Kishwar Naheed has let us down.
At the Sindh Aurat Tanzeem celebration for women’s day, hardly a week after thousands of sinful women spilled out into the streets, chanting and marching for their rights, she said: The Aurat March slogans have transgressed cultural values, they have lost sight of tradition.
The same voice that once asked us to raise the banner of truth, to refuse to bow our heads, is now asking us to submit.
Women should not call themselves azaad, Kishwar says, we should locate our azaadi — our freedom — in the law, not in our bodies and tongues.
The feminist poet isn’t the only one who is upset. The entire country is suffering under the obscene weight of the Aurat March posters, particularly those which have blurred the line between women’s public and private lives, like the one depicting a girl sitting with her legs spread out, Lo Beth Gayi Sahi Se or the irreverent Akeli Awara Azaad, or the cheeky, Apni d*** pics apne paas rakho.
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From Orya Maqbool to Aamir Liaquat, everyone is freaking out: Have women no shame? Do we not take pride in helping our brothers hunt for their socks? Shouldn’t we be grateful — we are women, blessed by nature, veiled and protected from the public — and now we want to discard that prestige? For what? Feminism has gone ‘too far’.
Of course, we expected this from the Mard Brigade — to descend with self-righteous hate every time a woman leaves her chaar diwari. Traditional masculinity has always had personal stakes in protecting ‘family values’, but the reproach is more confusing, even hurtful, when it comes from other women.
Women like Yasra Rizvi and Veena Malik, who are aligning with men — women who have resisted traditional codes of femininity by challenging the public-private boundary in their own lives — are now the same ones calling the Aurat March posters ‘vulgar’, saying they dilute the movement’s message and take away from its ‘real causes’.
These women want to support the March, they claim, but they are wary of the kind of feminism that has no qualms exiting the sphere of respectability.
These kinds of comments validate the male detractors’ cries and threaten to delegitimise the March, but more urgently, they force the rest of us into a fragile, perilous position.
Lest the entire movement be written off on the basis of a few posters and we lose the few people we have gathered on our side, we must clarify our politics and justify our purpose.
And so it is purpose we turn to. From fiery Twitter feeds to family WhatsApp groups, feminists of all ages have been engaging with critics to defend the March.
The most popular counter-argument, so far, is that the selection of ‘indecent’ posters does not represent the totality of the March’s politics.
That in fact, those who think the March didn’t address ‘actual’ feminist issues have probably never bothered to look up the manifesto, a comprehensive set of purposeful demands: An end to violence; environmental and economic justice; and reproductive rights.
To drive the point home, people have been posting photographs showing the posters that didn’t get as much air-time, posters addressing the range of ‘important’ causes that news anchors have accused the March of ignoring, like education, inheritance and marital rights.
In an Instagram story, Aurat March Lahore shared some of these with the caption: “If someone tells you the March didn’t address Real issues, send them this post.”
On national television, March organisers are repeatedly presenting this argument, and defending the March further: Since it was an open event guided by the principle of inclusivity, the posters could not possibly be policed.
Another organiser, when put on the spot about the poster Khana garam kardungi, bistar khud garam karlo, conceded that perhaps it shouldn’t have been there, but followed this with a quick jab at the media’s obsession with provocative posters over ‘real’ news.
Even in tough spots, and in the face of intense backlash and cyberbullying, feminists have been holding their ground admirably.
At the same time, much of this is the language of appeasement, and while one can understand how these arguments work in our favour, we have to be careful not to pacify.
This is a precarious moment in time. We must step back and consider what narratives we are collectively cementing. The boundaries of respectability cannot be one of them.
And yet they are. Because what are the implications of redirecting people to the manifesto when they bring up the posters? What separations are coded in the action of holding up this manifesto as a qualification of ‘real’ issues?
When we use the language of real and serious, we create a distinction between ‘actual’ issues and 'pretended' ones. When we rush to clarify that we have included ‘important’ causes in our demands, we suggest that other causes are unimportant.
We allow feminism to discriminate and gate keep, and this gatekeeping is patriarchy’s way of reinforcing the binary of purpose vs pleasure, where the feminism of purpose (health, education, marital rights) is ‘good’ feminism, and the feminism of pleasure (sexual politics, bodily autonomy, agency over time and leisure) is ‘bad’ feminism, ‘immoral’ and ‘frivolous’.
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It pits the two against each other, rewarding the feminists who rally for legal rights and work-life balance, and slutshaming those who reclaim gendered slurs and carry the posters they did at the March.
Feminism with conditions is no feminism. It maintains the division between what is ‘acceptable’ and what is ‘immodest’, what is ‘public’ and ‘private’, allowed and not.
It is dangerous because it doesn’t simply deem some fights more ‘worthy’ and ‘respectable’ than others, it actively rejects and disqualifies the others.
By bringing up the manifesto to defend the posters, for instance, we distance ourselves from the supposedly provocative posters, and in fact confirm their ‘vulgarity’.
