On Mondays, Karachi’s Frere Hall – the city’s colonial-era building, which served as a public park – is usually nearly empty. But not March 8, 2021. The dull lawns of Karachi’s Frere Hall glowed with bright red and purple hues when hundreds of demonstrators gathered there to mark the Aurat of March 2021 (held annually to mark International Women’s Day).
Like Karachi, other cities also hold these parades which send strong and powerful messages to enforcers of patriarchal norms. “Maa ka, nani ka, dadi ka, every other fortune!” said a poster during the parade. This simple but powerful poster hints at the fact that women in our country have remained under oppression for a long time and have little or no access to voice their rights.
It was heartwarming to see hundreds of people holding red flags and singing the left wing song ‘The Internationale’. The Urdu lyrics which read “saare jahan k mehnat kashun utho k waqt aya” invites participants to wake up from their sleep and speak for their rights. With their fists in the air, hundreds of women repeated the lyrics and raised their voices against the injustices inflicted upon them. Previously, many people criticized the march for not being inclusive. It was called a special occasion for privileged people. And while that is not entirely true, the coverage received by home-based workers and other women of the working class this time around shows that women from all households organize their homes to reclaim space and celebrate a day close to their hearts.
“We don’t want ‘development’ to be accompanied by ‘destruction’,” said one woman while protesting the eviction of fishermen in the country’s coastal areas. Troubles, which remained buried under another sensational news, took center stage at the parade. In all fairness, it’s quite comforting to see a woman bring an overlooked issue to the limelight.
In perfect and woman-friendly Pakistan, the Aurat March will be an event where participants celebrate their existence – their existence. However, in our ultra-conservative society, passionate events, held with so much love and emotional work, are marred with dangerous accusations and hatred. Participants of the Aurat March are no stranger to harsh and hateful words. However, this time, the hatred touched the height of madness when a Twitter user posted a fake video alleging that the parade participants had committed religious blasphemy.
In a country where allegations of blasphemy have led to the jailing of intelligent people and the death of a high-profile minister, the misleading video marks the beginning of a dangerous trend. Many people – even those who, by profession, are bound to verify the facts of whatever posts they share – have been found happily continuing propaganda against the demonstrators. And at that time, they half-heartedly apologized for sharing the misleading post, the damage was already done.
Calls for an ‘investigation’ into alleged ‘inappropriate’ slogans are increasing. In Islamabad, students of religious institutions protested against the participants and called for an investigation. This call also reached the doors of the country’s banned group, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), whose members also expressed outrage over the march.
That forbidden clothing would make a statement against citizens who have the right to march should come as a surprise – in a perfectly parallel world for women. In fact, the higher authorities decided to investigate the ‘controversial material’ being shared on social media. Pakistan, sadly, is an intolerant country where mass murder is the norm. Lack of support from the authorities could endanger the lives of attendees who were only present at the event, sparking patriarchy in the country.
And perhaps it was because of the ridiculous outrage that was so unreasonably exaggerated that many of the participants avoided making any comments on the matter. Powerful groups that could easily refute false propaganda also remained silent and completely abandoned the women in the country. (It is worth mentioning that at the Aurat March 2020, protesters in Islamabad had to face an angry mob who pelted participants with stones indiscriminately.)
“If you find my story dirty, the society you live in is dirty.” Strong words were uttered by Saadat Hasan Manto to detractors who never missed an opportunity to criticize him for his ‘bold’ writing. Today, women in Pakistan face the same fate as Manto’s a few decades ago. Today, plaques that loudly reveal the truth of society are met with unjustifiable humiliation and anger.
In Lahore, parade organizers hung various clothes that identified the relationship between the victim of sexual violence and the perpetrator. These items also have the age of the victim at the time of the attack. From little girls to grown women, nearly every other woman has been a victim of sexual harassment. One of the banners reads an account of a nine-year-old girl who was sexually abused by her 50-year-old reciter. Instead of understanding the shocking reality of our society, extremists used the banners to spew more hatred against the marches, alleging that the banners were a direct attack on respected figures in Islam. That’s not the case!
Aurat March’s official Twitter and Facebook account, Lahore released a statement to answer all these baseless accusations, but unfortunately it didn’t work. The seeds of hatred have been planted in the minds of people who are always ready to join the anti-parade bandwagon.
It is surprising that in a country where in the first six months of 2020, more than 1,400 children were victims of sexual abuse, many people have deliberately twisted the facts to overturn the votes raised against this abuse. In the second half of last year, a woman was brutally raped in front of her children. Highway incidents are discussed throughout the country. But it is partly expected and partly disappointing to see that some are still not ready to listen to the experiences of the hundreds of thousands of women in the country who, at times, have to live with their attackers under one roof. .
A Safe Place for Everyone
The controversy that has ruined the parade, however, cannot negate the fact that the parade was a successful event. From young women in college to older women, everyone gets a chance to make their voice count. It is very interesting to see women celebrating their existence. Some women use the space to dance a little bit – something completely unheard of in this part of the world. And this little happy attitude has also come under fire. However, amidst all the criticism, almost every woman broke free and celebrated the day with great enthusiasm.
And although their slogans may differ, all women speak up for women’s rights and demand that the relevant authorities listen to their demands. Tran activists also took the stage to register their protest against the brutal killing of members of the transgender community.
The streets of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad that were previously unsafe for women walking alone became, for a short time, safe places for thousands of women from various backgrounds.
The March of One’s Own
Some religious institutions live under the false assumption that the Aurat March is anti-religious or talk about things only “bad girls” would talk about. The “good girl”, however, must remain silent and use all kindness. Perhaps it is for this reason that many women still think that the parade is not the true representation of the country’s women. Students and members of religious institutions also held demonstrations carrying placards that reinforce customary norms that have a slightly oppressive nuance to women.
Instead of realizing that the women marching were not against a particular gender but against systemic oppression, these demonstrators tried to negate every slogan raised in the Aurat March. However, the beauty of this day can be highlighted by the fact that demonstrators with a completely different ideology also found room to express their views.
Even before the Aurat March was inaugurated, many journalists – especially men – complained that the organizers asked the media to send only female journalists. To some, this request might sound a little overwhelming. But the videos and short clips shared by attendees on their social media show that the request has several benefits. In the now viral clip, a journalist is seen asking provocative questions from the participants and making inappropriate comments. It also shows how women are constantly harassed for saying something either about a march or a controversial topic chosen by journalists.
Until next time
What happened after the Aurat March raises questions about the sharp divisions in our society. It also highlights the fact that our country is becoming increasingly intolerable. From malicious blasphemy accusations to online harassment, participants had to deal with a lot on their own. The silence of the authorities, for that matter, is criminal.
But will that stop women from going out of their homes to speak out against the rampant injustices? I hope not! We have one more year to celebrate Women’s Day. And we can only hope that this year will help women in this country become bolder and bolder.
Seeing the little red and purple flag dancing with the wind is a sight to remember. It can only be hoped that the next year will see a stronger and more inclusive parade!