‘Oh, so you are the feminist type’, declared my editor while I made a point about not wanting to cover an event that objectified women in 2015. It felt like an accusation. Was being a feminist wrong? I didn’t understand what was so negative about being a feminist in a country where womxn’s rights, a vastly discussed topic, was hardly implemented. Where atrocities towards womxn have never decreased and where even social media has become an unsafe place for us.
Indeed, feminism is a foreign theory for Pakistanis. A theory most believe is anti-state and against Pakistan’s norms and culture. It is unfortunately normalised for Pakistani womxn to suffer.
But, in 2018, feminists of Pakistan were hit with a ray of hope. While still not very well understood the concept, feminism has now become a household topic. People are asking questions, and the youth were ready with some answers.
All it took was the courage of some womxn to gather like minded womxn and claim the streets of Pakistan’s largest metropolis, Karachi. At ‘Aurat March‘, womxn chanted slogans, raised posters against patriarchy and spoke for the rights of the suppressed.
Aurat March is an annual mobilization arranged by independent organizations, mostly in the urban centers of the country like Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. It is done to mark International Women’s Day.
This year will be the third consecutive gathering in large cities, with support from small cities, somewhere the march will be held for the first time.
‘This and many other posters from the march did what has not been possible for the longest time, which was to get everyone to talk about feminism in Pakistan’s context. How do we perceive feminism? What are our issues and how will we be dealing with them?’
While I was not in attendance during the first march, I vividly remember my social media feed being flooded with analysis of a poster which read in Urdu, ‘warm up your food yourself’ the very next day.
The poster, seemingly not harmful, sparked an unprecedented debate on social media and within households. ‘These women are running away from their tasks and want to sit and eat off men,’ said one of the many comments I read.
On the other hand, womxn felt heard for the first time in years in Pakistan. A household chore, never given a second thought, was indeed an inculcation of the patriarchal mindset.
Pakistani men largely do not help in household chores, the womxn of the house, however young, tired or annoyed they are, have to handle the kitchen and the chores. Their life revolves around pleasing the men in their house. Making tea is chore given to girls as young as ten. Would it harm anyone if men could carry their weight around the house?
The poster, to date, sparks a debate in various forums. This and many other posters from the march did what has not been possible for the longest time, which was to get everyone to talk about feminism in Pakistan’s context. How do we perceive feminism? What are our issues and how will we be dealing with them?
The mobilisation is growing every year, but the hate for it, and for women supporting it, is also growing. In November 2019, a call for volunteers for the march was raided by young men, whom I like to call the ‘incels of Pakistan’. The post on Facebook received over 10,000 comments, most graphic in nature, calling for the murder and physical assault of womxn organising and attending the event.
More recently, to promote the Aurat March 2020, raise awareness and pay ode to the women of Pakistan, organizers, and volunteers were installing murals across the country. One such mural was being painted in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.
The ‘Do Akeli Larkian’ (two lone girls) mural was being made on the outer wall of private property, it depicted two women, one is a hijab the other without it, standing under a sky with eyes like stars and would have had an Urdu poetry couplet when complete. “….mural envisions a Pakistani society where women are explorers, wanderers, and creators of a just and beautiful world,” said the Facebook post about the mural.
Three days into the painting, when the mural was almost complete, it was halted by 10 to 15 men from Lal Masjid (a nearby controversial mosque). The men were accompanied by the senior superintendent of the Islamabad police. The artists were threatened, the mural vandalized with slogans and the faces of the women on the walls were also blackened. They claimed that such a mural would spread obscenity in the city.
Since February, a minimum of three petitions have been heard in Pakistan’s high courts against the Aurat March congregations and calling for a ban on the march across the country.
One such petition was dismissed by the Lahore High Court on 3 March. The petitioner claimed that ‘various anti-state parties are funding the march with the sole purpose of spreading anarchy in public’ and also termed the march ‘against the norms of Islam’ with a ‘hidden agenda’ to spread ‘vulgarity and hatred’.
The court stated that marching was the right of every citizen of Pakistan and the march cannot be stopped.
To discuss the topic, a cleric, a senior journalist Marvi Sirmed, and a known writer and director Khalil-Ur-Rehman Qamar were called on a talk show. Qamar is known for his chauvinism. Qamar was agitated because of the viral slogan ‘Mera Jism Meri Marzi’ (My Body, My Choice) which was held at the Aurat March in 2019. Qamar was seen abusing Sirmed for chanting the slogan, body shaming and name calling her.
The snippet of the show went viral in minutes on social platforms and the hashtag #MeraJismMeriMarzi was seen trending. Celebrities, activists, and others came in support of Sirmed and against the vile comments from Qamar. Following the backlash, Pakistan’s biggest media group, GEO announced the suspension of Qamar’s contract until he apologizes to Sirmed.
Organisers of the march insist that the country’s mindset will change, slowly but surely. As feminist scholar Dr Rubina Saigol wrote, ‘feminism in Pakistan has come of age as it unabashedly asserts that the personal is political and that the patriarchal divide between the public and the private is ultimately false.’