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March 23, 2020

The online vitriol that reared its ugly head before Aurat March

March 23, 2020

Nine days before this year’s International Women’s Day, trade unionist Zehra Khan posted a video on the ‘Mehnatkash Aurat Rally 2020’ Facebook page in which some women were reciting a poem ‘Jab Aurat Ghar Say Niklay Gi, Tab Saari Dunya Badlay Gi’ in connection with their rally scheduled for March 8.

The 80-second clip has been viewed by over 140,000* people, receiving around 1,000* comments, of which hardly eight* are in support or praise, while the rest are mostly abuses, threats or condemnations.

Zehra, general secretary of the Home-Based Women Workers Federation, said: “At first I laughed at those [negative] comments. They expressed the commenters’ thinking, but at the same time, I was sad over the fact that our society was so blinkered and brainwashed that it failed to understand the meaning of these verses.”

Besides this online harassment, she also received phone calls at her office in which the callers greeting them with abuses asked them why they were advocating bringing women out of their homes.

Not only the video uploader but the women who were reciting the poem in the clip were also targeted by the online abusers. They were given indecent labels, and many of the commenters made these women’s appearance the subject of their comments, despite the fact that most of the women in the video wore hijabs or had their heads covered with dupattas, which is considered a criterion to judge a women’s decency by a large segment of our society.

Some of the women in the clip were home-based workers, who earned a living by stitching, embroidery or similar works; some were students, and some were labourers or human rights activists.

The post received more than 1,900* reactions, including 1,300* likes; 291* people opted for the haha reaction, 235* for angry, 67* for love, 25* for sad and five* for wow.

Silent supporters

An analysis suggested that many of the supporters refrained from commenting on the post because of the fear that they might be subjected to brutal trolling or harassment.

This happened to Sadia Baloch, who not only appeared in the video but also responded to an abusive comment. This exposed her to the detractors. A user took a screenshot of her profile and posted it in the comments below, calling for like-minded people to gang up on her.

One of the commenters said: “Haan, yeh baat tou hai; jab aurat ghar say niklay gi, tab saari dunya badlay gi [Yes, this is true; when women will come out of their homes, the entire world will change].”

Another user told him he should have at least thought about his DP (display picture) before commenting. The DP in question showed Turkish actor Engin Altan Düzyatan in the character of Ertugrul, a revered Ottoman Empire figure, in the Turkish television series Dirilis (Resurrection).

The comments that followed were so condemning that they forced ‘Ertugrul’ to clarify: “Bhai, mainay yeh baat ba-taur tanz ki hai kay aurat kay nikalnay kay baad dunya barbaad ho jaye gi[;] jaisa kay iss say pehlay iss tarah nahi tha jab aurat ghar mein thi [Brother, it was sarcasm, as I meant that the world will go astray after the women come out; it wasn’t like that when women used to be at home].”


Zehra explained the thought behind the poem, which was written five or six years ago by Ahmed Naveed: “There’s a centuries-old concept of thinking of women as private properties. They’re deemed objects that should remain at home. It is said that women are a source of both honour and disgrace. There have been women who broke these stereotypes and shone in the world, but their struggles weren’t made part of the mainstream history because it’s mainly written by men. That’s why inclusiveness is necessary, so that things like that don’t lapse.”

Since 2018, when the annual demonstration against the injustices and discrimination against women began with the first Aurat March, the talk of women’s rights has become a very hot issue.

Some see it as a Western agenda intending to destroy the country’s social fabric and norms, while others support it but disagree with the way its message is conveyed. Zehra has been organising women workers’ rally for the past 12 years. She said that the first time they took to the streets, bomb blasts were a norm across the country, but now they face a different challenge.

“The famous slogan from last year’s Aurat March, ‘Mera Jism, Meri Marzi’ [My Body, My Choice], was maybe so strong that it shook the foundations of the deep-rooted patriarchy in our society. Or it was too crude to be understood by many, including women,” she said, describing that her fellows from North Karachi had had a hard time explaining to people what the goals of their Mehnatkash Aurat Rally were.

“But they did a good job in convincing many that our rally was for women’s wages to be equal to men’s, against more than eight hours of work a day, and for safe and harassment-free working environments.”

She said she supported the issues raised in the Aurat March and recognised their need to be redressed. “Social issues like rape and stereotypes should be raised. Our foremost concern is the economic independence of women, especially of those who work but still don’t get the due rewards.”

Referring to the Sindh Home-Based Women Workers Act 2018, she said the law was yet to be implemented. “Working women have been on the streets for their rights since 1820, but they still have a long way to go.”

When asked if she received some support from society for their 2020 rally, she shared the comments made by different people in appreciation. “A person complimented us by saying that the Sukkur march was for the nationalist struggle; the Frere Hall march was for the liberal struggle, while our KPC [Karachi Press Club] march was for class struggle.”

She said the comment made her feel good because she came from a proletarian family, with her father being a labourer and her mother a home-based worker, while she herself being a proponent of Marxist views, advocating ending class divide in society.

*Current numbers at the time of going to press