by Mariam AzeemAugust 04, 2020
Women’s rights have been on the social agenda in Pakistan for years, but the media largely ignored it until recently. Journalists have become more independent over the past few years, coinciding with the emergence of the Women’s March in the United States and around the world. These marches inspired Pakistani women to finally take action for their rights.
Pakistan’s Aurat March (“aurat” means “women” in Urdu) saw its debut on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2018. A group of young progressive feminists initiated the march, initially receiving endorsement from the Awami Workers’ Party, the Lady Health Workers Association, and multiple women's rights organizations.
The march called for more accountability for violence against women and support for women who experience violence and harassment at the hands of security forces, in public spaces, at home, and in the workplace. Marchers also demanded economic justice, labor rights for women, recognition for women’s work in the care economy as meriting pay, maternity leave and daycare centers to ensure women's inclusion in the workforce.
The first enduring march of its kind in Pakistan—marchers came out again in 2019 and 2020 on the same occasion—the Aurat March miraculously emerged amid a long history of resistance to feminism in the country. The broader feminist movement in Pakistan has also learned many lessons from strong resistance to and criticism of the march. Notably, it has strived for more inclusivity; this year’s march drew not only upper-class participants but also underprivileged classes, women from urban and rural areas, men, and trans individuals.
The Aurat March has a non-hierarchical leadership and a presence throughout the country. Although the annual march is their signature tactic, the movement engages in other actions as well. Activists have written a manifesto to articulate their demands (mentioned above) to the government and Pakistani society, and this year a manifesto dissemination plan is rolling out to build alliances.
Art and performance are also used to amplify women’s voices. For example, activists in South Punjab have put on theater performances about women’s issues, and women share poems, speeches, and songs about feminism across Pakistan.
Media strategy is centered on protecting the movement’s image as respectful of Pakistani culture and traditions, as well as on controlling the message that women simply wish to have equal rights—not to adopt some sort of Western agenda. This is particularly important in the Pakistani context, because journalists know that the movement is highly criticized and thus often look for sensationalist news to report on. Aurat March media liaisons are trained in effective communication and messaging skills, specifically to avoid stirring controversy.
Training and organization are central to the movement more broadly. March organizers are trained in nonviolent discipline ahead of the annual marches. Organizing meetings are held to assign tasks to team members according to their expertise. University students from rural areas are called upon as community mobilizers because of their education and connections in rural areas.
The Aurat March has taken on board legal experts and lawyers to handle legal matters during and after the annual march (such as arrests of marchers). In terms of funding, the movement decided to remain independent. National NGOs and other grassroots groups join the marches, but to avoid accusations of foreign influence, the movement does not collaborate or partner with any international NGOs.
It has been difficult for Pakistani society—men and many women included—to digest that women would openly express their outrage about patriarchy and demand the right to be heard. Over the past three years, some Pakistanis have claimed that marchers are elitists who exclude grassroots communities and push a Western agenda. Others have labelled activists as a foreign-funded threat to the traditional values of Pakistan.
During the first two marches, many poster slogans were called out for saying things that do not align with Pakistani culture and society. In 2020, marchers reflected on that criticism to develop new, more nuanced, and culturally contextualized slogans. They even decided to send new slogans to the High Court for approval (in the form of a visible stamp) prior to the march, for added precaution. They were given the chance to explain the slogans at various public forums with an audience that included conservative groups.
Another challenge has precisely been the response of conservative groups—manifestations of deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes that prevail in society. This year, for instance, there were separate petitions in the Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad high courts to ban the march. The courts in Islamabad and Karachi dismissed the petitions, allowing the march to proceed in those cities unabated. Another march in Lahore took place too, but with tough restrictions.
This year, conservative groups such as Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl actively resisted the march in Sukkur. Militant groups from the Lal Masjid—a mosque that has been involved in violent demonstrations and armed clashes with authorities since 2006—attacked marchers in Islamabad.
The torrent of hateful rhetoric resulting from this conflict has prompted mental health issues among activists who feel threatened and defamed by such speech. Many female marchers with whom I have interacted have reported feeling depressed and anxious because of hate speech directed towards them.
Women have sometimes been fired from their jobs or otherwise punished and shamed for participating in the march. Some women, myself included, have lost friends because of our participation in the march.
Women and women’s issues are taken more seriously with each step we take during our highly visible and disruptive marches. We know this because bolder voices are being heard about gender issues in the media, parliament sessions, and public discussions held by political parties and NGOs. We are also seeing more men at the marches each year.
Looking forward, the pandemic—despite its obvious challenge to the movement—also offers new opportunities to build alliances and conduct trainings. There is an increasing need to train men, including from within the religious community, in nonviolent discipline, media liaising, and campaign organizing skills.
The movement could develop and conduct local trainings to prevent and deal with sexual harassment that Pakistani women and trans individuals are subject to. Female marchers often do not report sexual abuse that they have experienced since they joined the Aurat March, because they do not want to draw unwanted attention to the march or be questioned publicly for participating in it. This must be addressed swiftly.
Many respected, religious female scholars who have been supporting the movement could also be tapped to build alliances with male-dominated religious bodies. While our intention is to keep politics out of our activities, we must try to build meaningful bridges within the religious community at this important junction in our movement work.
As we continue along our path, we will continue to look toward feminists in other countries around the world for inspiration. At the same time, we will continue to respect Pakistani traditions in our campaigning, which is a painstaking but crucial part of our work here in Pakistan.
Mariam Azeem is Director of Movement Support and Training with Rhize and an ICNC Summer Institute alumna (2013). She is passionate about playing the backstage role by providing training, education, and mentoring to movement actors. Azeem also has years of experience building, delivering, and evaluating training programs in human rights education and women leadership.Read More