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WOMEN ON THE MARCH

What drives the women of the Aurat March to keep going in the face of harassment, threats and legal red tape?
Updated 10 Mar, 2020 12:42pm

While thousands of women plan to take to the streets across Pakistan for the third Aurat March today, their journey towards this day started months ago. Yes, the march is always controversial, but this year those opposing the event really upped the ante. What drives these women to keep going in the face of harassment, threats and legal red tape? And what do they hope to achieve by marching?



The hallways are abuzz with conversation; the atmosphere is charged. A group of women exits the courtroom; their voices are a steady murmur. It is a sight to behold. On most days, the only women seen here are either lawyers, donning white clothes with black coats, or those who have come for their regular hearings. But there are a lot more women than men at the Lahore High Court today.

The presence of senior lawyer and human rights activist Hina Jillani is enough to challenge the norms in this male-dominated space. She is as confident in her stride as one would expect her to be, for behind her are countless years spent arguing for the welfare of women and children in the courts. She is considered a larger-than-life figure, even though she is slightly more sedate than her late sister Asma Jahangir. Accompanying Hina Jillani are her two co-counsels, Nighat Dad and Saqib Jillani. Both clearly have immense respect for her.

Hina Jillani is her typical fiery self today. Her disapproval is apparent on her face and her brow is furrowed. She has just finished the first hearing of the petition that has been filed in court by Azhar Siddique, an advocate of the Supreme Court.

“By openly displaying their aspirations some [of] these women, men and gays dare to take a step ahead in creating the environment that is traditionally, culturally and morally less binding upon them and releasing them from the so-called repressive norms (Islam),” says one line in the petition. “There are various anti-state parties present who are funding this so-called “Aurat March” with the sole purpose of spreading anarchy amongst the masses,” it goes on to say. “The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement and its allies have a hidden agenda and are the major stakeholders in this Aurat March — spreading anarchy, vulgarity, blasphemy and hatred against the very norms of Islam.”

Editorial: Marching for women’s rights

Point 4 in the petition is baffling, even insulting, if it is to be taken seriously.

“As more women rise up to top positions, many of them forget the rest of their sex and become apolitical, or apathetic and self-obsessed,” the petition filed by the man says. “These women wear the power suit and heels, join the boy’s club, barely glance down at those beneath them, the pathetic weaklings who never understood the game.”

The petition is being heard at the Lahore High Court a week before the Aurat March is scheduled to take place on International Women’s Day.

“We won’t tolerate this!” Hina Jillani firmly says. “We are the people of this country and several generations from amongst us participate in this rally,” she says, adding that women have the right to free expression, whether it is on placards, or in slogans.

Read: Hina Jilani shuts down Aurat March naysayers in the best possible way

Dad nods in agreement behind her. An ardent feminist herself, Dad has been pushing for digital rights and has a lot to say on any form of discrimination against women. But while Hina Jillani is speaking, Dad listens reverently.

Hina Jillani knows where to hit. She says that the women behind the march know what decency is better than such people — unmistakeably referring to the petitioner. “We have learnt from our parents what decency is,” she says. “Humain apni social values ka pata hai [We know our societal values].”

Several of the women who are attending the hearings have come to the court for the first time. Before today, some were not even sure where the High Court was. Their thoughts mirror each other’s. It is the petitioner who is the one with the dirty, sick mindset, who sees everything as obscenity, they insist.

Hina Jillani puts into words what many of them have been thinking: why has this ‘frivolous’ petition even been accepted? Soon the women would get their response in the form of a victory.


***


A week later the courtroom is packed as Chief Justice Mamoon Rashid Sheikh gets ready to announce his verdict. The petitioner, Siddique, has already changed his tune and is claiming he never sought to have the march banned. During the proceedings, when he claims that Pakistani women already enjoy “all their rights”, many in the courtroom cannot help but burst into laughter.

Soon enough, the women emerge victorious, but with a caveat. Chief Justice Sheikh says that “under the law and Constitution of the country, the Aurat March cannot be stopped” but he also asks the marchers to “refrain from hate speech and immorality”.

Related: 'Freedom of expression can't be banned': LHC seeks police response on petition against Aurat March

While the women may have won in the courtroom, they know their fight is far from over.


AURAT MARCH 3.0

It is now the third consecutive year that an Aurat March is being held. The march last year was groundbreaking in terms of popularity. Social media was like a live wire, with pictures and videos of the procession floating around. Of course, by now everyone knows what happened next. And everyone seems to have an opinion on the placards that women carried at the march. The position in which a woman sits, her sexual rights and her right not to be sexually harassed online — all sorts of messaging on posters invited the irk of some. Not just men, but women too, appeared on television and other media and attempted to ‘school’ the organisers and participants of the march on what ‘real feminism’ is.

