their role anonymous and to not take over the march’s agenda. When contacted, they said simply that the women of Karachi arranged it.

This year, similar marches were held in other cities too – mainly Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi. Thousands of young girls and women came out and marched with many others to smash the patriarchal norms and demand a balanced society for all.

Lawyer and women’s rights activist Shumaila Hussain Shahani is one of the brains behind the Aurat March. She said that last year, when they opened the call for the march, women who had not been out in politics were very skeptical about the idea.

“Many of my friends who hadn’t been to a march before were skeptical about the idea of a march. But after its success, we saw excitement and an acceptance towards the women. Many women who otherwise are not seen actively taking part in political activities also joined the march this year,” she said.

Aurat March released a manifesto a day before Women’s Day, in which they demanded economic justice, implementation of labor rights and the Sexual Harassment Against Women in the Workplace Act 2010, recognition of women’s unpaid labor, and the provision of maternity leave and daycare centers to ensure women’s inclusion in the labor force.

The World Economic Forum ranked Pakistan as second worst in its 2018 Global Gender Gap Report, which gauges economic opportunity, education, health, and political empowerment.

The manifesto also focused on climate change and how it affects women. Gender rights activists demanded access to clean drinking water and air, protection of animals and wildlife.

Other demands covered nearly every aspect of social justice: recognition of women’s participation in the production of food and cash crops, access to a fair justice system, equal representation of women with disabilities and transgender people, reproductive justice, access to the public, the rights of religious minorities, promotion of an anti-war agenda, and an end to police brutality and enforced disappearances.

The Controversy

Though the manifesto addressed very important issues women face in Pakistan, anti-march critics slammed the organizers for not focusing on the “real issues” of women and using their platform to promote nudity, vulgarity, and anti-Islamic norms in the country.

The Aurat March had been making more headlines in local media for the backlash and criticism it received than for its actual purpose. Last year, two placards from the Aurat March Karachi chapter particularly attracted the ire of people on the internet. One placard read “khud khana garam kar lo!” (Heat up your own food) and other “Mera Jism, Meri Marzi” (My body, my choice).

Both placards were badly criticized on every forum – mainstream media, social media, and religious gatherings.

Pictures of both women with their placards were widely shared on the internet. Some social media pages also made memes on them. One of the women contacted DRF after her picture went viral and someone tracked down her identity. She had not told her family that she was going to the march. DRF reached out to Facebook and requested that the social media giant remove some of the most liked pictures on their website.

While struggling with the conservative structure of Pakistani society, women seemed more prepared for the Aurat March this year. Most of the criticisms were again leveled at the placards the women brought to the march, which some found provocative.

Renowned feminist poetess Kishwar Naheed also criticized some of the slogans used at a Women’s Day celebration event. Naheed had written a provocative poem “Hum Gunahgar Aurtein” (We Sinful Women) that earned her fame both as a feminist and poetess. Her comments on the Aurat March left the entire feminist circle in shock.

Some doctored images of Aurat March placards also went viral on social media, which the organizers consider an attempt to harass women.

Shahani counts the backlash as a dent in the patriarchal structure, indicating that it is resisting.

“We have gained support from the ruling party of Sindh. I do not think such petty right-wing tactics will deter the marchers. Marches will continue, our struggle for a gender-just world will continue,” she said.

Aurat March organizers are asking lawmakers with a pro-women approach to come and support their cause. Chairman the Pakistan People’s Party Bilawal Zardari Bhutto has assured his support to them.

This March, the female humor depicted through the placards has exposed the fragility of the patriarchy and kicked off a new feminist movement in Pakistan. Farida Shaheed, executive director of the non-profit organization Shirkat Gah – Women’s Resource Center, pointed out that the feminist movement had received the same sort of criticism in the past too. Even Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, wife of Pakistan’s first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, was not spared from a vilification campaign by the bigoted clerics. They called her a prostitute for supporting the women’s movement.

“It is just the start of a new era. We need to be proactive, not reactive,” she said.

Tehreem Azeem is a digital media journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. She reports on women rights, minority issues, blasphemy, and media censorship. She tweets @tehreemazeem