THE most tense, bitter and intense of moments are made bearable by clowns in every society who have an incredible sense of timing in providing comic relief when it is direly needed. But the underlying issue remains.
Against the backdrop of a pretty odious and noxious anti-Aurat March campaign, which has been filling me with rage, I saw PTI Senator Faisal Javed being interviewed on TV by one of our ever-increasing crop of mostly uninformed, and yet highly opinionated, anchors.
The anchor asked if there was really a need for this women’s rights campaign when, “apart from a few women in rural areas”, Pakistani women were now enjoying equal rights and working in all fields, including the military, and even had a cricket team of their own.
The senator paused to think and reached deep into his intellect to respond: “There does not seem to be any issue. Why do they march to ‘mera jism, meri marzi’? Have they ever bothered to protest why people do not pay zakat when Allah so orders? They should do a ‘meri daulat, meri zakat march’.”
Making a dent in the status quo is not easy. If you aspire to overthrow it, your task becomes that much more onerous.
I could not believe my eyes and ears. Thanks to the availability of the TV content online, I played and replayed the clip many times to shake off my state of disbelief. He was actually saying what I thought he said. (I am hoping to join the senator if he himself leads a ‘meri daulat, meri zakat’ march).
Some 24 hours later, he changed his mind and told another TV anchor, this time an informed one, that women did have issues that warranted a march. However, their messaging needed to have clarity and “even women I have talked to find the ‘mera jism, meri marzi’ slogan ‘behooda [obscene]’”.
The PTI was not alone in finding fault with this slogan and PML-N Senator Mushahidullah Khan is reported to have said on the floor of the upper house that the slogan was an invitation to fahashi, or vulgarity, and, therefore, should be abandoned.
Then there were journalists too who said a sinister motive, a conspiracy, appeared to be behind the slogan and the Aurat March organisers needed to clarify their position. Addressing a conference in Karachi, retired Justice Nasira Iqbal did — if anybody was prepared to shake off their biases and listen.
She said 89 per cent of the Pakistani women were subjected to domestic violence and abuse. She also said that owing to aborted foetuses, malnutrition and disease-driven infant mortality, some five million girls are missing from the country’s population according to UN statistics.
For its part, the World Economic Forum, which our leaders rush to attend each year with seemingly no other purpose than to further their sense of self-importance and massage their egos, places Pakistan in the gender disparity index at 151 out of the listed 153 nations.
Our ranking in the disparity of healthcare with regards to women puts us at 149 of 153. That is our sad reality. This systematic exploitation and maltreatment of women does not touch our conscience. What is too much for our sensibilities is a botched and perverted interpretation of a slogan. So much so that the march organisers are being demonised for it no end.
This is not surprising at all. Rights campaigners have always faced untold challenges. Making a dent in the status quo is not easy. If you aspire to overthrow it, your task becomes that much more onerous.
In recent times, Nelson Mandela’s example stands out. As does the example of suffragette champion Emmeline Pankhurst who has chronicled her struggle in My Own Story. I wish to share a couple of quotes from her book which was finished just as Europe and the rest of the world was poised for the death and destruction of the First World War.
Manchester-born Pankhurst served several jail sentences. My Own Story is truly inspirational. Every line appears quotable, but I choose just a few quotes to give a taste of the book to those who may not have read it:
“The militancy of men, through all the centuries, has drenched the world with blood, and these deeds of horror and destruction have been rewarded with monuments, with great songs and epics. The militancy of women has harmed no human life save the lives of those who fought the battle of righteousness... Men make the moral code and they expect women to accept it. They have decided that it is entirely right and proper for men to fight for their liberties and their rights, but that it is not right and proper for women to fight for theirs.”
Elsewhere, she says: “We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help to free the other half.” It was after braving jail sentences, police batons and hunger strikes during which she and other activists were force-fed that she finally triumphed in winning women the right to vote in Britain.
Her journey was one filled with nightmarish obstacles. Our own women’s rights champions’ struggle is no less. They risk life, limb and liberty as they call for equality and an end to patriarchy and bigotry that use tradition or, worse still, faith as a crutch to justify the oppression of women.
So, are the bitter critics of the march, in particular men, who are ostensibly only objecting to the slogan, saying that they have no issues with the women’s right to equality as such, really committed to women’s emancipation? I have repeatedly asked myself this question.
If I or anybody else for that matter were to answer that question in the affirmative, we would need to get our heads examined. As Pankhurst’s and Mandela’s lives show, the battle for equality and dignity is hard and long and can often be lonely. But it is worth fighting nonetheless.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2020