Propriety and protest

The current backlash over Aurat March makes one thing clear: it is when women start stockpiling for themselves that the guardians of public morality start getting nervous

Propriety and protest

Women’s assemblies are admired if they are for the pietist practices of dars and prayers, or devoted to charitable or humanitarian causes, or as dharnas that deify a political leader.

Women’s services are commendable if they are for the nation’s development, children’s education and maternal health.

Women’s political activity is tolerable if it is for casting votes, petitioning for minimum wages, filling quotas for public services, and even perhaps, demanding protection from gratuitous violence.

But when women start stockpiling for themselves -- for running marathons, attending funerals, cycling on the streets or to protest domestic or state discrimination -- this makes the guardians of public morality very nervous. If protesting women throw sexual equality into the equation or start discussing secular rights, then all hell breaks loose, and these indecent fitnas must be pushed back into religio-cultural appropriate chadors and chardewaris.

After 1910, when socialist, Clara Zetkin proposed honoring the protests of women workers, it led to the recognition of 8th March as International Women’s Day. This is celebrated globally to mark women’s solidarity and to affirm the commonality of feminist concerns.

In Pakistan, Women’s Day became predominantly an NGO-led event and more recently, the venue had shifted to inaccessible hotels with limited participation. These events started to become staid, celebratory, cake-cutting events with government representatives, instead of public protests that challenged governance failure to deliver women’s rights, or discriminatory policies or indeed, about patriarchy in our households.

So, last year, when the Aurat March in Pakistan decided to reclaim the commons and include sexual politics into the Women’s Day celebration, it threw many off-guard. Many men were expressly offended by the provocative and taunting slogans and posters that floated in the Aurat March.

Soon after this event, I spoke on feminism around several universities across Pakistan and was repeatedly asked (by men) about the inappropriateness of the slogan: ‘mera jism, meri marzi’. I sympathised with their concern and offered to call the organisers immediately to ask them to change the slogan to mera jism, aap kee marzi. Irony is a device to convey a message - often in an irreverent or humorous way – in order to expose the absurdity of what is considered conventional wisdom.

Women activists too, especially those who work in communities, worry about the inclusion of the theme of sexual freedoms in Pakistani feminism. They fear that such a fast-paced controversial feminist ‘wave’ may ‘damage’ their long historic struggle to make women’s rights a credible and serious politics in Pakistan. They worry this may discredit feminism as an exclusively bra-burning or LGBTQI movement and detract from its overarching political demands for transformative changes and the equal and indivisible rights for women, marginalised classes, ethnic and religious minorities and across sexual identities, and which support provincial autonomy and civilian supremacy.

There will always be objections and criticism of any political movement - much more so when it is led by women for women. The backlash to the Aurat March is a valuable if crude reminder of the difficulties that previous generations faced when they organised resistance, documented and theorised, or laboured in daily, weekly, institutional, funded and non-funded creative ways for decades.

But rights are not neatly divided into a hierarchical or historical list to be checked off, step by step. Rights are also not mutually exclusive. Feminists too, are not a homogenous category but are influenced by their own generational and contextual experiences. They prioritise their politics accordingly.

The 2019 Aurat March has been larger, more intersectional, and more geographically spread than its debut last year. Apparently, the moral injuries that several (male) survivors had suffered from the slings and slogans of 2018 had not yet healed. So, this year, when the participants of Aurat March unleashed their new and improved WMDs (Words of Mass Destruction), the backlash was to be expected.

What is a protest march? A protest is an objection to injustice and a march is a demonstration of collective dissent. It is not a gentle, cautious stroll, polite drawing room chatter, or a study circle. Dissent is the opposite of appeasement, so those who object that the Aurat March slogans offend the religio-cultural status quo and are too radical or drastic, are missing the point of feminist protest and are at the wrong address. What they want will be found at the Jamaat-e-Islami Women’s Day event, with its conformist themes that situate Muslim womanhood within a masculinist framing of ‘family values, society and nation’.

