IT is that time of year once again when defenders of the patriarchy spring into action with spurious arguments to protect the status quo. This time, Minister for Religious Affairs Noorul Haq Qadri is leading the charge.
He has written to Prime Minister Imran Khan to ask him to ban Aurat March on International Women’s Day — March 8 — and declare it as International Hijab Day, claiming that the women’s rally held annually to mark the UN-designated occasion contravenes religious principles. Interestingly, the minister in his letter dated Feb 9 acknowledges the importance of International Women’s Day in raising awareness of women’s rights, but then proceeds to decry as un-Islamic the banners and slogans that often feature at the Aurat March.
This is not only a specious assertion, but a dangerous one in a country already dangerous for women — where a man who murdered his celebrity sister walked free recently, one among many other ‘honour killers’ who will never see the inside of a prison long enough to pay for their crime. Here there are laws aplenty to protect women, from sexual harassment, domestic violence etc, but regressive social mores and an apathetic legal system remain major obstacles to implementing them. Millions of girls are condemned to a lower quality of life, simply on account of being born female.
According to the latest Gender Parity Index, in which we regularly feature near the bottom, at the current rate it will take 136 years to close the gender gap in Pakistan. And yet, every year without fail, conservative segments balk at the prospect of peaceful rallies of women demanding their rights as enshrined in the Constitution. The opportunistic co-opting by the minister of the hijab row in India simply underscores the illogic of his position. Aurat March advocates women’s agency — to pursue a career, to select a life partner, or indeed, to wear the hijab or not. Participants at the annual event, carrying their diverse slogans, illustrate precisely this inclusive, non-judgemental stance.
The government is led by a party which used to take pride in its vocal female support base, one that regularly showed up at its months-long dharna in 2014. The PTI should rein in the retrogressive voices within its ranks and express support for the Aurat March. Yesterday, the president of JUI-F’s Islamabad chapter openly threatened physical violence to disrupt the march. Clearly, misogynistic elements such as these will stop at nothing.
Last year, the lives of march organisers and participants were put at risk by a particularly vicious disinformation campaign. The government is responsible for the protection of all those engaging in their democratic right to protest on March 8. Unlike other recent protests that were met with kid glove treatment by the state, at least the Aurat March will not be the cause of death and mayhem on the streets.
Published in Dawn, February 19th, 2022