Pressing on

March 5, 2023

Aurat March has succeeded in generating public discussion on women’s rights

Pressing on


very year, the Aurat March sees a string of controversies. As the demonstration is held on the International Women’s Day each year, some of its opponents claim that the activity is based on Western agenda and has the potential to destroy the social fabric of the Pakistani society.

From posters and slogans to theatrical performances, dances, and how the participants express themselves and what they wear – every aspect of the march gets criticised, particularly on social media. Counter rallies are held the same day in some cities close to the venue where Aurat March is being organised.

In Islamabad, five groups representing various approaches gathered at different spots around the National Press Club last year. One of these supported the Aurat March while the others rejected it as ‘Western’ ideology. The roads leading to D Chowk, where the march was to culminate, were blocked with containers and cordoned off with barbed wire.

“We are not afraid of anyone. It is our right to live and protest freely. We will hold this March every year at the same place,” said activist Tahira Abdullah.

A few hundred metres away, students from Jamia Hafsa had put up a show of force. Their leader, Umme Hassaan, was in complete disagreement with the slogans being chanted at the Aurat March last year. “The city administration always stops us from gathering in front of the NPC. Why do they allow Aurat March there? Islam gives equal rights to women. We reject the ideology of Western women. We will never let them succeed,” she said.

The situation had become tense last year when Aurat March and Haya Rally of the Jamaat-i-Islami came face to face at Super Market. Rallies organised by Jamia Hafsa and the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam ended at the NPC. In the end, the Aurat March was diverted towards D Chowk. In 2021, stones had been thrown at the Aurat March participants by some people in a rally organised jointly by the JI and the JUI. Some of the Aurat March participants had been injured.

Every year, the administration warns the coordinators of the Aurat March of possible threats to their security. Last year, the March was split into two demonstrations. One was held in the form of a jalsa organised on March 6 in the F9 Park under the banner of Aurat Azadi March. The other, Aurat March-Islamabad, was a gathering in front of the NPC on March 8.

This year, too, there will be two events in Islamabad. The Karachi organisers have also changed the date to March 12. In an official statement, the organisers said that as International Women’s Day would fall on a weekday this year, Aurat March-Karachi had decided to reschedule it to March 12, a Sunday, in order to accommodate working women.

Despite the opposition, Aurat March has succeeded in generating discussion on women’s rights.

“Over the past five years, because of Aurat March and Aurat Azadi March, the feminist narrative including questions of oppression faced by not only women but also people from persecuted religious minorities, trans-genders and the working class, have become central to the political discourse and at the societal level,” says Anum Rathor, one of the coordinators for the Aurat Azadi March in Islamabad. “People are now speaking up for their rights and against the violent patriarchy. They are becoming aware of their constitutional rights,” she adds.

Rathor doesn’t agree that other groups that gather in front of the NPC on the same day are also demanding rights for women. “Those are counter marches with anti-feminist rhetoric aimed at defaming or scaring us. They engineer harassment, defamation and disinformation campaigns against the organisers and participants [of Aurat Azadi March] months before the march and which continues after the march.”

“Before the march, we organise mobilisation activities in katchi abadis. There have been announcements in some katchi abadis asking people not to talk to us. Transporters were approached and asked not to provide us vehicles for the march. They threw stones at us. There were online campaigns where men were being told to go to these marches and molest and harass us. Several women were molested and harassed. There was a campaign against the organisers. We faced false accusations of treason and blasphemy.”

Rathor says that they had decided to hold a jalsa and change the date partially because of the threats but mainly because they wanted to organise the gathering on a weekend so that more working women and vulnerable citizens could join the discussion around issues that concern them.

Farzana Bari, a human rights activist and organiser of Aurat March Islamabad, says that threats to Aurat March are real. “Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the administration to provide protection to the marchers.” This year, she says, they applied for a no-objection certificate for their march three months ago. An approval is awaited. “If the administration wants to give an NOC to any other group that plans to organise a march, they are free to do so but the venue [for a second march] should not be the same.”

Bari says the controversies around slogans raised and placards carried to the march are productive. “These controversies show that there is an ideological divide in the society. There are people who believe that women are equal human beings and there are others who think that men are superior and women should live according to the roles defined by them.”

“Slogans like ‘Mera jism meri marzi,’ ‘Apna khana khud garam ker lo,’ ‘I am divorced and happy’ depict resistance against these societal roles. Of course, these created anxiety among those who view women as subordinates.”

Bari says that once highlighted on mainstream media, these slogans provided an opportunity to those who came up with them to explain why it was important that women have control over their bodies? “We were able to link it with the issues of rape, child marriage and forced marriage etc. I don’t think that this controversy has damaged the movement. It actually helped create awareness.”

Naeem Mirza, executive director of the Aurat Foundation, says that the Women’s Day celebrations have been a regular activity for years, all over Pakistan. “But in 2018, in major cities of the country, it turned into a volcanic eruption of sentiments against callousness and neglect by the state towards women’s problems.”

“The earlier rallies had been a ritual,” he says. “But the march touched the hearts and minds of many girls and women. They became conscious that the country belonged to them; that their bodies belonged to them; and that no one had the right to assault, trample or control it. This sentiment became a force.”

The writer is a reporter for The News International

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