Idara E Taleem o Aagahi
Idara e Taleem o Aagahi

Aurat March

Aurat March

Aurat March- 2020

The streets of Pakistan, from the cultural capitals of Lahore and Karachi to Sukkur, Multan and even Quetta played host on Sunday to Aurat Marches as women as well as men and members of the LGBT community all came together in commemoration of International Women’s Day to demand the rights and equality they do not have.
The manifesto was comprehensive and wide-ranging, addressing issues such as workplace discrimination, domestic violence and child marriage, transgender rights and much more, though what united all who protested was a desire to see a fairer, more equal Pakistan and an end to the overwhelmingly patriarchal nature of society in a country where men largely dominate institutions, the justice system is skewed in favour of men, and women are generally relegated to the sidelines.

The marches all progressed as planned in spite of an intense backlash facing the official organisation as well as anyone who professed support for the march and numerous attempts to stymie efforts for the protests to take place at all by those who see the marches and what they stand for as anathemas to Pakistan and Islam. Marchers and anyone who so much as expressed support faced intense harassment, online trolling and even threats against their lives and well-being, all in the name of ‘traditional values’, seemingly unaware that such harassment essentially proves the protesters point. While most of the marches passed without incident, unfortunately, the march in Islamabad was disrupted when some men decided to throw stones and bricks at protesters in a cowardly display of the exact behaviour that led to the protest in the first place.
There were several points of contention, of which some of the most prevalent included:

1) The idea that the Aurat March is funded by foreign organisations and is trying to introduce foreign or western concepts that go against Pakistani or Islamic values. This ignores the fact that there is a significant Pakistani diaspora around the world that manages to embrace liberal ways of life whilst still maintaining their Pakistani and Islamic values, and that embracing gender equality is in no way ‘un-Islamic’ and also seems to forget that the prophet’s first wife, Khadija, was a successful businesswoman of renown in her own right. ¬†Furthermore, the notion that many of the rights demanded are ‘un-Islamic’ is simply untrue. It is stipulated at various points, that education is compulsory for every Muslim, that both men and women have the right to choose their own spouse if they so desire, that men must lower their gaze toward a woman even is she isn’t wearing hijab and much much more. These are not ‘western’ values any more than ending poverty is a ‘western’ goal, they should be universal.¬† A second criticism, following in a similar vein is that this march comprised only middle class or privileged Pakistanis and is not reflective of the problems faced by the greater population at large. And while it might be true that the make up of the protesters and the organisers were largely middle-class, it was by no means exclusive and in any case, the demands highlighted in the march manifesto affect all women, not just the privileged. Marital rape, domestic violence, skewed divorce laws and every day harassment are not just the preserve of the middle class.

2) The idea that women in Pakistan already have all the rights they need or deserve. This one takes two forms; the first that because crimes such as rape are already illegal, women already have the protection they need which is so demonstrably false that it’s a wonder people say it seriously. When the reaction to the abduction of a young woman is that she deserved it because she was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, it is clear that women do not get what they need out of the justice system and society, not to mention that women in Pakistan routinely get assaulted even when dressed modestly. The second is based on the Islamic notion that men and women are meant to ‘complete’ each other not compete with each other and that a subservient role is ordained for women. And while this is a respectable enough position if it is what women truly want, it is simply unacceptable if it is used to hold back opportunities that women might be seeking, as well as completely denigrating the achievements of a great many inspirational women in the Islamic world including the aforementioned Khadija. In many ways, it is true that Islam has conferred a great number of rights to women, it is just up to those who claim to follow Islam to deliver them.

3) The offence taken by supposed ‘vulgar’ posters and slogans and the idea that the march is just an excuse to promote immorality. This is simply a pretext for these men to seem amenable to the idea of gender equality, but only on their terms which isn’t really equality at all, as well displaying a blinkered view of the aims of the march, picking out one or two slogans and posters that they find objectionable whilst turning a blind eye to the many advocating rights and freedoms that really should be foundational. Furthermore, there are certain issues that may be perceived as vulgar, but need to be discussed anyway; people might get squeamish at the prospect of talking about menstrual health, for example, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that it is a topic that needs to be confronted. In any case, if some people find some of the slogans, such as ‘my body my choice’ to be indecent, as many did, then it only further highlights the need for a shift in attitudes in Pakistani society. The vast majority of those who attended the marches are not advocating for Pakistan to become a hedonistic, immoral society, but one that is fairer, more open and less punishing for a woman to navigate.

4) The idea that the Aurat March is not a movement for women’s equality, but an ‘anti-men’ movement. In reality, this simply shows the fragility at the heart of a great many men’s egos when forced to confront the realities of the society they live in. And whilst it can be true that some of the posters and slogans were disparaging towards men, it is simply reflective of the ways in which men have treated women. The onus shouldn’t be on women to be more civil, rather the onus is on women to be treated in a manner where these protests are no longer necessary. The intense backlash to these demands for long overdue parity just goes to show that when you’re accustomed to superiority, then equality can feel like inferiority.

Though some form of women’s protest has taken place in Pakistan for the past few decades, the past 3 years of organised marches have succeeding in bringing the important issue of women’s rights into the spotlight with discussions in the mainstream media reaching a wider range of people. And while this is undoubtedly a good thing, this greater focus has opened the movement up to an increasingly toxic backlash, showing that much more needs to be done to change attitudes and advance the cause for women’s rights in Pakistan. At the end of the day, very little of what the protesters are campaigning for is earth-shattering, barely any of it should be especially controversial. They are simply campaigning for the rights and opportunities that everyone should have across the world and that are sadly held back by a fiercely patriarchal society.