Aurat March placards in Lahore | Aun Jafri, White Star
Aurat March placards in Lahore | Aun Jafri, White Star

“We came across posts that said ‘rape these women’, ‘they ought to be killed’,” remembers Dad, who filed a complaint with the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and followed it for three months. According to Dad, the agency has taken no action to date. “There was a moulvi who in his Friday sermon said, ‘If they say humara jism humari marzi [our bodies our choice] then the same thing applies to us. Let’s show them,’” Dad says. The moulvi went viral.

Dad and the Aurat March organisers responded to the threats by going to the media and trying to create a “counter-narrative”. “We tried to find opportunity in the backlash,” she tells Eos.

But the women who dared to disagree with these naysayers’ views publically were labelled vulgar firebrands. Firebrand men are better accepted, they say. But this society has no place for such women.

“There are posters and wall chalkings on every wall about male sexual problems,” the young organiser says. “Everywhere we turn, we see ads for mardana kamzori [men’s reproductive problems]. Yet no one bats an eye. But as soon as they see women putting up anything for their human rights, these [posters] are instantly destroyed.”

Despite the verbal vitriol, these firebrand women are all set to take to the streets across Pakistan again this year. Of course, the attacks have already begun. The court case was the not the only attempt to restrain the ‘debauchery’ and ‘revelry’ that will, apparently, be displayed on the streets. Just last week, a mural being painted by artists in Islamabad was vandalised by individuals supposedly from the Lal Masjid. The mural, that showed two women standing — one with her head covered — was blackened and the word ‘Namanzoor [unacceptable]’ was spray-painted on it multiple times. In a separate incident, writer and self-appointed representative of those opposing the march, Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar, abused Marvi Sirmed, another panellist on a talk show, for interrupting him with the slogan, “Mera jism, meri marzi [My body, my choice].”

Aurat Azadi March's mural was vandalised in Islamabad last week | Mohammad Asim, White star
Aurat Azadi March's mural was vandalised in Islamabad last week | Mohammad Asim, White star

But before all this, the first noteworthy attempt to intimidate organisers was an incident of vandalism on one of the main roads of Lahore last month. The organisers had set up a mural of posters on one of the walls near Hussain Chowk in Lahore. The posters of various art styles made statements about subjects such as women’s and girls’ rights to empowerment through education, eradication of violence and economic independence. The messages were proudly displayed on the walls for no longer than four hours. Soon, unknown people came and ripped the posters to shreds.


***


A group of the march organisers meets at a small tea stall in Lahore’s Garden Town. They are all equally appalled and disgusted. “The posters were all encouraging equity and basic human rights,” says Shumaila. “We did not even make controversial statements.”

“Why are men so afraid when we demand our basic rights?” asks someone else. “None of the posters were provocative,” another voice chimes in, adding that “even the Quran gives equal rights to women.”

Related: Women peacefully put up Aurat March posters, men violently tore them down

And then one girl’s voice rises above the others. “There are posters and wall chalkings on every wall about male sexual problems,” the young organiser says. “Everywhere we turn, we see ads for mardana kamzori [men’s reproductive problems]. Yet no one bats an eye. But as soon as they see women putting up anything for their human rights, these [posters] are instantly destroyed.”

Angry as they are, the women find a way to laugh it off before getting back to work. Soon, they are back at Hussain Chowk, ready to reinstall the posters.


TOWARDS A MORE INCLUSIVE MARCH

While the women are putting up the posters, a man comes and starts asking questions. Alina, one of the more outspoken of the women, explains what happened. As she talks about the posters, a crowd starts gathering and soon she is surrounded by a group of young men. They seem genuinely interested in what she is saying.

Women carry patriarchy’s *'janaza'* (funeral of patriarchy) at a previous Aurat March in Karachi | Shakil Adil, White Star
Women carry patriarchy’s 'janaza' (funeral of patriarchy) at a previous Aurat March in Karachi | Shakil Adil, White Star

Most of the men appear to be from lower socio-economic backgrounds. They listen to her attentively as she talks about how the vulnerable are being exploited by the strong, and how women are standing against all kinds of exploitation and abuse.

At the end of the conversation, some men ask if they can help in any way. “Bring all the women you know,” Alina tells them. “This fight isn’t for us ‘privileged kids’ alone. It’s for everyone.”

She hands them flyers with the manifesto printed on them, and goes on to discuss it with them. It is a list of 15 demands, encompassing a variety of issues that women across all the social strata face daily in Pakistan.

According to Alina, the organisers are making a real effort to make the march more accessible this year. “I’m very openly critical of privileged people marching and last year we could have done better,” she tells Eos. “This year, we have tried to be more inclusive.”

The efforts seem to be paying off. The khwajasirah community is apparently more involved this year, as are members from other marginalised groups. “It’s easier this time because all of the volunteers for Aurat March are so diverse,” Alina says. “We have people from Defence and we also have people who live in jhuggian [slums].” Most of the outreach has been done by volunteers using personal connections, she says.

Some women who want to march have to “take permission from their husbands or fathers,” Noor adds. This is often difficult because many of these patriarchs disagree with the march. “But so many other men have also supported the idea and allowed them to take part in the march.”

One of these organisers is 20-year-old Noor. Last year, when she tried to mobilise people from her university, the response was varied. “Many people made fun of us and were generally unsupportive,” she says. Still, the young woman managed to garner the support of about 40 students — women who had had similar experiences and wanted to participate.

The response of the general public also varies from place to place. Noor says that, while the posters were torn on the main road, the responses in areas where the “poor communities” live were slightly more encouraging.

“They were facing the issues that we have spoken about in our manifesto,” she says. “They knew what we were talking about.” But while some of the people agree to join the march, several of them cannot make that commitment due to logistical reasons.

Some women who want to march have to “take permission from their husbands or fathers,” Noor adds. This is often difficult because many of these patriarchs disagree with the march. “But so many other men have also supported the idea and allowed them to take part in the march.”


A FEW GOOD MEN

Many Aurat March organisers are done with answering questions about men at the march and do not pay much heed to men’s opinions regarding the procession.

The march is primarily for women and the trans community, Dad says. “That means people who identify as women or people who are non-binary and do not want to confine themselves to a sex or gender identity,” she says. Dad is done catering to men. “We are not pushing men out of the pavilion forever, but this is International Women’s Day, and we would like to use the space without feeling that there are still too many men out there who are occupying it,” she says. “Men always take up space, so it is intentionally not meant for men.”

That said, Dad maintains that the march is open for everyone and all are welcome to attend. Noor adds that some young educated men realise that they must support women. But these men are also sensitive to the fact that supporting the march includes stepping back and following the women’s lead. Noor says that she knows many allies who have asked permission to attend the march and are very mindful about not “overstepping boundaries”.

Imran is one of these men. As a student activist, he is also always open to taking ideas out on the streets where everyone can hear them out. But some causes are more important to him than others.

“Whether I attend any student rallies, or not, I will always come out for the Aurat March [and] I will always stand in solidarity with women,” he says. “They deserve all the allegiance they can get from the opposite sex which has always maligned them.”

Protestors including Hina Jillani at a previous Aurat March in Lahore | Aun Jafri, White Star
Protestors including Hina Jillani at a previous Aurat March in Lahore | Aun Jafri, White Star

But not all men are offering a friendly alliance. In fact, a whole lot of them are trying their best to ensure the event fails.

An internal committee group is keeping tabs on fake accounts and trolls on social media who are spreading misinformation about the march and are trying to intimidate the marchers by giving them and the organisers vague threats.

“We are not pushing men out of the pavilion forever, but this is International Women’s Day, and we would like to use the space without feeling that there are still too many men out there who are occupying it,” she says. “Men always take up space, so it is intentionally not meant for men.”

One user on Twitter has threatened with doing “something” on the day of the march. “Dekhna main kya karta hoon [Look out for what I will do],” were his words. They are clearly meant to sound scary, but many are wondering if this is just another empty threat. After all, some had promised a retaliatory Men’s March last year. But these activists, supposedly standing up for men’s rights, never showed up.

Then there are statements that signal to more credible threats, such as those made by Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam – Fazl (JUI-F) leader Fazlur Rehman. In one clip that has been widely shared, Rehman talks about activities that are “anti-Islamic”, vulgar and not reflecting “our” culture. “If you think we will allow you to desecrate our culture or the culture of Islam, then you will also see us against you on the streets,” he says, seemingly talking about the Aurat March.

“Wherever you see such activities happening, invoke the law to stop them,” he says. “But if the law protects the other side then sacrifice yourself to stop them,” he says, clearly instigating his party workers.


STARTING A DIALOGUE

But unlike what opponents such as Rehman seem to believe, many of the women involved in the march are just interested in starting a dialogue.

“We are not crazy people, wanting to take over the world. There are always things that need to be discussed, especially if the other side does not understand them,” says one activist. “We have demands and we can explain them … Our demands do not only revolve around women but men, too,” she says, adding that, in essence, they are marching for equity and against oppressive power structures.

Many organisers believe that, if people are open to hearing them out, they would see the march for what it is.

A journalist was recently called to a meeting where, other than her, all the other attendees were religio-political representatives. She explained the concept of the Aurat March to them. When she finished talking, there was pin-drop silence and no one protested or disagreed with what she had said. “Perhaps some of these people are looking for some kind of dialogue instead of a confrontation,” she says.

“We need to get the left and the right to work together for this,” she says. “These women may not use the word ‘patriarchy’ but they recognise that women are not treated fairly in society.”

Dr Veerta Ali Ujan, an activist and the daughter of feminist poet Fahmida Riaz, clearly agrees. Recently, Ujan met with the women and family commission of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which is associated with the International Muslim Women Union (IMWU). IMWU has branches in 33 countries and has a standing at the United Nations and the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Initially, it seemed like Ujan and these women may not be able to see eye to eye. “They have ideas that may be the result of internalised patriarchy…” says Ujan. “They even said the women’s quota in the parliament was not needed.” But soon Ujan realised that much of what these women wanted aligned with the demands being made by Aurat March supporters too. The JI women, however, wanted to achieve these things without challenging male domination.

“IMWU is huge,” Ujan says. “They do lots of work internationally,” she adds. She believes that if organisations such as the Women’s Democratic Front collaborate with IMWU, a lot can be achieved.

“We need to get the left and the right to work together for this,” she says. “These women may not use the word ‘patriarchy’ but they recognise that women are not treated fairly in society.”

But not everyone agrees that such collaborations could work. Nighat Saeed Khan — better known in Lahore social circles as ‘Bunny’ — is one woman who believes working together is not always fruitful.


BEFORE THE AURAT MARCH

Bunny points out that the women’s movement in Pakistan has been at similar junctures before. “We tried our best to at least come together on the issue of rape,” she says. “But when we spoke about the Zina and Hudood Ordinances, they broke away,” she says, referring to the JI women’s wing. “This was the 1980s and we have continued trying to work with them on legislation, but have seldom gotten the support.”

She has no doubts that JI can bring out a lot of women; it is a political party, after all. But she fears that, like many other party members and supporters, they will always support their party’s position.

“Even in the assemblies, they tend not to vote on progressive lines,” she adds. “Nisar Fatima of JI was responsible for demanding the death penalty for blasphemy which was then passed by Nawaz Sharif in 1992.”

Bunny, who is one of the founding members of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), is well-versed in the history of the women’s movement in Pakistan. She also heads the Applied Socio-economic Research Resource Center (ASR) which recently held a magnificent exhibition on women’s struggles in the region. Focusing on the 1980s and 1990s, the display titled Feminist Excavations offered viewers a glimpse of this rich history.

Volunteers paint a mural that was later vandalised ahead of the Aurat March in Islamabad | Mohammad Asim, White Star
Volunteers paint a mural that was later vandalised ahead of the Aurat March in Islamabad | Mohammad Asim, White Star

Bunny shows enlarged photos from the early 20th century, when Muslim women in India had begun their suffragette movement — a detail that is often missed when speaking about the movement in the West.

In the pre-independence phase of the women’s movement in the region, the demands of women’s rights groups included issues such as infant mortality, women’s right to education and inheritance. “That was the early 20th century,” says Bunny with a wry smile. “Women are still demanding the same things.”

Bunny has “high hopes” for the new wave of feminism. She believes these feminists have the potential to take up newer issues.

Flitting through Pakistan’s history of women in black-and-white images, and then as they turn into colour, is nothing less than fascinating. The women featured include singers, such as Roshan Ara Begum, Begum Akhtar, Nayyara Noor and Tina Sani, Ajoka theatre’s Madeeha Gohar and women in politics, academia and journalism.

The stories from the 1980s are just as prominent and are remembered every year as the National (Pakistan) Women’s Day is celebrated on February 12 to mark the protests that women in Lahore did against the controversial Law of Evidence (Article 17 of Pakistan’s Qanoon-i-Shahadat Order, 1984, that provides that women’s testimonies are worth half that of men in certain civil matters).

Two of the women present in those protests were sisters Asma Jahangir and Hina Jillani, and no one can talk about the women’s struggle without mentioning their contribution.

It is no wonder then that, nearly four decades later, Hina Jillani spoke with such authority at the Lahore High Court when defending a woman’s right to march. The movement she was part of is remembered as one of the strongest, as women took to the streets, to protest — determined and demanding to be heard.

“I still remember how shopkeepers opened their shutters just so some of us could be rescued from the police and the tear gas,” remembers Bunny. “Some got beaten up, some arrested, but we were not afraid of backing down.”

Photo by Aun Jafri White Star
Photo by Aun Jafri White Star

As women marching today receive death threats and rape threats on Twitter and social media, the medium through which they are receiving the threats may have changed, but much else remains the same.

Bunny has “high hopes” for the new wave of feminism. She believes these feminists have the potential to take up newer issues. Hundreds will take to the streets today attempting to do just that, in the hopes that the generations to come are not demanding the same things years down the line. 


Header image: Aurat March in Karachi, 2019 |Shakil Adil White Star


The writer is a member of staff.

She tweets @xarijalil

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 8th, 2020