In Pakistan, fearless women march for freedom despite violent threats
“I think any woman who stands up for herself, for her rights against patriarchy, against the patriarchal norms that have long been persecuting women, that woman deserves all our support. It is about time we, women, dismantle patriarchy. And we should start taking to the streets in whatever capacity, because we need to break the silence now. That’s why I support the Aurat March. What can be more powerful than a woman reclaiming the public space?”
Journalist Ailia Zehra is speaking about the importance of the Aurat March (Urdu for “Women’s March”), an event that started in Pakistan in 2018 when feminist groups from Karachi decided to hold a rally on International Women’s Day calling for an end to violence and harassment. It has since grown into a massive resistance movement. Over the past two years, women have rallied across Pakistan to raise awareness of women’s issues and demand their rights as equals. Demands Ailia can relate to, she tells us.
“In Pakistan it is very difficult for women to just exist,” she explains. “The public spaces are not accessible for women. When they go alone they’re cat-called, they’re sexually harassed. A woman has to have a man with her at all times in order to be safe.”
The mobility of women and their absence in public spaces is just one of many problems. “The way women are killed for marrying their man of their choice, the women who are discouraged from getting an education, the young girls who are forced into marriage,” she lists. “There are so many issues that I feel need to be discussed.”
In the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index Report 2020 Pakistan ranked 151 out of 153 countries, indicating a dismal record on human rights for women. It charts at the very bottom of the seven South Asian countries included in the Index. Amnesty International documented last year that high levels of violence against women and girls continued, including abduction, physical assault, rape and murder. “Women in Pakistan are consistently deprived of education, justice, health care, political representation and economic opportunities. They live under the constant threat of violence,” said Rimmel Mohydin, South Asia Campaigner at Amnesty International.
The priority, according to Ailia, is to challenge people’s regressive attitudes and ingrained gender stereotypes. “For instance, killing in the name of honour. It’s related to this false notion of honour that tells men that women are actually commodities that need to be controlled, that they own the bodies of the women in their lives, and if women try to take charge of their bodies, they are actually challenging them, and that would bring dishonour to them,” she explains.
“When women are discouraged from continuing their education, the mindset behind it is that a woman does not need to be educated because she is going to get married in the end.”
That’s the aim of the Aurat March: to bring political action on women’s rights and gender justice, demanding better laws to protect women, as well as raising awareness and changing attitudes.
“When people start understanding why we are demanding what we are demanding, then we will see a significant progress towards ending these crimes,” Ailia believes.
Is Pakistan ready for change?
“It’s very important that women get recognised as individuals, as whole individuals, who are happy, have thoughts, desires, want to express themselves in different ways,” Azra (not her real name) says. “And this is what I think the Aurat March gives women, that space to be themselves.”
The reaction to the march was immediate. A lawyer who has been involved with the organisation of the march since its inception, Azra tells us how there has been considerable backlash. “This year it has been a lot worse,” she says. “It’s come even before the march started. You see legal cases, backlash from society, from religious groups, from the media.”
In fact, a petition was submitted before the Lahore High Court on 23 February calling for the ban of the Aurat March. It was ultimately unsuccessful, as the Chief Justice ruled such a ban to be unconstitutional. Ten days later, and despite the ruling, a mural in Islamabad to commemorate the Aurat March was defaced by men. On that same evening, journalist and human rights defender Marvi Sirmed was grotesquely vilified through aggressive, misogynistic and threatening remarks by a panelist on a primetime television show.
“In Pakistan, a woman who has an opinion is targeted,” Ailia says. “This is even more than just having an opinion. Having an opinion, going out on the streets and expressing it in such a powerful way, this is something that they are scared of. This is why there is a backlash.”
“The people who have been pushing women into silence, it’s only natural that they would be afraid of the Aurat March, because then they would know that if these women are actually successful then they will be held accountable.”
As a journalist who supports the march, Ailia is particularly targeted. “Everyday I wake up to more than a hundred abusive tweets and messages, and they ask me: ‘why do you need to march? Who are you demanding freedom from? Why do you need freedom?’ Then they start attacking your character and start photoshopping your pictures.”
“I cope with it by ignoring, by trying not to see all those messages because they are just vile and abusive,” she tells us. “I cope by talking to my fellow feminists and sharing my experiences with them, because we all face the same kind of problem.”
The reaction, which includes death and rape threats, has left women undaunted and more determined than ever. Many have taken to Twitter ahead of the march using #WhyIMarch to share their personal stories and spell out the importance of the rally.
Artist Shehzil Malik, after seeing artwork for the Aurat March torn down in Lahore, encouraged people to download her poster and spread the message: a Pakistan for women also.
“We’ve found this community, this group of people, who are not going to back down, who stand by their principles, who are willing to do the work, mobilise, get on social media, are out there doing the hard work,” Azra says. “This is what keeps us going and will keep us going after the march.”