This is damaging, especially when done by March organisers who hold a bit more authority in the shared discourse. It insinuates that we agree that feminism should operate within the bounds of ‘respectability’.
I don’t believe that any of the feminists representing the March actually believe this, that they think feminist praxis should morally align with cultural values, or disapprove of any of the posters.
Yet, they are making the choice of shifting attention away from the posters as a strategy, and it is crucial to understand why.
It’s a tough compromise to make, but it’s made in consideration of our position and our audience. We can’t risk losing more audience. We are up against the right-wing and communist bros alike — neither are feminist fans and both force us to move a bit centre.
We have to make ourselves, our tones and strategies digestible because, as Tooba Syed pointed out on Twitter, we have to think long-term. Otherwise, we will lose the few we have on our side, and alienate even more.
And so sometimes we will have to appease: Reassure the patriarchy that our fights are ‘reasonable’ and ‘respectable’, and our interests do not threaten the institutions of marriage and family.
Sometimes we will have to retreat: Admit that it’s difficult to police, or that some slogans shouldn’t have been there. Already it is a difficult terrain to navigate, and it’s made all the more tricky on live television, where obnoxious show hosts are fired up by years of internalised misogyny.
Given everything, feminists and organisers have been managing the aftermath with grace and acuity. But, as I said earlier, we also need to zoom out and think about the sum of our stances.
This is not a time for respectability politics. In light of other feminists discrediting our disruptions, we have to amp up. The moment appeasement becomes our default, we will lose space.
This is the time to transgress more, in this beautiful moment when everything has exploded, when the scales are in the air and new norms are being set.
If we compensate and reassure only, we will lose the little power we have gained, and soon others will be dictating to us what feminism should and shouldn’t be.
We need to regroup and strategise: Where do we simply show up and take space, and where do we take calculated risks to take back control of the narrative?
When someone finds a poster ‘vulgar’, perhaps we shouldn’t immediately say, But we can’t control people’s slogans, and have you read our manifesto? Perhaps we can start saying: Please educate yourself and read our demands, and also, know that we stand by these slogans and support each participant’s right to voice their subjective protests.
We need to locate both as central to the March’s politics, we need to own the manifesto and the so-called frivolous posters equally.
Because we need to challenge the notion that these things are separate, that the politics of pleasure are somehow irrelevant to the more ‘pressing’ feminist concerns.
We need to claim these posters and make the connection between them and the ‘larger’ feminist struggles. Like Nighat Dad has said, we need to unpack what they’re saying.
A girl’s right to sit with her legs open is about her agency to do what she likes with her body without reprimand or harassment, it is about her right to move freely, it is about victim-blaming and whose fault it is when someone is assaulted — not the girl’s, no matter how she was sitting.
A poster that says Akeli Awara Azad is about sexual autonomy and reproductive rights, about financial autonomy, about the choice to enter or not enter the institution of marriage, about shirking the link that ties men’s honour to our bodies.
A poster that says Aaj Waqayi Maa Behn Ek Ho Rahi Hai is about language and reclamation, but also sisterhood and solidarity, this beautiful moment when thousands of women, who are taught to be each other's enemies, are walking in solidarity together.
And all of this is also about the politics of pleasure, which doesn’t just open up new possibilities for access and freedom, it also fortifies the fights we have already won.
A body in control of its everyday desires and pleasures, of every inch of its space and time, is a body that is truly free, in both public and private.
In fact, it is only the binary of pleasure and purpose that keep intact the binary of public and private. Women don’t step outside, either because the streets are pronounced unsafe for us, or because, what need do women have of everyday pleasure? We have duties to tend to, we have men whose honour is located in our bodies.
And so we are consigned to private spaces, and pushed further into them if there is any trouble — which explains the Mard March demanding we pick up our dupattas again and get cooking — and yet, it is in private spaces where we court the greatest dangers, where the threat of assault is most prevalent, and where, when we are harmed, the walls around us remind us to stay silent. Like ‘good’, ‘honourable’ women.
‘Respectable’ women don’t blur boundaries, they do not bring their private lives into the public, they do not discard their dupattas and call themselves badchallan.
No, they stay within the ‘safety’ of their homes, which is conflated with duty, culture, tradition, tehzeeb.
The only feminism for us to aspire to, then, is the one that disrupts the private sphere, that rejects a femininity modelled solely around purpose, that celebrates the frivolous and the silly, that disrupts tradition and culture.
And it is precisely culture and tradition, someone should remind Kishwar Naheed, that are upturned when thousands of women come out into the streets, dancing and laughing with joy.
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Sadia Khatri is a writer based in Karachi. She has worked as a journalist at Dawn and The Kathmandu Post, and as a reportage editor with Papercuts Magazine. She writes fiction and non-fiction, dealing with themes of gender, public spaces, visual culture, cities and poetry, and is currently writing her first book, a memoir on the life and work of the late Kashmiri-American poet, Agha Shahid Ali. She is also one of the founders of the feminist collective Girls at Dhabas
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