Tuesday February 07, 2023

Aurat March: Women's rights advocates rally across largely patriarchal Pakistan

In Afghanistan, a handful of people take to the streets to mark Women's Day

March 08, 2020
Demonstrators hold placards and shout slogans as they march during the Aurat March to mark International Women's Day in Lahore, Pakistan, March 8, 2020. — AFP/Arif Ali

KARACHI/ISLAMABAD: Tempers flared in the federal capital on Sunday as protesters marched to celebrate International Women's Day in an ultra-conservative society where women are still put to death under ancient "honour" codes.

The Aurat March has sparked controversy in largely patriarchal Pakistan, and, at one point in the capital, right-wing counter-protesters hurled sticks and stones at women's rights demonstrators, causing some injuries and forcing a crowd of people to seek cover before the police intervened.

The tensions follow on from last year's Aurat march, which sparked a furious backlash when participants held placards with slogans such as "Mera jism, meri marzi [My body, my choice]," which was viciously attacked during the week leading up to the rally by a playwright who recently shot to fame.

In a society where women have been shot, stabbed, stoned, set alight, and strangled for damaging a family's "honour", such expressions have seen marchers accused of promoting Western, liberal values and disrespecting religious and cultural sensitivities.

In Islamabad, tensions rose when thousands of people gathered to call for greater reproductive and other rights. The march ended at a park alongside a separate "anti-feminist" rally, with the duelling protests separated only by a flimsy barrier and a line of police.

"The women in Pakistan are considered property by their male counterparts," said Tahira Maryum, 55. "There is nothing vulgar in asking for your rights," she added.

At the religious counter-protest, dozens of women in burqas held their own placards, including one saying "Anti-Feminist", while shouting "Our bodies, God's choice". AFP saw several men throwing sticks and stones at the women's march.

Ismat Khan, a 33-year-old woman, said women's rights activists were "naive" and being exploited by non-government groups and a foreign "lobby".

"We are free and to live our lives are according to Sharia [Islamic law]," she told AFP.

In Lahore, a crowd of several hundred women and men took to the streets chanting slogans such as: "Give me what's mine" and "We want freedom", while countless more gathered in Karachi's Frere Hall, chanting slogans, beating drums, and singing.

"We are not scared of the [religious leaders], let them be jealous of us," said Anis Haroon, a veteran women's right activist in Karachi.

Systemising oppression of women

The nationwide Aurat March also saw a group of women gather in the southern city of Sukkur near the Indus river, where the bodies of women who have been slain in "honour" killings are sometimes dumped.

This year, anti-march campaigners filed unsuccessful court petitions to try to ban Sunday's events and a religious political party warned it would stop the march at "all costs".

Much of Pakistani society operates under a strict code of "honour", systemising the oppression of women in matters such as the right to choose who to marry, reproductive rights, and even the right to an education.

Social media on Sunday was filled with comments both for and against the march with, "HappyWomensDay2020" and "MeraHijabMeriMarzi [MyHijabMyChoice]" both in the top Twitter trends.

Rights activists have long fought against the patriarchal notion of "honour", which remains prevalent across Pakistan. According to estimates, at least 1,000 women fall victim to honour killings in Pakistan every year.

A handful take to the streets in Afghanistan

In neighbouring Afghanistan, frequently rated one of the world's worst places to be a woman, a handful of people took to the streets to mark Women's Day.

University graduate Tahmina Ghoori explained that while urban Afghan women have seen some progress since the end of Taliban rule in 2001, they still face many challenges due to "gender inequality and the misogynistic views in our society".

She was especially worried about the possibility of the insurgents returning to power on the back of a US-Taliban deal signed last month.

"We have left a dark era behind, my concern is that if they make a comeback, we will go through the same situation and women's rights will be trampled again," she told AFP.