Why women march

The hatred for the Aurat March has overshadowed the demands they are making

Article 25 Equality of citizens
(1) All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law.
(2) There shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex.
— Constitution of Pakistan, 1973

To boil it down, this is the right the Aurat March wants enforced – a right that is guaranteed in the Constitution. It is not obscene or haraam. The Aurat March wants this right realised across a broad spectrum of political, social and economic concerns. Let’s identify what this constitutionally guaranteed yet, apparently ‘vulgar’ demand means.

The hatred for the Aurat March has perhaps overshadowed this year’s theme: khud-mukhtaari, which translates into self-determination or autonomy. This entails an end to economic and state violence, to violence against women’s bodies, environmental and reproductive justice, room for inclusivity and non-discrimination, protection of the rights of religious minorities and lastly, the full implementation of democratic rights. These are the demands of the Aurat March; and let’s not forget, these are all legally protected.

Consider, for example, The Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010. Every year, the Punjab Labour Policy reaffirms its stand on gender. It asserts that anti-harassment laws need to be stricter.

A majority of Pakistan’s working female populace works without a contract. Over 60 percent of Pakistan’s informal labour sector comprises of women. Ishrat Ashraf, in 2010 during a parliamentary debate on the 2010 Act, categorically stated that that the intent of this law was to reach out to women from all walks of life, especially women belonging to rural areas. She asserted that this law was intended to protect the “kapaas chunnay waali khaatoon” too so that she could feel just as safe going to work.

It becomes clear that the parliament had always intended for working women, regardless of contractual status, to be covered by the law. However, when the interpretation of this law holds that over 60 percent of Pakistan’s informal labour sector is not protected by this law, if we were to stay quiet instead of pushing for a rethink, are we endorsing injustice? In this case, the manifesto reminds us what Ishrat Ashraf had said in a parliamentary debate.

“We demand safe and dignified workplaces,” reads the manifesto. “The definition of the workplace should be expanded and consequently implemented to encompass formal, informal and semi-formal sectors; including independent and sub-contracts workers with written or other contracts under the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010,” it states.

The Aurat March demands that there should never be an incident like Lower Dir where over 50,000 women were barred from voting through a collusive agreement between the local elected leader and the men of their family. It wants the full implementation of electoral protections. Whose interests is the march serving now?

Women are coming together to protest so that there will never be another Tayyaba, the eight-year-old domestic worker burnt by her employer. It wants the Restriction on Employment of Children Act and the Domestic Workers Act, 2019 to be in force. Who would oppose this?

Women will march against child sexual abuse so that there will never be another Zainab. The manifesto is clear: “We recognise that children are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence. The state should take robust steps to protect them. We demand compulsory education and counselling on consent, ‘good touch/bad touch’, and personal health in all public and private schools.”

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Women will march that there is no Aasia Bibi or Rimsha Masih victimised only for having a different faith. No selling of vulnerable girls for sex work.

“We demand safe and dignified shelters for women, children and sexual and gender minorities across Pakistan. We reject the exploitation and unconscionable detention of women and minors, as at Kashana Shelter in Lahore. We demand that the Punjab Government effectively investigate and prosecute such establishments.”

Women are demanding robust healthcare so that there will never be another Amal. Women are demanding incentives and recognition for their labour. Women are marching so that no man, regardless of class, is able to beat his partner at whim. They are demanding access to justice and an end to forced conversions. They are marching for minimum wage and workplace benefits. They are demanding societal change. And in demanding it, they are also shedding light on patriarchal structures that govern and oppress all members of society.

Then why the hostility?

We need to ask: who is the woman the ‘society’ so venomously wants to antagonise? Is she a wife her husband wants protected at the workplace? Is she a sister her brother wants protected when she is beaten black and blue by her husband? Is she a daughter for whose safety her father worries? Is she the woman in a man’s life whose safety is at stake after 10pm?

We need to ask: who is the woman the ‘society’ so venomously wants to antagonise? 

Or is it the idea that the Constitution we all live under must be selective in its operation? Or are some people more equal than others?

The answer is no. The “enemy” and the women in their homes are not different. They are but the same. That is why we must march. We must march in solidarity with and for our mothers, sisters and daughters. The women marching are not some outsiders. They are holding onto constitutional and legal guarantees that we all agree they are entitled to as citizens, but more importantly, as human beings.

The writer is a lawyer. She tweets at @noorejazch

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