Whether planned or spontaneous, to be effective, the slogans of a protest need to be sharp and political. By definition, and unlike other forms of protest (online, academic, opeds, social media, boycotts or legal), a street march is performative and has to broadcast its message briefly and memorably. Demonstrations are not the end of the process - they can be a kick-start, a reconvening, or just the testing of boundaries.

The official demands of the Aurat March include a substantial list of socio-economic, legal and political rights. A majority of posters and demands in Hyderabad, Karachi, Islamabad, Faisalabad, Lahore, Peshawar and even Hunza focused on economic inequalities, violence against women, enforced disappearances, evictions of street hawkers among other gendered concerns. The Hyderabad march had some 5,000 women, including a majority of working classes protesting for land rights, upholding the 18th Amendment, transportation etc., as did other cities that demanded a variety of material-based rights.

However, since conservative anxieties are fixated on women, sex and religion, their homing devices found some posters offensive. These messages demanded that men stop sexting women pictures of their genitalia (sexual harassment); to cook their own food and be responsible for domestic work (breaking gender stereotypes); to respect consent to sex even in marriage and; which exposed double standards where men’s conduct is not judged as vulgar or inappropriate but if women behave in similar ways, they are considered indecent and sexual deviants.


Let’s decode the ‘controversial’ theme of sex at the Aurat March.

There is a myth that sexual rights are not a fundamental need or working-class or ‘rural’ women’s concerns -- that sex is an elite issue. This is patently incorrect and a patronising view that assumes working-class women only engage in sex for reproduction while elite classes want to turn Pakistan into a ‘free sex zone’ (as the Chaudhrys of Punjab feared when the discriminatory Zina law was being reformed in 2006). It is as limited as the critique that elite women subscribe to repressed sexual values. These are inaccurate, casual and unverified assumptions about class attitudes towards sex.

Pakistan hosts a wide spectrum of state shelters, legal aid organisations and faith-based charities that deal with cases of sexual violence on a daily basis. It means sexual violations are routine. Domestic violence is rampant across Pakistan as acknowledged in government statistics and this includes marital rape and incest.

How is sexual autonomy or rights not a fundamental cross-class issue then, and why would working-class women not be invested in sexual freedoms and choice when violence is directly related to the lack of these?

Another anxiety is that sexual rights should not be privileged over economic issues. Where do we think the historic justification for women’s lower wages or unpaid care or home-based work emerges from? It is the notion that women are the ‘weaker sex’ and that it is their biological inferiority or natural order to nurture and that women’s labour is supplementary, not of equal value to that of men.

The reasoning for economic inequalities is that women are provided social/sexual protection (from other men) as barter for their unpaid domestic and reproductive labour. This also reinforces gender stereotyping of women’s vulnerability. Do we ever stop to consider who women are vulnerable to? Women are penalised for getting pregnant or taking maternity leave or juggling motherhood. Women are even excluded from places of worship or leading congregations because they menstruate.

Why is there no outrage over the policy that excludes women from temples and mosques because of their biologies but lots of indignation if women demand the removal of taxes on sanitary napkins? All these issues are linked to bodies, sexuality and male fetishisation of these. Sexual rights have to be taken seriously as linked to most other rights.

When we disguise sexual rights as ‘reproductive health’, or when sex education is masqueraded as ‘life skills’ education, we are stigmatising sex. When we use sexual behaviour as an indicator of immaterial values such as, ‘culture’, ‘vulgarity’, ‘appropriateness’, ‘respect’, ‘reputation’, we are creating false associations. When we judge sexuality based on sartorial choices, we are encouraging disguise and false consciousness. When we try to engage with scriptural justifications so as to not ‘offend’ religious sentiment, we are bargaining with patriarchy. Protest for equality and against any form of discrimination should not need any such justification.

