A sign during the 2019 march saying Lo Beth Gayi Sahi Se ("Sit like a man")
A sign during the 2019 march saying Lo Beth Gayi Sahi Se ("Sit like a man")

The Aurat March (Urdu: عورت مارچ or عورت احتجاج, English: Women's March) is an annual socio-political demonstration in Pakistani cities such as Lahore, Hyderabad, Sukkur, Karachi, Islamabad and Peshawar to observe International Women's Day.[1]

The first Aurat Marches were begun by women's collectives in parallel with the Pakistani #MeToo movement on International Women's Day.[2][3][4] The first march was held on 8 March 2018 in Karachi.[5] Marches were organized in 2019 in Lahore and Karachi by Hum Auratein (We the Women, a women's collective) and elsewhere in the country, including Islamabad, Hyderabad, Sukkur, Quetta, Mardan, and Faislabad, by Women Democratic Front (WDF), Women Action Forum (WAF), and other groups.[5] The march was endorsed by the Lady Health Workers Association and included representatives of a number of women's-rights organizations.[6][7]

The march calls for greater accountability for violence against women and supports women who experience violence and harassment at the hands of security forces, in public spaces, at home, and in the workplace.[8] Women and men carry posters with slogans such as Ghar ka Kaam, Sab ka Kaam ("Housework is everyone's work"), and Mera Jism Meri Marzi ("My body, my choice") became a rallying cry.[9]

Manifesto

The march manifesto demands economic justice, including implementation of labor rights and the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010, recognition of women's unpaid contributions to the "care economy", and provision of maternity leave and daycare centers to ensure women's inclusion in the labor force. It also demands access to safe air and drinking water, protection of animals and wildlife, recognition of women's participation in the production of food and cash crops, access to a fair judicial system, the inclusion of women with disabilities and the transgender community, reproductive justice, access to public spaces, inclusion in educational institutions, the rights of religious minorities, promotion of an anti-war agenda, and an end to police brutality and forced disappearances.[8]

Themes

According to Zuneera Shah, the etymology of the word aurat is misogynistic and it has controversial roots in Arabic. Due to this, many Indian, Iranian, and Arab feminists find the word problematic.[10] Western dominance of feminism has encouraged a dislike of the movement in countries such as Pakistan. Localization of the struggle for women's rights is important to South Asian activists relating to the feminist movement.[11] Shah says that with the Aurat March, concepts such as pidar shahi (patriarchy) are receiving a wider circulation.[11]

The theme of the 2018 march was "Equality", and the theme of the 2019 march was "Sisterhood and Solidarity".[8] According to Nighat Dad, "The agenda of this march was to demand resources and dignity for women, for the transgender community, for religious minorities and those on the economic margins but more importantly to acknowledge that women’s emancipation is inherently linked with the improvement of all mistreated groups and minorities".[This quote needs a citation] The themes of the 2020 march were khudmukhtari (autonomy) and violence, sexual and economic.[12]

2018 and 2019 marches

Marchers in 2019
Marchers in 2019

Hundreds of signs at the march highlighted fundamental rights such as access to education and employment.[13] "Mera Jism Meri Marzi" (My body, my choice) became the best-known slogan of the march.[14] Other slogans included "Why are you afraid of my self-determination?", "A woman's right to autonomy over her own body", and "In fact, everyone should get to decide for themselves what happens to their body".[15] Slogans in the 2018 march included "Our rights are not up for grabs and neither are we", "Girls just wanna have fundamental human rights", "Transwomen are women; shut up!", "Tu kare tou Stud, Mai Karun tou slut" ("If you do it you're a stud, but if I do it I'm a slut"), "Safe-street program for women", "Stop being menstrual-phobic", "Consent ki Tasbeeh Rozana Parhen" ("Ask for consent every time") and "Paratha rolls, not gender roles".[16][17]

