Scores of women took out a rally in Islamabad on the occasion of International Women’s Day to demandbasic rights and voice women’s issues. The number of participants in the sixth Aurat March was less than last year. However, the level of resistance from the opponents of the Aurat March idea remained high. At one point some of the policemen mobilised for security duty attacked the participants of the march.
Despite the various hurdles and the violence, the participants were able to startthe march from the National Press Club and reach the D Chowk alive. The presentation of demands, theatre, poetry recitation and singing of songs were carried out at the Chowk.
“I am glad that in the end, we were able to give the message that we are never going to give up space.We can celebrate the courage of Pakistani women at D Chowk, the way we wanted,” said human rights activist Farzana Bari.
“It was a very violent day indeed for us. We were not expecting this but we had no choice but to take a stand and claim our space,” she said. She claimed that there were “planted people” in the march who came prepared to cause unrest.
Threatened by the idea
Some groups had started campaigning against the march several days before the event. Some of the measures taken by the administration to prevent a clash and ensure the security of the participants may have contributed to insecurity, unrest and confusion.
The organisershad applied for a no objection certificate three months ago.They had to waitfor formal approval till March 8. Bari said obtainingthe NOC from the Islamabad police and administration was hard because they were under pressure from some religious groups opposed to the march. These groups had alleged that the march promoted a foreign agendaand defied Islamic teachings.
“They clearly said that they could give us an NOC only if the gathering and the march were confined to a park or somesimilar place. They said a street march would risk a breach of security and threat of violence,” she told TheNews on Sunday.
Bari as well as other organisers said this forced them to revise their plans.
“The police did not give us an NOC in the morning. They had cordoned off the place with barbed wire and placed containers,” said Bari. “Only one path was left unobstructed for the marchers for an hour-long window around noon.That too was blocked later,” she said.
“After that, people were stopped from joining the march. I had to pull a barbed wire with bare hands to clear the path for some of the marchers,” said Bari.
Some of participants stopped from joining the march refused to turn back. This led to scuffles between the police and the marchers. “There was a batoncharge by the police during which I and some volunteers and protestors were injured,” said Bari
Violence at the March
This year, the marchfocused on the theme of intersectionality.The organiserssought the inclusion and representation of groups that bear the brunt of social marginalisation and inequity.
Some members of the transgender community who were trying to cross a police picket were harassed and ridiculed and baton charged. The videos of the incident went viral on social media.Several trans-women sustained injuries in the clash.
This did not entirely stop the members of the transgender community from walking. “I have come to ask for my rights that I have been long denied,” said Babli Malik, a trans-woman.
Speaking of the baton charge by police, she said, “the injuries from the baton charge pale in comparison with the grief and pain that the authorities cause us… These people are afraid of equality and equity in public spaces,” she said.
Pinjarish, one of the organisers, told TheNews on Sunday that a trans-woman was attacked by some men. “She was singing and these men came and began kicking her. We were shocked at the level of trans-phobia,” she said, adding “the mere existence of a woman expressing herself on International Women’s Day was enough to offend the attackers.”
“After this, a mob gathered, and some of the media persons pointed the cameras at our faces,” said Pinjarish. “It was a traumatic and suffocating experience,” she said. “I was too taken aback to respond immediately. I felt as if we will be strangled by the mob,” she said.
“During this episode, some of the media people were so close to us that we started screaming at them to back off. Instead of doing that, they shouted at us, beat up volunteers and told us that they were boycotting the event,” she said.
some members of the media late claimed that they were injured in this altercation.
Activist Tahira Abdullah strongly condemned “the initial obstruction and subsequent violent tactics employed by the Islamabad administration and police against the peaceful, unarmed participants of Aurat March who were only exercising their constitutional right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”
“There appears to be not an iota of difference in official anti-women tactics and baseless antagonism against Aurat March; between the PTI government of Imran Khan and the current ‘progressive’ coalition, which today seems to have forgotten the legacy of its woman PM Shaheed Benazir Bhutto,” she said.
“Why are the PPP co-chairs silent today?Where is Prime MinisterShahbaz Sharif? Where is the Interior Minister RanaSanaullah, without whose approval the ICT law enforcement cannot take such violent actions?” she said.
Tahira Abdullah demanded an urgent, open and transparent inquiry by respected retired police officials, judges and civil society representatives, including rights activists, and senior media persons.
The protest was also joined by Minister for Climate Change Sherry Rehman.However, she left early after talking to the media. She condemned the mishandling of the marchby the police and said that the administration should have decided the routefor the march beforehand. Interior Minister RanaSanaullah extended an apology for mishandling by the police and suspended some policemen from service.
The theme of the year
This year’s Aurat March-Islamabad was focused on the feminisation of climate justice; the provision of economic justice; universal access to health and education; and eliminating violence against womenand other minorities.
The organiaersissued a list of 60 demands, including increased representation of women at all levels of decision-making concerning climate change; a reduction in the defence budget and increased allocations for health and education. The demands also included raising minimum wage allocations and moving away from anti-poor policies.
The organisers said the decision to focus on the “feminisation of climate justice” was taken in the aftermath of the floods that resulted in more than 1,100 deaths and destruction of and damage to one million homes. They said the specific impact on women and young girls had been largely ignored in the mainstream discourse.
They said key demands included bringing an end to period poverty, ensuring economic justice and budgetary allocations for universal childcare in all formal work places and formalisation of informal sector/market.
The participants chanted slogans against patriarchy and for climate justice.
This was not the first time an Aurat March was attacked in Islamabad. In 2020, some people, apparently from amongst the participants of counter-protest had thrown stones at the marching women. This was, however, the first time uniformed police were among the assailants.
Myra Imran is a reporter for The News International
MuneebaHafeez is an activist and student at Quaid-i-Azam University. She tweets @NainTara