Why the Aurat March is a revolutionary feat for Pakistan

When society is against the mere idea of women gathering outside the home, pulling off such an event is no easy task.
Published March 12, 2018

When news of the Aurat March flooded my social media in the days leading up to March 8, I squealed in joy every time I saw a mention of it.

I couldn’t help but think about my younger sister zealously informing me, "the etymology of the word 'aurat' is misogynistic."

The etymological roots of 'aurat' give us meanings that range from 'vulnerability' to 'genitals', and later, to 'wife', thus reducing women to, of course, their weakness, reproductive organs and their relation to husbands.

I was not surprised at the revelation, but definitely amused, for the phenomenon is not unique to our language. The word ‘woman’ can also be traced back to the meaning 'little man'. And 'woman', too, later became used to indicate 'wife'.

Building our vocabulary

When I saw that the mobilisers were using 'aurat' instead of 'women', the distinction meant everything to me. While the choice to label what is obviously a women’s march in local terms may seem pedantic to some, it has strong bearings on how South Asian activists and feminists can and will vernacularise the fight for women’s rights.

It is no secret that feminism is often co-opted by many to be viewed as a Western construct which marginalises non-Western identities. Western hegemony over feminist movements then feeds into a repulsion towards feminism that is found in countries such as Pakistan.

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We have grassroot feminist efforts working on the question of gender, yet we still lack a vernacular that can be used to refer to issues of gender inequality.

While our languages are extremely evocative in expressing the full range of human emotion, it is a shame that we still have to rely on words such as 'zyadti' (excess) or 'zina-bil-jabr' (adultery by force) or 'asmat-dari' (defloration) to refer to incidents such as rape.

With the Aurat March, terms such as 'pidar shahi' (patriarchy) and 'aurat march' are being circulated and created.

Slogans such as "ghar ka kaam, sab ka kaam", "khud khana garam karo", "consent ki tasbeeh roz parhein" and — my favourite — "paratha rolls, not gender roles" give a local flavour to the ways we can talk about feminism and gender.

A visual repertoire

I understand that the need to ask for consent and examine gendered roles may not be part of public discourse in Pakistan, which is why this is definitely a step in the right direction.

The crowdsourced production of vocabulary, with signs and slogans, that can be used to speak of women’s rights and issues, is part of the revolutionary impact that the Aurat March has.

Even on the level of visual aesthetics, the March broke through conventions in the best ways. In Karachi, brilliant women were seen escorting "pidarshahi ka janaza" (the funeral procession of patriarchy).

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Not only does this deserve high points for creative resistance, but just the sight of women carrying a janazah through the streets of Pakistan is revolutionary, for women are rarely, if ever, seen as pallbearers of a funeral casket.

Even funeral processions lay down many restrictions for women. At Asma Jahangir’s funeral, where men and women were seen praying together, eyebrows were raised over women’s presence and participation in the ceremony.

This visual of patriarchy’s funeral not only gave way for symbolic resistance, but it also questions notions of acceptability and female visibility in our customs, and imagines new possibilities of challenging these gender discriminatory rules.

Awake the whole time

Most importantly, women’s mobilisation in the form of the Aurat March banishes the belief that women are not conscious of their own oppression.

The idea that women are complicit in maintaining the status quo that decrees them second-class status and are unwilling or unprepared to fight for their rights utterly ignores the protective features of internalised misogyny.

Indeed, I have never met a woman who does not possess the awareness that this world is unjust to women. It is only a matter of varying circumstances and approaches when it comes to what women choose to do about it.

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Women are always resisting against patriarchal forces in their own ways: sometimes subtle, at times overt. For a lot of Pakistani women, mere survival is resistance.

And occasionally, in a glorious, glorious feat, women are able to come together to lay patriarchy to rest on the streets of Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore.

The next time a man asks me why Pakistani women only complain instead of doing something, I will, with all due — but not deserved — respect, happily shove pictures from the Aurat March in his face. So, #comeatmemeninists.

Work, work, work, work, work, work...

And, make no mistake, this form of female public resistance and mobilisation requires an incredible amount of physical, psychological and emotional labour.

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When the structure of society is rigged against the mere idea of women gathering outside the home, when all institutions of society are colluding with each other behind your backs, in fact on your backs, to keep you entrapped in the restricted role it has inscribed for you, pulling off an endeavour such as the Aurat March is no easy task.

I cannot imagine the anxieties of the organisers, who, on top of the hurdles that come with organising a massive event, must have been plagued by security concerns. These women did the work that was necessary, but it could by no means have been easy.

Realising barriers

I can only imagine the number of women and girls who had to fight their family members to attend the March, who had to seek permission to fight for their humanisation. I can only empathise with those who were barred from attending.

And then there are those women who had to make arrangements to delegate their tasks and duties in order to mark themselves present at the March.

I can only imagine the enraged and enlivened sentiments of women who were unable to go, for whatever reason, and wanted nothing else but to be among the throngs of women, imagining the banners they would have carried had they been able to march alongside their comrades.

I am sure there are women right now who are already making plans to attend next year’s marches, who are hyped and ready to dismantle the misogynistic foundations of our country. There are those right now who can envision the possibility of marching from more cities.

Inheriting the struggle

Events like the March allow women to create opportunities for themselves, and lead from the front. It is occasions like the Aurat March that put to shame anyone who believes that women make for weak leaders or cannot be leaders.

It is unfortunate that the proponents of such opinions are one too many, and it is truly ironic that these conclusions are made without ever considering women's potential to lead.

A woman’s rally in Lahore protesting against the Zia dictatorship is baton-charged by the police (1980)
A woman’s rally in Lahore protesting against the Zia dictatorship is baton-charged by the police (1980)

None of this is to say that women’s mobilisation in Pakistan is somehow unprecedented. The unrelenting resistance by Pakistani women against Zia’s regime is imprinted on Pakistan’s historical memory and the iconic chadar burning protests are a canonical visual in Pakistan’s history of feminism.

Pakistani women have always been resisting, and public gatherings such as the March bear testament.

When women mobilise, things happen

Not because we’re mothers of the earth, or some God-ordained, socially and emotionally intelligent creatures with special 'women's skills'. It is simply because we’re a good half of the population, and it is time for us to claim equal footing in this world.

In a society where women are told to disappear inside their houses — and then even disappear from their houses on the arrival of male guests, where women are told not to be loud, told that they must accept things as they are, the visual of women going out on the streets — chanting, shouting, dancing, marching, leading, fighting — is remarkable.

The march reignited my hope in a world where gender ceases to become grounds for marginalisation. With every woman and chant, it instructed me to keep my rage alive, budding and burning.

It screamed to me that the fight had only just begun, and yet had simultaneously been alive for centuries. It promised me that, in the years to come, the crowds will grow bigger, the representation will get better, the voices will grow louder.

But, for now, let us all chant:

“Jab tak aurat tang rahegi, jang rahegi, jang rahegi!”

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