In March 2019, signs appeared saying "Jab tak aurat tang rahay gi, jang rahay gi, jang rahay gi" ("Men of quality will never be afraid of equality")[18] and "Keep your dick pics to yourself". Another had a drawing of a vagina and two ovaries with the slogan, "Grow a pair!" Other signs read, "If you like the headscarf so much, tie it around your eyes"; a girl sitting with her legs spread and "Lo Beth Gayi Sahi Se" ("Sit like a man"),[19] and "Nazar teri gandi aur purdah mein keroun" ("Why must I wear a veil to keep you from ogling?") "Aaj waqai maa behn ek ho rahi hai"[20] depicts all women coming together without differences. One sign said that perhaps because women are no longer tawaifs, some consider every independent woman one. Others read, "My shirt is not short, it's your mindset that is narrow" and "Oh, I am sorry. Does this hurt your male ego?"[21] "These are my streets too" claimed public spaces.

In her article, Ailia Zehra analyzes a sign reading: "If Cynthia does it, she’s applauded. If I do it, I’m the villain." (Cynthia D. Ritchie – an American living in Pakistan – tweeted a photo of herself on a bicycle to encourage women to use public spaces, unaware of her perceived privileged status as a white woman.[22]

Nighat Dad, who organized the women's march in Lahore, said that people were angry about the posters because most Pakistanis – especially men – were not yet ready to allow the marchers freedom of choice. Dad said that topics such as women's sexuality and their rights to their own bodies are being discussed for the first time because of the march, but "Online harassment has gone too far in terms of death and rape threats to the organizers and also to the marchers."[23][24] According to Nisha Susan, the slogan "Lo Baith Gayi Theek Se" ("See, I'm sitting properly now") is not about woman-spreading but is an opposition to the constant policing of women's bodies.[19][25]

Opponents called the marchers "vulgar" opportunists who had transgressed conservative Pakistani values and replaced a struggle for rights with an anti-Islamic agenda.[13][26] Feminist writer Sadia Khatri describes the narrative in an article, saying that posters advocating education, inheritance, and marital rights receive less attention. Feminism based on respectability is not feminism, and gatekeeping encourages oppression.[27]

In the article "Womansplaining the Aurat March: Dear men, here’s why Pakistan’s women are asserting their rights", Rimmel Mohydin tells men to "smile, you'll look prettier that way."[28] Mohydin notes that women are the subject of sexist jokes, but are considered offensive if they make sexist jokes: "Every wisecrack, every sassy one-liner, every appealing slogan masked years and years of invisible pain that women have suffered".[28] A woman can tell a man that she won't warm his bed if he doesn't warm his own food, but what upsets men is that she could laugh at his expense.[28] Mohydin writes, "It is difficult to know where to place your feet when you find that the backs that you have been walking on are now standing up. That's why the author's compassion is with misogynist politicians." Referring poster slogan "Keep your dick pics to yourself ... What seems to have affronted the male collective the most is the shattering of a fantasy world where women enjoy being subjected to unsolicited pictures of male genitals ... Nobody seems to say anything to the sender, but the reluctant receiver is apparently the problem. Either she likes it (which, to them, makes her a 'slut') or she doesn't (which offends them). So as usual, women cannot win ... Are they upset at the loss of this opportunity to titillate women with their phallus? Why are they all shrivelling up? Have protesting women given them performance anxiety? ... The placards were a mirror and instead of taking this moment as an opportunity to introspect, they have decided to beat their chest instead. Not their slain bodies, not their acid-burnt faces, not their immobility, not their lack of representation, not the dearth of affordable housing, not the moral policing their choices and bodies are subjected to, not the denial of female education, not the constant threat of sexual harassment and onslaught, not the social structures that cut women’s potential in half, not the exploitation, not the objectification, not the fact that for many, women are still not human".[28]

The 2019 March was followed by mass cyberbullying against attendees of the March. Slogans on placards brought by attendees to the March were doctored and replaced with controversial statements to malign the movement and its aims. According to an article by Zuneera Shah, many attendees went through considerable cyberharrassment after the March, to the extent of receiving violent threats inciting violence and rape against attendees. One Marcher's face and placard were also featured without their consent on national television during a segment defaming Aurat March which aired on HumTV, one of the leading national television channels.[29] An organizer of Aurat March Lahore added, "No amount of backlash can take away the magic that happens on that day. It fuels us all for the entire year."[30]

