The term ‘Aurat’ itself signifies the negative connotation, vernacularly, with which South Asian women have to contend. The significant rally cry, “Mera Jism, Meri Marzi” highlighted women’s body rights and gender equality, writes Azeemah Saleem for South Asia Monitor
On the eve of International Women Day on March 8, 2020, Pakistan’s women rights organizations such as Women’s Action Forum, Women’s Democratic Forum, Socialist Feminist Organization, and Hum Auratein (a feminist group), collectively organized a march, ‘Aurat’ (women) march, under the banner, “Mera Jism, Meri Marzi” (My Body, My Choice).
In 1961, the Muslim Family Law ordinance was passed, relating to marriage, divorce and custody of children. But the larger question of rights, equality and justice was overlooked. The idea of an ‘Aurat’ (women) March began in 2018, when some women decided to get together in Karachi to raise their voice against violence and harassment of women to observe International Women’s Day in Pakistan. Since then, their mobilization has evolved into a broader movement by including transgenders and demanding better laws to protect women and enforcement of existing laws, equality, reinstatement of students unions and ethnic groups, to raise awareness and to change existing patriarchal norms.
The main agenda of the organizer’s manifesto for the Aurat March 2020 demanded economic justice by administratively implementing the law on Sexual Harassment Against Women in the Workplace 2010, labour rights for women, other gendered sexual minorities and reproductive rights to decide on the use of their bodies. It aimed to counter the exploitative patriarchal structure of society, gender-based violence, administrative and restorative justice against violence in federally administered tribal areas and the sexist portrayal of women in media. It also sought to end the enforced disappearance, militarization and protection of religious minorities in Pakistan. It focused on better access to public spaces for women and reform of the religious personal laws on forced conversion.
The manifesto demands are universally valid for the protection of women and are based on equality, rights, and justice. It impacted the nerves of right-wing religious fundamentalists (Haya movement) and a violent crackdown was ordered on Aurat March 2020, stating it was anti-Islamic, vulgar and blasphemous and intended to spread anarchy and hatred in Islam. Two petitions were filed in Lahore and in Islamabad High Court to stop Aurat March, as they were said to be against the culture and Islamic teaching of Pakistan. The court dismissed both petitions under the constitutional right of ‘freedom of expression.’ The court sought assurances from the organizers that they would abide by the values of ‘decency’ and ‘morality’. The fundamentalists were infuriated because the march struck at the root of Pakistani right-wing, fundamentalist and patriarchal society.
The term ‘Aurat’ itself signifies the negative connotation, vernacularly, with which South Asian women have to contend. The significant rally cry, “Mera Jism, Meri Marzi” highlighted women’s body rights and gender equality. The language of the slogans and posters triggered outrage in a male-dominated society for having sexual connotation against the modesty of the women. It was criticized for following western notions of feminism, degrading male society instead of equality, and for seeking absolute rights for women to choose what they want to wear and do with their bodies, irrespective of Islamic values.
During the Aurat March, various slogans such as “Aao khana sath banaye” (let’s make food together), “Freedom over fear”, “My period is not luxury, stop taxing pads”, Bacchi ko bacchi rehne do, dulhan na banao” (let a girl child be a child, don’t make her a bride), were aired, disturbing the concepts deeply entrenched within Pakistan's power structures existing in the household and society per se. The organizers emphasized that the demands were deeply affected by their personal lives, regarding their body and their sexuality. Various other slogans, such as “Apna khana khud garam karo” (heat your own food), “Happy Divorce” and more explicit ones reflected the provocative attitude of the protestors. The attempt was to provoke society to change the toxicity of patriarchy in a direction it finds hard to digest and deconstruction of the rooted toxicity of patriarchy in the country’s existing culture, religion and society; and to establish a completely new gender-neutral system.
Despite their provocative language and raised voices against violent patriarchy in the public space, the young women marched without the fear of being attacked. The public debate around the Aurat March indicated that the women had made a groundbreaking beginning. Shehzil Malik, artist and organizer of the Aurat March, took the initiative to raise her voice against the injustice women face across different classes in Pakistan. She believes that women own their bodies; it is not about philandering, but it is about the autonomy of women and their right to control their bodies and lives.
Besides the narrative, Aurat March faced criticism for being the voice of the educated and privileged women, who are aware of their rights and choices. These women, it was said, face no coercive force and are capable of reporting sexual harassment and can develop an understanding with their husbands.
However, since the issues reflect the genuine concerns of women in Pakistani society, the effectiveness of the march showed that the real victims of harassment and violence who participated actually benefited through the movement in the form of awareness, social and economic support. What progress it makes and what support it gets from the state remains to be seen.
(The writer is a Ph.D. Scholar, Centre for West Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)