To see women freely inhabiting public space in Karachi is rare; to see them doing so in large numbers is virtually unprecedented. And so, it is hard to convey, to those who are not women and have not spent their lives feeling hemmed in by this city, how wildly euphoric it felt to course down a choked thoroughfare knowing that, for once, the streets belonged to you.
Here, where walking down a single street can be stressful and unconventional, to march and scream down several, swatting away traffic and smiling into cameras, was historic. And here, where there are so many walls, to be surrounded by women who represented so many communities seemed surreal. Stuck in our own recurring loops, it is impossible to see or sense or know how massive, how diverse, how powerful, and how beautiful our metropolis really is. What we experienced when we stood shoulder to shoulder was an inkling of who we really are. If you shut your eyes and spun around several times, you would see someone different each time you blinked them open.
You could see women with their faces veiled, marching alongside women with their arms bare; Muslims marching in line with Christians and Hindus; women who work in high-rises with women who go door-to-door supplying healthcare, or women who work from home. There were women who spoke English smiling with women who spoke Sindhi. There were girls who had come straight from school, in their uniforms, braiding their way through young mothers balancing wide-eyed infants on their hips. There were women from Lyari, who have lived through years of gang warfare beside women from Clifton who had never been to Lyari. There were women in wheelchairs and women who did not identify as cisgender, or who identified as queer.
We could not have numbered more than a thousand. But to be there in that moment felt like the whole world had turned up. The sky-wide feeling that bubbled up inside me as I walked waving my flag, buoyed by the chants and slogans that rang loud around me, was born from knowing just how much solidarity I was surrounded by. We marched carrying our individual stories, but we stood under the banner of a single cause.
It was more than a protest. It was a collective call to action, and it gave hundreds of women a chance, through performances, speeches, skits and chants, to understand the scope of the rights they have not been granted. It was one of the best examples I have ever seen of what activism should be – inclusive, inspiring, and iconic. It was defined by an overwhelming sense of urgent longing – the desire for a better tomorrow – rather than senseless anger.
It called for an end to rampant violence against women, and it demanded economic equality, reproductive rights and environmental justice. Our progress as a nation rests on how quickly these demands are met. The organisers ‘Hum Aurtein’, a collective of women cut across different sections of society, embodied, as far as was possible, the spirit that they were rallying for. Their grassroots approach was completely citizen-led, and they pulled off a massive event in a matter of weeks, funding it entirely from small individual donations. It was a brilliant example of women paving the way for women, and it proved that we can make great strides on the grounds of our passion alone.
Once the procession wound its way back to where it had started from, once the chants quietened down, once the dancers started gliding across their makeshift stage, quickly becoming silhouettes in the slowly stirring lamplight, I made my way through the fading crowd, wishing I could bottle and seal even a drop of the day’s insane hope. These women, who came from near and far, came because they knew they have been cheated and wronged; because a floodgate within them had finally broken. Everywhere, there were thousands of glittering eyes. Now, they seemed to say, we are ready: at last, our moment has come.
The writer is a freelance journalist, teacher and consultant based in Karachi.