Film star Shaan Shahid tweeted that the posters did not represent Pakistani culture or values. Shahid was criticized for his films, which sexualize women and reduce them to props emphasizing his character's masculinity, and defended his position as freedom of expression.[31] Actress Veena Malik was criticized for tweeting that the march had "brought humiliation to [the] women of Pakistan."[32] Poet Kishwar Naheedsaid in a video, "The next time you make such slogans, remember your culture, your traditions."[33]

Guardian journalist Mehreen Zahra-Malik called some of the backlash frightening; a film student reported that a group of boys sexually harassed her 16-year-old sister online and threatened to rape her for posting support for the march on Instagram. Nighat Dad, photographed with a sign reading "Divorced And Happy", was sexually harassed and threatened with sexual violence. Women participating in the march received threats of physical and sexual violence from social-media users after posting photographs of the posters. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, about 500 women per year are the victims of honour killings.[34]

On March 20, 2019, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly protested against the Aurat March. Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal legislator Rehana Ismail presented a resolution saying that women participating in the march were holding "obscene" placards and calling the marchers' demands for female empowerment "un-Islamic and shameful." After lukewarm opposition, the resolution passed unanimously.[35]

One popular poster called for men to warm their own food; another asked them to find their own socks. A third read, "I'll warm your food but you warm your own bed." Nida Kirmani, a feminist sociologist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, said that such posters received the harshest reactions because they challenged power in a household. In a New York Times article, Mohammed Hanif said that men in Pakistan who claim to protect women actually guard their own interests; Hanif did not understand how women holding signs could be seen as a threat to the national moral order.[36] According to newspaper editor Sabahat Zakariya, the slogans trigger masculine anxiety.[34]

Social-media hashtags

A social-media hashtag of the 2018 march was #KhaanaKhudGaramKarLo (#Heat your own meal). #WhyIMarch was a hashtag for the 2019 march,[37] with many celebrities, human-rights activists and others sharing their stories with the hashtags #HumAurtein #auratmarch #AuratMarch2019 #JaggaDein. Before the 2020 march, the hashtags #AuratMarch2020 and #MeraJismMeriMarzi appeared on social media.

2020 march

Men joined the 2020 march  outside the Lahore Press Club.
Men joined the 2020 march outside the Lahore Press Club.

The 2020 Aurat March was held on March 8 Karachi, Hyderabad, Lahore and Quetta, and the Aurat Azadi March was held in Islamabad, Sukkur and Multan.[38][39][40][41][42][43][44][45][46]

Lahore

Artist Shehzil Malik began collecting poster-design submissions on March 8.[47] Participants in the march created a mural of posters submitted by volunteers in Lahore's Hussain Chowk, which was destroyed within hours.[48][49][50] Janita Tahir said that march participants were being threatened by conservative men, and the threats needed to be taken seriously.[51][52]

A petition was filed in the Lahore High Court by the Judicial Activism Council chairman to stop the march, saying that it was "against the very norms of Islam".[53] The petition was rejected by the court's chief justice, who emphasized that freedom of expression could not be banned.[54][55]

Marchers gathered outside the Press Club and walked along Egerton Road to Aiwan-e-Iqbal. Participants had a number of placards. Despite a social-media storm before the march, many men were present in support. Participants delivered speeches and held placards and banners displaying slogans decrying gender-based violence, misogyny and patriarchy. A resolution was submitted to the Punjab Assembly by Kanwal Liaquat (MPA-PMLN) demanding an end to all forms of gender discrimination and condemning underage marriage.[56]

Quetta

The Quetta march, which began and ended at the Quetta Press Club, was organized by the Women's Alliance.[57][58] In addition to social-discrimination issues, the secret installation of cameras in University of Balochistan washrooms and student meeting areas the previous year was highlighted.[59][60][61]

Performance piece and song

"Tum ho rapist", an Urdu version of "A Rapist in Your Path" revised to reflect the Pakistani experience, was performed.[62][63] Canadian-Pakistani singer Sophia Jamil (also known as Fifi) released her song, "Mera Jism Meri Marzi" ("My Body, My Choice"), on YouTube.[64][65][66]

Reaction

Sarah Khan on feminism

"Keep man and woman at the place which is designated by Allah ... Don’t teach your daughters to do [the] Aurat March; educate your sons ... men should have equal rights too."

