The mainstream media chose to pick a few slogans as representative of the movement and created certain narratives around it
The International Women’s Day before 2018, when the first Aurat March rally was organised in Karachi, was a depoliticised and therefore a defanged affair, mostly ‘pink celebrations’ of the few women who manage to cut through socio-economic barriers to earn a name for themselves. Celebration is safe after all, confrontation is not. There would be a few newspaper articles critical of women’s progress, and perhaps a few segments on television news bulletins. But pink is not the red for danger.
So how dangerous are the women armed with a manifesto and slogans demanding the right to choice and opportunity on the streets of Pakistan? The answer lies in reactions, which have been magnified on mainstream media and multiplied through social media.
The women and men who march got an answer from Minister for Religious Affairs Noorul Haq Qadri, who says the Aurat March is dangerously provocative. They also got an answer from the Islamabad chapter of the JUI-F that threatened the marchers with violence in 2022. They had earlier got an answer in 2021 with a disinformation campaign on social media and accusations of blasphemy. The marchers in Islamabad had got an answer in 2020 when they were pelted with stones by the participants of a counter-march. They had an answer – and the first whiff of danger – when the mainstream media chose to pick a few slogans as representative of the protest and the movement in 2019.
This is why the Aurat March is considered dangerous: words have mass. Jism versus haya, values versus rights, impact versus controversy. Each of these words weigh heavy and flow in the direction of tightly cherished ideologies. Given how narratives have gained ascendance over fact and balance in mainstream Pakistani television; and talking heads over field reporting, words gain mass. Words trigger and appeal to emotions. Words are easy to use and difficult to handle. Words are dangerous.
The first and a continuing bone of contention is the slogan, Mera Jism, Meri Marzi, a loose translation of My Body, My Choice and indicates a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. The dominant interpretation peddled by several anchors and television hosts has been that the word ‘jism’ implies the Aurat March organisers are calling for sexual freedoms rather than, for instance, a woman’s right to choose how many children she has, perhaps because a woman’s body is predominantly viewed as a sexual object. The word azaadi or ‘freedom’ – a popular chant at the Aurat March – is also seen through a sexual lens.
Several Aurat March organisers and participants have tried to counter this, largely to their frustration. Television audiences love a little drama, to the extent that playwright Khalilur Rehman Qamar and his frothing and foaming interpretation of what women mean became a favourite on the talk show circuit. That is not to say that women haven’t baulked at the idea of using the word ‘jism’; poet Kishwar Naheed who ironically and famously wrote We, The Sinful Women, said protesting women should keep cultural sensitivities in mind.
Television audiences love a little drama, to the extent that drama writer Khalilur Rehman Qamar and his frothing and foaming interpretation of what women mean became a favourite on the talk show circuit.
Tradition and cultural sensitives of course value women that seek protection from existing family and patriarchal structures; that do not challenge these structures – the one word to describe conforming to existing norms is haya (modesty). Of course, Aurat March manifestos have often linked injustice and inequity to patriarchal structures that claim to protect but seem to seek control over women’s choices.
Right-wing groups and commentators argue, for instance, that violence against women should be prevented through modesty or haya – a modest attire and demeanor with the home and family as centre of existence. Indeed, some right-wing political parties have tried to launch counter-marches to Valentine’s Day and the Aurat March, since the latter are seen as linked to Western values and foreign agendas conspiring to undermine family values. A slogan featured prominently at a Jamaat-i-Islami countermarch Haqooq-i-Niswaan was that “women are made to nurture generations, not take to the streets.”
Here lies another site of contestation – protecting values rooted in religion and culture over demanding rights. In one morning show a few years ago, a male and a female host had invited one Aurat March organiser, a businesswoman, and a female Islamic scholar to discuss the march. Both the businesswoman and Islamic scholar were given uninterrupted air-time to question the impact and messages of the march, egged on by the male host, even as the organiser struggled to put her point of view across. A male caller was then given space in the segment and reflected the majority viewpoint of the show: “Women have the right to speak their mind, but there should be boundaries.”
Those boundaries could be religion, culture, tradition and patriotism - depending on which viewpoint is presented. The goalposts for the success or appropriateness keep shifting, the problem could be a slogan or a placard, or even a theatrical performance. What is certain is that the cost of controversy – threats to the organisers, for example – has come with the benefit of impact. Consider how Shahzeb Khanzada interrogated Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri on whether he had read the manifesto of the march.
Conservative or rightwing backlash is nothing new for the women’s rights movement, of course. In the Zakat committee of the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, writes feminist scholar Rubina Saigol, the ulema members refused to sit with Jahanara Shahnawaz and Shaista Ikramullah, demanding burqa-clad women over the age of fifty five. The march of history shows that what appears dangerous today, can become normalised tomorrow.
The writer is director of the Centre for Excellence in Journalism at IBA