Women in the country’s cities have been marching against sexual violence and social injustice for five years now. But they face increasingly vociferate Islamist resistance
For the fifth year in succession, women marched across several Pakistani cities last week on 8 March on International Women’s Day to demand equal rights and an end to systemic discrimination. The Aurat marches – named for the Urdu word for women – drew thousands of participants in the major cities across the country.
First held in Karachi in 2018, before expanding in later years to other large cities, the Aurat marches are organised by a coalition of groups, including Ending Violence Against Women and Girls, Progressive Students Federation, Women Democratic Front, leftwing political workers and the transgender community.
But rightwing Pakistani groups and religious parties have opposed the Aurat marches since their inception. Similar to objections in previous years, Minister of Religious Affairs Noor-ul-Haq Qadri sent a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan last month asking that anti-Islamic chants not be permitted. He proposed to celebrate International Hijab Day instead of International Women’s Day on 8 March to show solidarity with Muslim women all over the world.
A number of court petitions were also filed, seeking to indict organisers and participants for propagating disorder, obscenity, blasphemy and anti-Islamic sentiment. But the Lahore and Islamabad high court ruled that the freedom to assemble is a fundamental right, and the Aurat march participants could exercise it provided their conduct adhered to decency standards. The Lahore high court finally ordered local police to provide security for the march in light of threats from extremist groups including Pakistani Taliban terrorists.
What are the marchers’ demands?
The Aurat marches have three major chapters – in Karachi, Multan and Lahore – each with their own manifesto. The rights of women on education, housing and wages, as well as the freedom to exist without fear of gender-related violence, are nevertheless at the heart of their demands.
Whether they are demanding protection against domestic violence, workplace harassment or the right to occupy public spaces safely, the marchers are pushing for the change needed for women to feel secure and autonomous in society. The demands are especially pressing for domestic workers and working-class women whose safety is at risk on public transportation or in their homes.
Fundamentally, the protesters are calling on the state to fulfil its duty to protect its citizens regardless of class or gender, whether this concerns wage disparity, protection against child labour, and combating honour killings. Their demands challenge the fabric of Pakistani society, which has tolerated patriarchal control of marginalised groups for so long.
What are the statistics on violence against women in Pakistan?
The country – where news headlines are dominated by cases of gender violence, sexual harassment and honour killings – ranks among the world's worst performers. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2021 Report ranked Pakistan 153rd out of 156 countries, and seventh out of eight South-East Asian countries (Afghanistan ranked the lowest).
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) documented 430 occurrences of honour killings, with 363 female victims in 2020. In a report presented at the county parliaments by the Ministry of Human Rights, there were more than 14,450 rape cases reported against women in the country between 2018 and 2021. According to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2018, 28% of women aged 15 to 49 experience intimate partner violence at some point in their lives.
These statistics clearly reflect the dire condition of women in this country, hence the urgency of the Aurat protesters’ demands.
Why are rightwing groups opposing the marches?
As the Pakistani Aurat marches have grown in each year in defiance of threats and restrictions, conservative organisations have doubled down in their condemnation. In discussions on mainstream and social media, many people – mostly men – have called them immoral events, financed by the west in order to spread secular values in the Islamic country.
In 2020, hundreds of people from Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), a rightwing radical group, threw stones, sticks and shoes at Aurat marchers in Islamabad, causing numerous injuries. Since then, marches are held under the strict supervision of police and district authorities. Religious groups have criticised the organisers for slogans such as "my body, my choice” and “my body is not your playground”, which they violate the teachings of Islam. Islamic fundamentalists have organised counter-rallies since 2020, as well as accusing Aurat participants of being agents of western immorality.
This year, the Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and Lal Masjid groups, as well as female students of different seminaries, staged the Haya (modesty) March of burqa-clad women in various cities in opposition to the Aurat marches. The counter-protesters held placards that read, "Our bodies, Allah's choice" and chanted antifeminist slogans.
What does the future hold for the Aurat marches?
International Women's Day has been celebrated by the government of Pakistan, the Women's Action Forum and many NGOs for decades. The Aurat marches, on the other hand, have made two significant advances on the gender front: its leadership composition is almost entirely from a younger generation; and its brusque shattering of the taboo on discussing sexuality in public. Instead of being politically motivated and holding women’s rights seminars in large halls, the movement has addressed gender issues in a creative, innovative and voluntary manner.
But some internal rifts have emerged in recent years, however, indicating strategic confusion and ideological divergences. Another risk is stagnation if the Aurat marches only happen annually; because their edge has already been blunted by organised backlash from various fronts, a dedicated vision with strategic targets is needed to prevail.
This year's excessively confrontational tone and the resulting extremes on both sides of the debate have concerned many disapproving liberals as well. As progressive voices put it, the lack of centralised committees across the country and the freedom given to young participants to express their views in an unrestrained manner by targeting conservatives is hurting the broader cause of women's equality and freedom. Aurat organisers and participants need to adopt a balanced approach to achieving greater social and economic freedom for women so that people from smaller cities can relate to and participate in the demands of the movement.
Written By: Olivium staff.