LAHORE: Despite facing sexual harassment, intimidation and even threats, hundreds of women’s groups converged at the Lahore Press Club and began their march demanding basic rights.

By 11am, the roads around Egerton Road were blocked with containers, and policewomen trained in combat stood side by side, forming a chain in front of the marchers. Walkthrough gates were put up and people and their belongings checked while they passed.

By noon, which was the scheduled time of the march, the rally began with full force. Theatre performer Takreema beat the drum, while the rest of the crowd began chanting: “Aurat kya mangay?” (What does a woman want?), and answering it with “Azadi” (freedom) echoing through the empty Egerton Road.

The rally was led by a row of police personnel and the media. Volunteers held a rope in the front to contain the marchers. Perhaps this was one reason why Mehwish, who also attended last year’s march, told Dawn that while the high security was a good idea, it was also disappointing that the march was “diluted” and not as spontaneous as last year’s.

“The energy is there, but they should have allowed us to walk around just as other marchers have demonstrated in the past,” she said.

However, another participant said police had to be present there because of the threats they were receiving. “The Islamabad march was attacked by Lal Masjid members, and if police weren’t here for us, something may have happened here too,” said Nighat Dad, one of the main organisers. “There was already a scare about something untoward happening.”

If anything was a little overbearing, it was police checking posters before the march began in the morning and confiscating a few, infuriating the participants, who called it “vigilantism”. But Dad told Dawn that police had a misunderstanding and when the organisers spoke to the authorities, it was immediately resolved and the posters were returned.

In any case, Dad claimed, the march ended smoothly and the number of people must have been in thousands.

The marchers also carried a long red banner -- denoting a dupatta – which was scribbled with real stories – in a sentence or a few words -- of women who had ever been raped, sexually abused, harassed or faced discrimination in inheritance in their life etc.

The massive rally finally ended at Aiwan-i-Iqbal where the participants sat on the road for an hour and a half and cheered at some performances and speeches.

The main performance was the Urdu version of a Chilean anti-rape anthem wherein a street performance highlighted all the elements that added to a woman’s sexual abuse and discrimination, including feudalism, patriarchy.

Placards

Although not as ‘controversial’ as last year’s, the placards the marchers held this year also received a lot of attention -- on social media as well as on the spot. Many were tongue in cheek, especially taking jibes at writer Khalilur Rehman Qamar, while some were heartbreaking or simply uplifting.

‘I March for My Future’, said one carried by a nine-year-old girl, while another young girl carried a poster, reading: ‘Achay salan par beti ka bhi haq hai’ (A daughter also has a right to good food), referring to the countless families that gave the best food to their sons and left the leftovers for the daughters.

‘Main karoon tou sasti shohrat, tum karo tou siyasat’ was another poster, referring to hypocrisy in society, while yet another combined two main issues: “Kuch logon ke liye climate change se zyada auraton ka barabri mangna khatarnak hai’ (For some people, women’s demand for equality is more threatening than climate change).

Women from the working class also participated in the march under various organisations, including Lahore Left Front, Domestic Workers Union and the Labour Education Foundation. One of them held a banner bringing a hard reality to the forefront: ‘All women work, only some are paid’.

Stressing the right to expression, and pointing to the clampdown on the media, the evergreen line by Faiz Ahmed Faiz shone through on another banner: ‘Bol ke lab azaad hain tere’.

Some noteworthy posters that highlighted other pressing human rights issues in the country read: ‘Maid ko izzat dou’, ‘We stand with Kashmiri rape victims’, and ‘Baloch auraton ki jabri gumshudgi band karo’.

There were also reports of harassment. One of the organisers told Dawn on condition of anonymity: “Most of the media personnel were great with us, but some were really terrible. They asked insinuating or leading questions, and tried to prove points that went against our narrative. A few cases of women being sexually harassed during the march also came up, and some known harassers that have been called out in the past were at the march trying to portray that they supported the cause.”

Published in Dawn, March 9th, 2020