On the other hand, there is a valid observation about a reverse trend where personal agency is being privileged over political causes. The fetishisation of individualised sexual freedoms as disconnected from the above-cited material base of feminist politics is a worry. This is not because personal rights are not women’s rights -- they are -- but on their own, they are not feminist enough and they feed into a neoliberal logic that privatises rights and limits the potential of large-scale revolutionary change.

There is also genuine concern about the limitations of online activism that focuses on gender social relations more than on state and institutional discrimination. Since feminism is not a monolith, the range of views, priorities, goals, purposes, methods, routes and expressions will never be identical, and neither will the forms, nature or targets of their protest.

It would benefit the feminist movement greatly if the strategic worth of solidarity and awareness campaigns, as enabled by social media and the Aurat Marches, were to strengthen the existing direct-action movements that are routinely involved in painstaking fact-finding, collectivism, and which are directed at state recourse. This is already happening.


In the 1990s, it was controversial just to use the term ‘feminism’ - now a younger generation is exposed to gender studies and is familiar with feminist theory, jargon and ‘discourse’ but many tend to use these in a self-contradictory manner. For example, ‘liberal feminism’ has been weaponised and turned into a slur by conservative opponents but it’s also been belittled as a compromised form of feminism by those who want to lay claims to a more ‘radical feminist’ identity. This paradoxical twist has made these critics strange bedfellows. Ironically, the anti-feminist critics of Aurat March have sneered at and in fact, attributed its radical politics to be the work of ‘liberal’ and ‘burger’ feminists.

There will always be objections and criticism of any political movement - much more so when it is led by women for women. The backlash to the Aurat March is a valuable if crude reminder of the difficulties that previous generations faced when they organised resistance, documented and theorised, or laboured in daily, weekly, institutional, funded and non-funded creative ways for decades. Reflection and reassessment is part of feminism’s ethos and self-critique is essential, provided it reviews the political content rather than simply vilifying the organisation/activist/author.

Social media has changed the landscape for activism. It has not just democratised communication, it has also amplified cynicism, disinformation and hate. Most of all, it has encouraged tribalism even amongst feminists.

Personalised criticism, suspicion, gossip, vilification of other women and their omissions, rather than citing the errors of their politics by reading or quoting their work or texts, has become a perverse form of shorthand social media point-scoring. Competitive online promotions of some friends as feminist leaders or achievers is a masculinist corporatised exercise that only serves to exclude and is counter-productive to the whole principle of non-hierarchical, leaderless feminism. The role of men who join some feminists to broadcast online opinions about other Pakistani feminists is a form of politics that has no codes or parameters and should be a cause of concern to such in-groups.

When online collectives become ghettoised and self-referential and encourage aloofness from other feminists and rights groups, they risk fragmenting an already besieged feminist or left movement. Blogs, beautifully written story-telling, and online catharsis and venting do not replace peer-reviewed feminist accountability. Individual posts and online strategies do not carry valuable, long-term worth in comparison with in-person, collective decision-making and dialectical knowledge-production or action.

The migration of Aurat March from online to offline street politics has amplified the anxiety of the gatekeepers of patriarchy. This is how critical mass gathers and starts to spill over in multiple forums. As younger feminists experiment with expanding political boundaries, the more experienced activists should be building bridges to these new frontiers for strengthening the historic achievements of feminist politics in Pakistan and making it even more inclusive and potent than before.

Also read: What made Aurat March possible?

As the Aurat Marches graduate to courtrooms, legislatures, public offices, corporations, and union councils -- and they must -- then more backlash in the name of culture and religion can be expected. In an Islamic Republic, sexual transgressions interrupt the Islamic gendered order -- there’s no denying this. Supporters of feminist movements will have to be prepared for the abuse and even photoshopped counterattacks by insecure men who cannot bear that their privilege is being challenged by mere words on a poster.

In the face of such a backlash, are women activists going to retreat, or are they going to engage and negotiate with the cultural and religious context, or will they unapologetically keep pushing the boundaries of patriarchal propriety? The posters they carry next time will partially answer that. Watch that space.