The annual Aurat March attracts the vilest attacks on female activists. These attacks range from detractors targeting women’s rights to physical security threats posed to the activists. The proponents of these misogynistic manifestations range from politicians to public figures and even those in the entertainment industry. Observers argue that the role of the state of Pakistan and its pillars haven’t been significant in empowering women and helping them address patriarchal dominance.
“We faced a lot of restrictions from government. We had to assure commissioner and deputy commissioner that we won’t use ’Mera Jism, Meri Marzi’ (My Body, My Choice) to get the approval to carry out a peaceful march,” recalls Laiba Zainab, an Aurat March organiser from Multan.
The task is a little extra challenging for Laiba as women coming out of their homes and voicing their opinions and demands out in the open is not common in the region, where opinions are mostly influenced by religious forces.
The march organisers in Multan received physical threats from Jamaat-e-Islami last year when ‘Mera Jism, Meri Marzi’ invited public criticism at large.
“Jamaat-e-Islami formally wrote an application to the authorities dubbing the march immoral and a threat to our religious and cultural values. They even threatened to use force to stop the march from happening,” says Zainab.
Laiba is a firm believer of women’s right to move freely without any fear of being harassed or catcalled. “We barely see women, mostly from small cities like Multan moving around freely; be it for their work, or education or even recreation,” Zainab laments.
Aurat March organisers say that the rally in a way has provided women an opportunity to be seen, free and alive, protesting against patriarchal norms and voicing their opinions. The organisers vow to continue putting forward their demands and highlight the rights that continue to be denied to them.
One of the most talked-about feature of the march is a variety of placards, some of which are deemed ‘provocative’ by critics of the rally. The proponents, however, maintain that the messages are creative and meaningful.
“All the placards are important. They give voice to women; every placard has a story behind it. It is an opportunity for the somewhat empowered women to represent the underprivileged women and become their voice,” says Zainab.
‘Mera Jism, Meri Marzi’ has been the most targeted, yet the most echoed, placard of the Aurat March till date. Superstar actor Mahira Khan believes that ‘Mera Jism, Meri Marzi’ means that “no one can stare at me or touch me without my permission”.
“It’s important for me to march every year because my voice has weight. When I go to the Aurat March, I make it a point to tell everyone that this is what I believe in. It does not benefit me but it is important for the women here, so I will represent them,” she affirms.
While Khan gave a very well-composed and calculated stance, there are many artists in the entertainment industry who attack feminism and the Aurat March. The rally organisers accuse them of being blinded by their privilege or influenced by internalised misogyny. Director and writer Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar is one such loud critic of the Aurat March.
Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar hurled slurs at a female panelist during a live talk show for chanting ‘Mera Jism, Meri Marzi’ last year. He has continued his battle against the marchers and often derides feminism and the Aurat March.
This hate against women rights activists and marchers isn’t confined to mainstream media, but is seen in online spaces as well.
“This is a misconception that the harassment that happens in online spaces or internet stays online. It’s not correct, especially for vulnerable or marginalised groups like women or religious minorities or trans community,” says Nighat Dad, a digital rights activist and the founder of Digital Rights Foundation.
“The harassment that happens online; be it hate speech, death threats, or rape threats, it has a very deep connection with the offline abuse. Several instances where people stalk women online, that stalking also translates into offline stalking that sometimes results into attacks on women, acid-throwing attacks, abduction etc,” she adds.
Dad believes that online harassment against women is intended to suppress them and tell them that anyone can control you even through online space. She also criticises the cybercrime wing. Cybercrime law also known as the prevention of electronic crimes exists in the legislation but its implementation is another question.
“When it comes to the implementation of these laws, there is inconsistency because of the arbitrary decisions of cybercrime wing, the investigative body that comes under the federal investigation agency,” Dad reiterates.
When it comes to digital rights or cybercrimes, there is a lot of confusion among the masses about their rights and legal processes. The lawyer-turned-digital rights activist also calls out the problematic provisions in the cybercrime law.
“The practice of criminal defamation is very problematic. It doesn’t really support the victims of harassment. Most of the time it has been weaponised against the victims and survivors who have spoken up against harassment,” she says.
As per the Cyber Harassment Helpline Report 2020 on digitalrightsfoundation.pk, the number of cases referred to the cybercrime wing by the digital rights body is alarming. Experts say that in times like these when new media has taken our lives by storm, digital literacy is something much needed in countries like Pakistan. Nighat also stresses on the awareness of digital security for everyone saying, “People need to make their social media accounts stronger.”
Online harassment also takes a toll on the mental health of the victims. “Online harassment is real and its severity cannot be denied. Many people succumb to this vile and end up taking their lives, not only in Pakistan but all over the world,” says Umaima Tahir, an independent journalist.
But why are so many people against this segment of society voicing their opinions and demanding their rights in a so-called democratic state? Experts say the answer probably lies in the lack of knowledge and capacity to understand why such demonstrations are important to break the shackles of decades-old patriarchal practices.
The Aurat March organisers maintain that many don’t even read or try to learn about the manifesto of the Aurat March and criticise the rally just for the sake of criticism. Last year, the marchers marched for defending their bodily rights amid rising cases of physical harassment, rapes, marital rapes and child molestation, but detractors only focused on non-issues to malign the movement.
Aurat March Lahore has released a comprehensive ‘Feminist Manifesto on Healthcare’ for 2021 to address the persisting health crisis in the system. The marchers will be demanding to increase the health budget, and not to privatise the health care system and turning it into a for-profit business.
This year’s march is also demanding to treat gender-based violence as a healthcare issue and removal of chemical castration from Anti-Rape Ordinance 2020 as it is an ineffective punishment. The 15-point comprehensive Charter of Demands 2021 highlights many other healthcare issues that need the attention of legislative authorities.
“This is a very good initiative, especially the transgender part. We hardly see anyone from the trans community going to public hospitals for their health issues,” comments Aurat March participant Muhammad Zafar after reading Aurat March Lahore 2021 manifesto.
“The way their bodies are built, they need extra care when things get complicated in their hormones. It is an irony that they don’t even get the basic medical care,” he added.
While Lahore demands better healthcare for women and the transgender community, Aurat March Karachi has become the voice of the women protesting against enforced disappearances and forced conversions.
Following the motto, “6 foot ki doori, magar inqilab zaruri” (Seeking revolution while practicing social distance), Karachi marchers stress at the security and safety of Baloch women protesting and demanding the return of their loved ones.
“Balochistan is a taboo and we don’t report it on mass media and other platforms, however, a lot of NGOs are trying to assist Baloch women with better healthcare and better security,” says political scientist Muzammil Shah.
Shah maintains that Balochistan is the worst place for a woman to be in the entire world. Around 82% of Baloch women are not literate enough to even write their names, let alone voice for their rights. “Balochistan is a place where no rights, no facilities and no security is being provided to women by the state,” added Muzammil.
“There is no healthcare in Balochistan, the tribal culture doesn’t allow women to be vocal or assertive; honour killing is a big problem. The Baloch women have to break a lot of shackles to negate the cult culture and tribal practices to voice their concerns,” says Muzammil stressing that a mass literacy drive is needed in Balochistan for women to come out and voice their opinions.
The missing persons issue also persists as the Baloch women protest for the recovery of their loved ones. “They are very vulnerable and threatened by the forces as their sons, fathers, husbands or brothers are abducted,” he further adds.
Baloch women face many security challenges; domestic violence, be it sexual, physical or psychological is one of them.
“The greatest challenge women in Balochistan face is their right to life. A lot of honour killings are reported in the region. The ‘sardari system’ of Balochistan is inherently misogynist and it doesn’t regard women as equal citizens. Hence gender gap, illiteracy, unpaid labour, right to life, and honour killings still persist in contemporary Pakistan,” Muzammil laments.
The World Economic Forum report ranked Pakistan 151 out of 153 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index 2020. Women continue to have low representation even on the political level, let alone domestic or social level. Seeing the history and stats, feminist activists maintain that Pakistan’s political culture is a safe haven for patriarchal forces.
Last year before the Aurat March, Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan stated that if women want rights, it should only be guaranteed in ‘chadar aur chaar diwari’ as in within the premises of their house. With this approach from a sitting minister, Aurat March organisers believe that one has to take matters in their own hands.