Sarah Khan[67]

The march was again criticized, particularly for its slogans (Mera Jism Meri Marzi in particular), but supporters pointed out the double standard in Pakistani society.[68] Pro- and anti-march sentiments were exchanged in mainstream media,[69] and social media followed suit.[70] #فحاشی_مارچ_نامنظور ("unacceptable, vulgar march") was circulated by a small number of conservative groups, including groups affiliated with the ultra-conservative Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan opposed to the march.[71] In April 2019, cleric Jawad Naqvi had called march organizers "the most evil of all women".[72]

Hareem Shah on Aurat March slogans

"..Feminists .. say things like 'Khana Khud Garam Karlo' if you don't want to serve your husband, then you should not get married because your husband is like your God.."

Hareem Shah (Social media influencer) [73]

Faiqa Mansab on backlash

"..Aurat March..demands were basic..safety..health care..resulted in backlash from Pakistan Taliban..what scares me most is the hidden Taliban in every household.."

Faiqa Mansab (Feminist author) [74]

Controversy increased before the 2020 march. Ultra-conservatives maintained Islam is already a feminist religion and instead of making additional demands, Muslim women needed to return to a more-modest culture. A haya (modesty) march was organized with the slogan "Our bodies, Allah's choice".[68] Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League party (PML-N) did not publicly oppose the Aurat March, but cautioned marchers not to violate Islamic cultural markers. Prime Minister Imran Khan's government, ruled by his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (which had yielded to ultra-conservative pressure a month earlier, opposing an Islamabad march), formally supported the march but equated its slogans with national honor. After the march, Khan criticized the inequity of the Pakistani educational system.[75]

The left-of-center Pakistan Peoples Party was more welcoming of the march. PPP Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar accused Khan and his party of considering the ultra-conservative, PML-N and PTI positions a de facto anti-woman alliance. The PPP supported the march unconditionally.[68][76] Janita Tahir said that Aurat March participants were asking why Khan, a vocal proponent of international human rights, is relatively silent about the half of the Pakistani population which is in a weaker position[51] In her article, Farzana Rasheed asked why Islamic republicanism and freedom are mutually exclusive. Rasheed noted the Khan-conservative alliance's inconsistency in condoning extremist violence while claiming to be a democratic, peaceful nation.[70]

According to Sohail Akbar Warraich, Pakistan's right-wing press aggressively examines the Aurat March for LGBTQ-friendly and pro-choice elements; "not in line with Pakistan's Islamic social fabric" and being "obscene and vulgar", are common conservative dog whistles.[77] Warraich wrote that early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the religious right was in retreat; that phase was short-lived, however, and the government has resumed pressuring women's NGOs (as it had done since the Aurat Marches began).[77]

Posters and slogans 2020

The 2020 march's slogans included "Saying 'Mashallah' does not make your harassment halal",[78][79] "Domestic violence kills more than corona", "I march so one day my daughters won't have to", "Imagine not loving the women in your life enough to advocate for their rights".[79][80] Men held signs saying, "I am surrounded by the opposite gender and I feel safe. I want the same for them", "Proud husband of a feminist, proud father of a feminist, proud feminist", and "I will be a proud jorru ka Ghulam". Jorru ka Ghulam ("wife's slave") is a pejorative term for a caring husband.[79][80]

