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March 8, 2020

A red-letter day


March 8, 2020

Somehow, it has all boiled down to that stirring slogan: ‘mera jism, meri marzi’. It was one of the numerous creatively designed messages that protesting young women had scribbled on their placards at last year’s Aurat March. And those who have issues with women’s progress in this obstinately patriarchal society had singled it out for spouting their venom against the movement.

This year, the run up to the March that is held on International Women’s Day on March 8 – that is, today – has been marked by a sustained campaign against it by some religious and extremist groups. Their refrain is the slogan that they argue is utterly obscene and immoral.

We have an environment of threats and intimidation. Fears have been expressed about a possible clash between the Aurat March participants and their opponents. In that sense, we would anxiously wait to see how this day progresses. One should expect no untoward incident because the March is an entirely peaceful demonstration of the popular striving for social progress and democratic freedoms. Besides, it is the administration’s responsibility to maintain law and order.

While the focus remains on today’s rallies that are planned to be held in major cities, a number of functions were held during this week around the celebration of the International Women’s Day. The two-day First Women Conference organised by the Arts Council, Karachi, became a national event and the title of its first session on Friday was: ‘Meri zindigi, mera ikhtiar’ – an extension of the message that has so annoyed the adversaries of women’s meaningful advancement.

Now, it is instructive to look at how they, on both sides of the divide, have interpreted the controversial slogan that is seen as the template of the March. Last year, a number of supporters of the March had seemed a bit apologetic about it. There was a lot of free expression in that rather playful feminist parade, not formally monitored.

But this year, the slogan appears to have found its meaning and its relevance in how it is decoded and defended by some intrepid advocates of women’s rights. The message has a bearing on the large issues of women’s sexual harassment, rape and also domestic violence. By the way, Shahzad Roy also invoked it in the context of his petition against corporal punishment in schools.

In addition, the organisers of the March and civil society activists are so much more candid in explaining their demands and their purpose. There is an extensive agenda that includes the concerns of the oppressed and under-privileged sections of our society. Press conferences have been held and statements have been issued.

On Friday, for instance, civil society activists held a press conference in Islamabad to reject the propaganda mounted by religious and rightwing political parties and reiterated to continue their struggle for basic rights.

In some ways, the sound and fury that has been created about the March is a welcome illustration of a fundamental conflict in our society. This is essentially a clash of ideas. Unfortunately, our rulers have generally supported religious and extremist elements that represent obscurantist values for supposedly strategic reasons, not mindful of the damage that their policies have done to the country’s social and political advancement.

Hence, there is total confusion about how the government should deal with the compelling demands made not just by women but also by defenders of human rights and campaigners for unadulterated democracy. The police in Islamabad did not stop members of a banned sectarian group from vandalising a mural being painted by feminist artists.

Try and decipher what Firdaus Ashiq Awan, special assistant to the prime minister on information, actually meant when she said that the government would give full support to the March if “it does not trample on the country’s honour”. Pemra has issued an advice to all satellite TV channels that they should not air “indecent content” in programmes related to the Women’s Day.

This also means that the Aurat March is now almost a national obsession. But there is no clarity about how different political parties and individual leaders look at it against the backdrop of the condition and status of women in the country. Only Bilawal-Bhutto Zardari has come out openly and strongly in support of the March, which is what Benazir’s son should be obliged to do.

Obviously, the battle between progressives and the extremists is unfinished. But, as I A Rehman said in his keynote address at the Arts Council conference, time is on the side of the women. It is for the rulers to understand this logic of history and start to make amends for the grievous follies they have committed so far. In its ‘unequivocal’ support for Aurat March, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has asserted that it is an integral part of the collective struggle for human rights in Pakistan and beyond.

I am trying to avoid the hullabaloo created by the downright filthy remarks of a popular television playwright, known for his misogynist mindset, against a woman civil society activist in a talk show. However, the attention that was paid to it in the social and the mainstream media is a measure of the threat that the emancipated Pakistani woman has become to the status quo.

Sadly, this storm is being raised on an occasion that is basically meant to be a celebration. The International Women’s Day highlights the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. In some countries, there is a tradition of giving flowers to women on this day.

This year, the campaign theme is #Each for Equal because an equal world is an enabled world and “each one of us can help create a gender equal world”. The idea is that collectively, we can change the world.

Who will do it in Pakistan? Well, the educated and liberated women are set to lead this struggle in close collaboration with their male partners. It is going to be bloody and long. But we know who will win.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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