It all began three years ago in Karachi on International Women’s day when a few feminist groups decided to March for women’s rights in Pakistan, and there has been no looking back since. In the past three years, Aurat March has managed to garner a massive base around the country, ranging from various echelons of society. Women and men around the country march against the patriarchal structures of society and demand equal rights for women at workplace, home and public spaces. The movement gave momentum to the feminist movements in Pakistan and revived the cause of feminism and women’s rights that sat stagnant for decades. It also, however, received immense backlash by the right-wing clerics and even renowned public figures for “provocative” “shameful” placards and slogans at the march. These placards carried by both female and male participants have been the highlight of the movement so far, they showcase the problems Pakistani women regularly face with a witty twist.
The intended purpose of these placards has been to highlight a range of issues such as the gender roles imposed on women and men by the society “Apna Khana khud garam kero” (heat your own food) promoting girls’ education “Beti k parhai k paise jama kero, Jahaiz k nahi” (Save for your daughter’s education, not dowry) and the most popular one, the right to body autonomy “Mera Jism, meri marzi” (My body, my choice) have been some of the most popular placards that have also received a barrage of criticism online. Unfortunately, these slogans have been misunderstood and purposely distorted by a few to make the whole movement appear as a threat to society and its core values.
To make its demands clearer, a detailed yearly manifesto is rolled out by the movement which articulates a range of issues from healthcare to education, dowry and pay gap that affects women directly on a regular basis. The manifesto evolves every year, and each city chapter rolls out its own manifesto. 2021’s overall theme mainly revolved around the lack of provision of adequate healthcare to women, sexual and reproductive health, increased patriarchal violence during the coronavirus pandemic and the deeply misogynistic social fabric that’s preserved by the state and its institutions. It has also been notably more inclusive than the previous ones, with more women from various walks of life gradually joining the march. Trans individuals too have found a platform in the shape of Aurat March where they can openly express themselves and demand equal opportunities. “Our manifesto, for example, demands incremental institutional changes, such as the addition of women and transwomen medico-legal officers, criminalizing the two-finger test and questions related to sexual history conducted during rape investigations,” a source explained.
Pakistan has in the past made efforts to reduce the gender inequality gap and continues to adopt a number of key international commitments to gender equality and women’s human rights but despite these commitments, Pakistan’s gender equality ranking remains one of the lowest in the world.
Pakistan has in the past made efforts to reduce the gender inequality gap and continues to adopt a number of key international commitments to gender equality and women’s human rights but despite these commitments, Pakistan’s gender equality ranking remains one of the lowest in the world. Sustainable Social Development Organization (SSDO) revealed a sharp increase in cases of violence against women in Pakistan during the pandemic. The World Economic Forum ranked Pakistan as third worst in its 2020 Global Gender Gap report, which gauges economic opportunity, education, health, and political empowerment. Pakistan has performed poorly in majority of such indicators and it is but the need of the hour to actively pursue reforms and overhaul the embedded system.
Aurat March has emerged as the sole new wave of feminism in Pakistan after decades, therefore a huge responsibility rests on its shoulders. As a movement that has managed to finally establish itself as a force to be reckoned with, the issues that concern not only upper-class wealthy women but also underprivileged classes should be highlighted more, women from rural regions that constitute the majority of the Pakistani population need to be taken into confidence and must be encouraged to attend the Marches around the country. For that, the movement must focus on concrete issues that the general female populace relates to. Aurat March has also been embroiled in unnecessary controversies involving politics which the movement initially claimed to distance itself from but a closer look at Twitter content seems to negate their non-partisan non-political position. Politicizing the movement will not only isolate it but also lose tons of fans and followers it has managed to garner across the spectrum. Another controversy is the appearance of LGBTQ+ banners at the march that has dented the cause and may alienate it further since the majority of Pakistani women are right-leaning and tend to be unaccepting towards such ideas due to various socioreligious factors. LGBTQ+ acceptance might be an issue in Pakistan, however, it is not relevant to the issues pertaining to women that the movement claims to represent. Genuinely working towards the cause of women empowerment keeping in view the country’s general female population must be of prime importance, the International coverage over controversies can wait.
Not only does the government need to work towards implementing and enforcing women protection laws but as individuals, each member of the society must play a role in dismantling the prevailing structures that condemn women to oppression and injustice.
On the whole, Aurat March has undoubtedly and rightfully been a huge success in a country like Pakistan that has had a poor track record of women’s rights and gender-based violence yet there’s a long way to go. Not only does the government need to work towards implementing and enforcing women protection laws but as individuals, each member of the society must play a role in dismantling the prevailing structures that condemn women to oppression and injustice. The children we educate, the leaders we choose and the icons we idolize today will shape future generations. It’s time that we teach human values to both the girl and boy child, teach our sons it is perfectly human to show emotion and vulnerability, teach our daughters it is okay to take up challenging tasks. The times are changing and if we wish to remain in sync with the world, Pakistan must abolish regressive cultural practices and norms that subjugate women and instead look to strengthen and empower them through education, economic autonomy and freedom to choose for themselves.
As Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah said, “No nation can ever be worthy of its existence that cannot take its women along with the men. No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men. There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen”