KARACHI: “Even if I were not sure about going to the march earlier, I am now definitely attending it, come rain or shine, and will be even taking my brother along,” said Islamabad-based Rubab Swati, 22, referring to the Aurat March (AM) taking place on Sunday (today).

A microbiologist at a pharmaceutical company, and artist, she had joined a group of young artists last week, who were preparing a mural on the boundary wall of a home. They said they had taken permission from the owners and it was to celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day. “We knew AM would be passing by this place and wanted to pay tribute to them,” said Minhajul Arifeen, 25, one of the artists.

Sadly, the mural was vandalised by Jamia Hafsa madressah students because they found it offensive. “Yes, our women did it,” said Umm-e-Hassaan, Jamia Hafsa spokesperson. “It was offensive to our eye and if they can portray their point of view so can we by defacing it.”

The half-complete painting showed two young girls, with one having draped her arm around the other.

Countrywide rallies planned amid divergent views on International Women’s Day

“There was a political message with an aspiration that Pakistani society reaches that level of maturity where it empowers its womenfolk to feel safe moving about freely unsupervised,” said Minhaj.

Hassaan further said it was haram to paint human forms and those “who painted or made sculptures would burn in hell” and someone had to take action insisting the act of vandalism was not unlawful. “If the authorities do not do it, someone has to stop this,” she justified and admitted they never went to the administration to register a complaint against the offensive artwork or the artists. “What we did was legal in the eye of Islam and Pakistan was made to propagate Islam.”

For the Women’s Day, they are planning an event but did not say they had an NOC from the administration which all the AM chapters had to take.

‘Impetus’

Benazir Jatoi, an Islamabad-based lawyer, who will attend the AM because she believes “movements like these bring change”, has received several calls from people inquiring about Sunday’s plan.

“They are angry at the mural episode and say they want to lend their support by showing up,” she said, adding: “Plus the Khalilur Rehman-Marvi Sirmed war of words gave the march some impetus.”

“I am hoping that doctors, students, young professionals and especially working women and domestic help turn up,” as the event certainly should not be “NGO-ised” nor be “hijacked or dominated by any one political party”.

Last year, participants in Islamabad had witnessed an ugly tussle between women participants of different political parties. “I think AM is the perfect event to harmonise political differences and rise above party politics,” Benazir said, adding haters will keenly be watching for fissures within the movement.

Apt slogan

And cracks have already appeared. There is a segment within the women of Pakistan, who have shown their disapproval, especially for the slogans and placards.

Sana Alim, mother of six and naib nazima of the women’s wing of Jamaat-i-Islami, found the slogan “mera jism, meri marzi” (my body, my choice), especially very distasteful. “There is an element of rebellion mixed with arrogance in this,” she said, adding that for Muslims, it was not right as “every inch of a human being belongs to Allah and it was His marzi not ours.”

But, 26-year-old Aasia Kamran, mother of two, who works as domestic help, and knew nothing about the significance of March 8, thought the mera jism, meri marzi slogan was apt in her case.

“In my family, women do not have any say over their bodies; they do not have any say as to how many kids they can have or when to have them. They are not even asked if they want to have them.”

Although compelled to wear a burqa by her husband whenever she steps out of the house, Aasia said she was continuously harassed by men on her way and back from work. “It seems my body, even when fully covered, is not mine but for every man on the street to ogle.”

She did not know a rally was taking place in Karachi to which she belonged, at Frere Hall at 3pm, where women would talk about everyday issues. “I want to attend this and hear what other women have to say,” she said. “Maybe I will, and take my husband and kids,” she added as an afterthought.

In addition, Sana found the issue being discussed through placards rather “frivolous”. “They should be talking about grave national issues like inheritance rights, domestic violence, employment and economic protection and legislation around these, not finding mozay [socks] and refusing to make roti. Why bring domestic, private and intimate issues out on the streets? Once serious issues are resolved, these smaller ones will automatically clear up.”

Neither Sana nor women from her party will attend the AM as they “do not understand their issues or their demands” but pointed out they are free to have their point of view and to hold their event if they want. “We will have our own event outside the Karachi Press Club, on March 8, same as we hold every year and invite the AM women to join us.”

‘Never imagined’

Speaking to Dawn, journalist and Women’s Action Forum member, Farieha Aziz, said: “Trivialising slogans on placards is harmful because they address the very root of the problem: gender roles and social conditioning. It is attitudes faced by women on a daily basis and dismissal of their concerns and experience that contribute to their oppression and hold them back.”

Farieha further said a march was “space for all individuals to express what is most important to them”. She said people should refrain from creating a hierarchy by labelling them as less “real” or “non-issues”. “With each generation, issues will evolve. So will expression of them.”

In Lahore, the marchers were in a celebratory mood after the LHC dismissed the petition filed to ban the march, with the judge stating it was their “fundamental right” to assemble and even ordered the police to provide security.

The volunteers who call themselves workers (there are committees like social media, online content committee, those trying to liaise with the city administration for permission and security) have been working since October last year, said Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation and one of the forces behind the initiative in Lahore. The workers have been working in tandem with chapters in Karachi, Hyderabad, Sukkur, Multan, Quetta and Islamabad, mobilising women from all segments of society to join, she added.

“I never imagined Aurat March would become such a big thing that it has,” she said. “The beauty of this movement is that everyone is a worker and no one is an organiser.”

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2020