It is 8th March 2019, I am 20 years old and I scroll through the Instagram hashtag for Aurat March (translation: Women's March), looking at the pictures various people have posted of themselves with their posters, wishing I was one of them but knowing that is unlikely because I am a Pakistani young woman whose 'open-minded' Pakistani parents do not agree with its ideology.
It is 8th March 2020, I am 21 and working on university assignments in my room but I can hear my parents talk in a disparaging way about the women who march. In a way, I am glad the ever-present threat of the new coronavirus provided me the perfect excuse I can present for not attending this year's Aurat March to anyone who knows of my staunchly feminist beliefs.
It is 8th March 2021, I am 22 and I tell my parents I am going for brunch with my friends; they send me in a chauffeured car—because that is still more acceptable than attending a women's right march surrounded by women and demanding my rights because I have all the rights a girl could dream of. I should be thankful because others have it much worse—like our house-helper whose daughter my age was married off at 15 and now has 4 children, like the janitor at my university who is catcalled every day when she heads home on public transport or even my own friend who was prevented from pursuing the degree of her choice because it wasn't offered in a women-only university. Of course, it doesn't matter that I'm expected to be married as soon as I complete my bachelors (because marriage and being a mother is one of the best experiences in life and a woman should get married before the end of her marriageable age—24 is pushing it) or that I would not be allowed to even apply for a Masters abroad (because this is a dangerous world for women) or that I am actively discouraged from seeking employment in my field (because this is a man's world and workplace harassment cases are all too common these days). My poster lies neatly folded in my bag, reading in block print "I march for those who can't".
This is a common story for many of the women I know. It is easy to propose the solution that everyone should strive to be financially independent but difficult in practice when one recognises that women's mobility and agency are severely restricted by their families. Something as accessible as attending a march—which doesn't require any ticket for entry, takes place in widely accessible public spaces, where perhaps the only cost is paying for your transport— is next to impossible.
The campaign against Aurat March, organised every year on International Women's Day on March 8th, is a recent and well-known example of an anti-gender campaign in my home country, Pakistan. Aurat March takes pride in the fact that it is one of the most, if not the most, diverse and inclusive peaceful protests in Pakistan, comprising people of all genders and all socio-economic backgrounds (specifically in a country where many from this demographic get the chance to reclaim/occupy public spaces safely once a year without the fear of getting catcalled or groped). The March is portrayed as one by elite women, for elite women completely disregarding the manifesto which among campaigning for reforms to end gender-based violence, aims to improve socio-economic conditions for women, particularly those from low-income backgrounds.
Religion is the weapon of choice for the conservative right attacking Aurat March: branding it inherently un-Islamic in a predominantly Islamic country legitimises any and all criticism against it and effectively silences any dissent. The most outspoken critics of Aurat March are invited on primetime talk shows and the most 'radical' posters are nitpicked without providing the proper context. It is depicted as a movement by privileged women to 'promote nudity' and 'destroy family values'. Most recently in March 2021, videos of women chanting pro-women's rights slogans were doctored to appear as if they were chanting anti-Islamic slogans and subsequently, a case was sought to be registered against the organisers of Aurat March in the Peshawar High Court under the notorious blasphemy laws. It is a catch-22 situation: the government's attitudes largely reflect those of most of Pakistani society, whose views are primarily based on what they hear on mainstream television and print media, and the media, often in a bid to improve ratings, sensationalises controversial news and presents a narrative which the government also echoes.
A wave of femicide has wracked the country weeks after Prime Minister Imran Khan, an Oxford-educated man, blamed women's clothing for rape by saying that men are 'not robots' — it is evident thus that "education" alone is not enough to combat the misogyny plaguing Pakistani society. Among the most high-profile cases is that of Noor Mukaddam, a woman who was beheaded by a man and that at the Independence Day celebrations at Minar-e-Pakistan on the 14th of August where a woman was harassed and groped by over 400 men. Despite the horrendous nature of these crimes, a pattern has emerged: the crime trends on social media, there is initial condemnation, people start asking to hear the 'other side' and then blame the victim until eventually the whole narrative changes.
HOW can this be changed? The change in Pakistan has to be at a grassroots level. It needs to be understood that the hostility stems from insecurity and paranoia, which need to be addressed and reassured and only after will there be a positive response to careful re-education regarding compassion and empathy for disadvantaged groups, sensitising men to the experiences of women as well as correcting misinformation. In a country like Pakistan where divorce is stigmatised and women encourage fellow women to stay in abusive marriages for the sake of their children and family honour, where women do not believe in marital rape, where women are complicit in victim-blaming, it is evident that internalised misogyny plays a major part in the dehumanisation of women and when it comes to re-education, this is what needs to be tackled first since you can't help anyone who doesn't want to be helped. Here, the groups may be divided according to age groups for whom it may be easier or more difficult to learn and unlearn behaviours. Only after can the role of men in upholding patriarchy be addressed. Simultaneously, media attitudes must change: from biased reporting to the way women are portrayed as one-dimensional characters in Pakistani television serials whose only aim in life is to secure a husband to actively highlighting the achievements of prominent women. Finally, progressive actors must set concrete yet manageable goals and remain steadfast in the face of adversity and apparent lack of progress.
I am a final year LLB student at the University of London, due to graduate in October 2021. Born, raised and currently residing in Pakistan, I have a passion for human rights with a particular focus on the rights of women and minorities in Pakistan and an interest in feminist jurisprudence, Islamic law and corporate law. In my spare time, I enjoy reading, journaling and more recently, crocheting and watching K-dramas on Netflix.