The women will march

The Aurat March is not a sanitised, polite, controlled version of a narrative of women’s rights. It is organic and therefore, it will always be messy and diverse.
Published March 8, 2023

The years following the inaugural Aurat March in 2018 have been met with what is now an alarmingly familiar pattern.

Each year, around February, there is a marked uptick in online vitriol directed at women speaking about their rights on any public forum. Television anchors and guests spin cautionary tales, detailing various themes of behayai [shamelessness] that the Aurat March is exclusively held responsible for. Most of these commentators are men, but there are many women who also buy into this narrative.

As if Pakistan’s greatest problem at present is behayai, and even if that were the case (which it is not — that particular list is unending), the insinuation that our behayai problem stems from the one day a year when women chant slogans and carry placards calling out abusive, neglectful men and patriarchy in general, rather than the slew of rapes, child abuse cases, grave robbing, domestic violence, killing in the name of ‘honour’ and near institutionalised sexual harassment of women in the workplace and in public spaces are apparently the hallmarks of a ‘respectable’ society.

The ‘men are not robots’ debate

This time is marked with men reminding us that women in Pakistan have no real problems because religion affords us rights even if the men interpreting, institutionalising, and preaching that religion markedly do not.

We are told from a young age that we should not go ‘outside’ because ‘it isn’t safe for women’. Pray tell, what is so dangerous outside that women must be so wary of? Is it goblins or ghosts or wolves or djinns?

We are told not to go outside because the danger facing women outside their homes is men. While all men obviously do not abuse women, women are in no position to distinguish between which men are and are not a danger to them — therefore women must be wary of all men.

It is men who taught us this lesson by telling us that they respect us and the only way they have devised to show us this respect is to cage our movement, lock us up, prevent us from working and limit our potential. All because men cannot control themselves in the presence of women, something that they proudly reaffirm for us publicly with comments like “agar aurat aise kapre pehne gi to aadmi kya kare [What can a man do when women wear such clothes?]”, “aurat bahar phire gi to uss ke saath bura hi hoga [Only bad things happen to women who venture outside]” and the now infamous “Mard robot thori hein [Men are not robots]”.

Women are punished for a problem that men have with female bodies. This is a lesson they have taught us by reiterating that a woman’s izzat [honour] is framed through her jism [body] and men’s izzat rests in how they manage ‘their’ women.

‘Not real women’

All the concerns with badgering and intimidation, media harassment and misrepresentation are things the Aurat March and its organisers are deeply familiar with. None of this is new. Every independent minded woman who stands up for herself in our country, in any capacity, is punished for it socially.

The present charge against women participating in the Aurat Marches is that they are not ‘real women’. ‘Ye asli aurtein nahin hein’, a phrase that expands the ‘good woman/bad woman’ binary into new territory, where supposed ‘bad women’ aren’t even women any longer.

This vitriol and baseless propaganda is achingly familiar. The Aurat March is also well acquainted with the charge of being ‘foreign funded’. If only!

Read more: Let me womansplain the Aurat March to you

Aurat March funds are painstakingly collected through bake sales and dholkis, with students and volunteers selling everything from handmade face masks, tote bags and posters to conducting storytelling sessions.

In some ways, the greatest testament to the fact that the Aurat March receives no foreign funds is the treatment it receives. No matter how Pakistanis denigrate western nations at political rallies, no one messes with any group or institution that actually has foreign funds backing it up. Not in this country.

The state’s response

While all these struggles are familiar, 2023 has been the start of something new and ominous in the form of the state’s response to the Aurat March.

For several years, Aurat March chapters in several cities including Islamabad, Karachi, Multan and Lahore have met with intimidation from religious groups and local administrations, and the marches have either been limited or redirected but they have never been stopped altogether.

This has been the first year when the Lahore District Commissioner actively chose to cater to the Haya March over the Aurat March, even though the former arose as a violent response to intimidate Aurat March organisers. The Lahore, Islamabad and Multan chapters all received notices that the march would not go ahead two days before March 8, and it has taken entire days for volunteers, lawyers and organisers camping outside of the courts to finally secure permissions and security protocol for the Aurat March to proceed.

This new form of intimidation implies that the real problem here isn’t about freedom of expression or assembly, not even women’s free expression or assembly, but rather about who the women taking to the streets are, what they are saying and who claims them.

The Aurat March works independently and while women organising under any other banner have the protection of a political party or religious group, someone to ‘claim’ them as ‘their’ women and therefore ensure their safety, the Aurat March rejects this frame. Despite having fathers, brothers, husbands and sons, the women gathering at the Aurat March do so as individuals asserting that they are enough to be regarded as human beings with rights.

By claiming only themselves, they demand the protection of the state from violence, threats and harassment. Denying peaceful protesters this protection while it is extended to violent groups openly making threats, carrying sticks, and throwing bricks, implies that the state endorses institutionalised violence over independent, peaceful citizens, especially when those citizens happen to be women.

Here to stay

The Aurat March is an inclusive, grass roots led movement that welcomes khwaja siras, gender minorities, men, and women from all walks of life to protest for women’s rights on March 8, which is a global event marking International Women’s Day.

The Aurat March begins its organising efforts early on and hosts both private and public events to plan its manifesto, its art and poster campaigns and its fund-raising campaign. Grassroots organising with women’s groups, ranging from farmers and sanitation workers to religious minority communities and domestic workers, continues all year-round, so for all the people accusing the March and its organisers of being elite women who don’t have ‘anything to do with Pakistani women’s struggles’, it would be prudent to visit their vibrant social media pages and see how much effort every chapter of the Aurat March makes to engage with as many women from as many walks of life as possible.

One hopes that more men and women who are genuinely sceptical of the March would engage with them. If you think you and your concerns are not being included by the March, then show up to the one in your city on March 8 carrying a placard that says what you want to say.

Read more: Is Aurat March un-Islamic?

Despite all the intimidation and the last-minute hurdles, harassment and hiccups, rest assured that the Aurat March is here to stay. It is here to stay because it is a movement that showcases something markedly different from all other protests.

The reason so many people fear the Aurat March is because it features scores of women openly embracing two emotions that women are seldom, if ever, allowed to express in our culture — anger and joy.

Protesters sing songs, dance, perform theatrical pieces and feature artwork that epitomises this potent combination of women’s rage coupled with their joy — all in a public space.

The Aurat March is not a sanitised, polite, controlled version of a narrative of women’s rights. It is organic and therefore, it will always be messy and diverse.

These are women who have taken the slurs, insults, and attacks on them and turned them into art and laughed at the men trying to terrify them. Nothing destroys insecure men more than such brazen defiance.

The Aurat March features women speaking simultaneously for themselves and for each other. It shows their collective power — their joy and their rage, proudly on display for all to see without apology and without fear.

I get why some of you are terrified in the face of such uncontrollable, beautiful, and raw honesty but that is your cross to bear.

Because the women will march.