The decision by the Lahore administration not to allow the physical march in the annual Aurat March event to go ahead this year is, to say the very least, unfortunate. Come March 8 every year there is now a tableau of sorts featuring women activists who wish to use their constitutional right to express themselves, reluctant governments, and media and right-wing elements all playing their usual roles. This year, Aurat March organizers have also claimed that their actual march – which is usually a short symbolic walk but nevertheless an essential part of the day’s events – has been blocked to accommodate an event organized by a more conservative group. It may be noted that last year too in Lahore authorities had attempted to clamp down on the Aurat March, then relented after a court order and provided security after threatening to withdraw it, but at the last minute cut the march short. Aurat March organizers had decided not to challenge the decision at the time. In 2020, the Lahore and Islamabad high courts had respectively upheld women’s constitutional right to speech and assembly in the context of the Aurat March, and directed the government to grant permission.
The question is why the Aurat March(es) provoke such an extreme reaction from a society which is in desperate need of rethinking its attitude towards women’s rights. In recent years, we have seen more and more women join the march, with increasing intersectionality. Perhaps the fact that compared to its earlier days, the women’s movement in Pakistan now has such a diverse set of demographics and class structure that makes it far more potent to challenge the patriarchal status quo. For those worried about security, women do need protection, but that protection must come from the law and from the justice system and from changing the mindsets that exist in our society. They do not need protection that insists they lock themselves up in their homes. It is the implementation of laws that will give them the right to safety, no matter where they choose to go, or how they choose to dress. Only in the past month or so has the country seen women raped in the most public of spaces – like Islamabad’s F9 park. Perhaps gender sensitization then needs to begin right at the very top in our country, emphasizing that rape or any other kind of sexual abuse is always a crime. It is the perpetrators of these crimes who need to be punished and not the victims. All the women that march want is to try and make our women and children safer.
With all this glaring baggage we carry when it comes to gender relations in our country, one wonders whether city administrations and provincial governments will just allow fear-and-hate mongering to take away women’s one day’s worth of the right to speak, walk, protest. Raising such issues is crucial to any society and to the development of any social order. This has been true of the voices raised on March 8. From the women of WAF who led protests during Zia’s time to the young women and workers of today’s Aurat march, the baton and wisdom has been passed on to a younger generation – but the challenges women face only seem to have doubled down. One hopes our governments realize that it is their duty to support and protect peaceful marches that are only asking for what the constitution has decreed is theirs.
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