2021 march

The organizers of the Lahore march decided on "Women’s Health Crisis" as its theme to draw attention to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Pakistani women, and selected a poster by Shehzil Malik depicting the health concerns of women due to their environment.[81][82] The Karachi march organizers staged a sit-in at Frere Hall, with opposition to patriarchal violence its main theme. A manifesto demanded an end of the two-finger test and more female and transgender representation on hospital medico-legal teams.[82] An Aurat Foundation report said that despite continued under-reporting of violence against women and girls, reported cases from 25 Pakistani districts increased to 2,297 in 2020 (during the pandemic).[83] Fifty-seven percent of the cases were in Punjab, and 27 percent were in Sindh. The reported crimes included honor killings, murder, rape, suicide, acid-burning, kidnapping, child and forced marriage, dowries and inheritance.[83] According to Shehzil Malik, Pakistan has Asia's highest rate of breast cancer and 52 percent of women of reproductive age are anemic. The march posters were intended to initiate conversations about a pandemic of toxic patriarchal norms, and the health metaphor highlighted the anguish of structural sexism and exploitation in Pakistani society – a patriarchal society which prioritizes profit over care for Pakistani women face.[81]

Conservatives led by the president of a local trade group in Mardan (a township in the Peshawar region) held a counter-protest before the Aurat March.[84] Firdous Ashiq Awan, special assistant to the chief minister of Punjab, said that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government wants to build a society with gender equality and women's rights in line with Islamic principles and values.[85]

On March 8 in Lahore, women wrote their experiences of harassment and discrimination on a "#MeToo blanket"; women in Karachi displayed their laundry, with instances of harassment and discrimination written on them. That year's placards were devoted to gender-based violence, sexual harassment, rape, and female infanticide.[86] #PatriarchykaPandemic (Pandemic of Patriarchy) was a new social-media hashtag.[87] Motivational songs such as "Kurye meray des diye" were performed at the Lahore march and shared on social media.[87] Women in Karachi protested with slogans such as "Jab tak aurat tang rahegi, jang rahegi jang rahegi" ("The struggle will continue until women rise up").[88]

Some slogans evoked popular Bollywood music. One, "Tere liye hee tou signal tor taar ke aaya toxic masculinity chhor chhaar ke" ("I jumped all the red lights for you and gave up my toxic masculinity"), was based on the Hindi song lyric "Tere liye hee tou signal tor taar ke aaya Dilli wali girlfriend chhor chhaar ke" ("I jumped all the red lights for you, leaving my girlfriend back in Delhi"). To the woman holding the sign, a man having friendships with other women was less of a concern than his misogyny would be.[88] Another placard read, "Yunhi koi creep mil gaya tha sare raah chalte chalte" ("A creep showed up while I was on my way").[88]

Ali Gul Pir released the satirical song "Tera Jism, Meri Marzi" ("Your Body, My Choice") in response to critics of the Aurat March slogan. Lyrics such as "Tera Jism, Meri Marzi. Chup aurat achi bolnay waali gandi" ("Your body, my choice; a silent woman is good, and a woman who speaks is bad") and "Aese kesay tune socha sab aesi wesi hain, jesi teri niyat hai, sab dikhti hi wesi hain" ("How did you think that all women are 'like that'? You see women as your intention and motive") expose and question misogyny and patriarchy.[89]

Social-media disinformation

Although opponents of the Aurat March accused its organizers on social media of flying a French flag, the flag of the Women Democratic Front is red, white, and purple.[90] It was also claimed that the organization supports a foreign agenda and is funded by foreign organizations.[91][92][93][94][95] Critics of the march reportedly released a doctored video to discredit the movement and expose its supporters to blasphemy charges.[96][97][98][99][100]

Manifestos

The social-media campaign and Karachi manifesto focused on violence against women, such as legislation discriminating against women and trans people, acid attacks, and forced disappearances.[82] The Lahore "Feminist Manifesto on Healthcare" called for equal participation in health and medical policymaking, medical research, and medical trials. Other points included concerns about climate change, harassment and violence against female healthcare workers, the elimination of chemical castration as a punishment for rape, and a halt to virginity tests.[101]

Impact

According to Moneeza Ahmed, the Aurat March's primary benefit is to initiate a nationwide dialogue about women's-rights issues; feminism has become part of mainstream discourse in Pakistan. Ahmed says that the march has brought discussion of issues of consent and bodily and sexual autonomy to the forefront.[82] Ahmed and Ajwah[who?] say that women-related laws have much room for improvement, and the Aurat March increases the pressure for change; the reporting of institutional Me Too issues and awareness of issues such as the two-finger test has improved.[82]

See also

Bibliography

References

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