‘Khud khana garam karlo’: Why some Aurat March posters touched a nerve

There was an undeniable sense of relief, and subsequent pleasure, that I derived from knowing that a part of my lived experiences were inscribed on placards and posters for the world to witness.
Published March 12, 2023

On March 8, 2018, a day designated for the celebration of women internationally, hundreds of people took to the streets of Karachi to participate in, what would be, the first Aurat March in Pakistan.

The participants had united under the loosely defined banner of ‘unity’, ‘empowerment’, and ‘reclaiming public spaces’. In successive Marches, organisers circulated a formal manifesto along with setting a different theme for the event every year. This year’s slogan, “riyasat jawaab do, bhook ka hisaab do” [The state must give answers, give accountability for our hunger], draws our attention to the state’s failure to provide and protect its populace.

These themes, however, serve more as an organising strategy than a formal dictum. One observes a variety of messages, concerns, and experiences shared at the event, both in the form of staged performances as well as the raised banners and posters.

What is fascinating is that the mainstream understanding of the nature and demands of the Aurat March is overwhelmingly informed by the popularity of a select few posters that are vehemently debated on social media sites and national television. The anger towards the posters and the overall movement has over the years escalated into the organising members receiving threats of sexual and physical violence.

In fact, participants of the Aurat March 2020 organised in Islamabad were physically attacked during the rally by members of a counter protest, leaving several people injured. This year too, protesters were charged with batons by the police in Islamabad.

Much of the vitriol can, to this day, be witnessed online on Facebook and Twitter—ranging from elaborate critiques of the posters, doctored images of the Aurat March protesters holding posters with sexual messages, to the launching of an online counter movement called ‘Mard March’ [Men’s March] that concerns itself with responding to popular Aurat March posters with their own version of the same.

Among the posters that raised a social media storm was the “khud khana garam karlo” [heat your own food] poster that was spotted at the first Aurat March. The poster, along with many other similar ones that sprouted in subsequent Marches, was heavily criticised for its frivolity and triviality — it was accused of dampening the seriousness of the March by highlighting matters that qualified as ‘non-issues’ in a country where women were still being murdered in the name of honour.

What often gets lost in these debates is the creative and radical potential of the everyday and the frivolous in unsettling accepted discourse on gender and political action — a dialogue that the posters in the Aurat March movement initiate.

Revisiting khud khana garam karlo and other posters

 A poster at an Aurat March in Karachi. — Photo: Dawn/File
A poster at an Aurat March in Karachi. — Photo: Dawn/File

No poster in the first Aurat March attracted as much media attention, analysis, and ultimately a thread of justifications from local feminists as much as the ‘khud khana garam karlo’ poster.

In a way, the poster’s popularity on social media was for many their very first introduction to the Aurat March, and for others, the sole takeaway point that simply authenticated their pre-existing doubts about the morally corrupt nature of a March that called for women to depart from the sanctity of their homes and subject themselves to the dirty streets and dirty gazes that they have for long been taught to fear and avoid.

Compelled by the overwhelming social media activity the poster generated — from articles and interviews, to countless Facebook memes and tweets debating the validity of the message — the creator of the poster, Asna Hussain, went on record to explain the motivation behind the poster:

“Too many a time, I have heard the defenders of the patriarchy argue, “Wo chai kyun banaega? Wo larka hai!” [Why would he make tea? He is a boy!] and “Uski khair hai? Wo larka hai!” [He’s fine, he’s a boy!]. When I got sick and tired of being told this and demanded khud khana garam karlo [Warm your food yourself] at the recent Aurat March in Karachi, our entire community burst out in anger.”

In detailing her personal experience, Hussain sketches the shared everyday realities of many Pakistani women who perform all kinds of care labour in their households on a daily basis. Her statement on the disproportionate distribution of domestic responsibilities comes as no surprise.

Gendered labour and the pressing social expectation from women and young girls to perform care work is a well-known and discussed subject, with a copious body of continually growing scholarship to help us understand its workings. A handful of similar posters demanding an increased participation of men in domestic and care labour were also spotted in the second Aurat March. Another popular one following the same stylistic features of the “heat your own food” poster — a seemingly casual and familiar remark delivered as direct speech — was “mujhay kia maloom tumhara moza kahan hai?” [How would I know where your sock is?].

The reference to everyday occurrences and engagements with the ongoing ‘mundane’ and intimate aspects of day-to-day living is evident in the posters described above. What is also worth noting is that the style in which the concerns are raised also happens to convey a sense of familiarity and direct relatability. The concerns are framed as dialogues extracted from conversations that may erupt daily in households where wives wake up early in the morning to manage their husbands’ right-before-leaving-for-work moments of crisis involving a missing sock or last-minute ironing task, or where a tired male voice asks his mother to serve him food the moment he enters the house.

These conversations are also not unknown to those who have domestic workers available to perform many of these mundane tasks, yet are prompted into action the minute their brother requests a cup of tea and the domestic help is nowhere in sight. Not to mention the nexus of the gender-class imbalance that is a reality for most domestic workers themselves.

Even if these extended requests or instructions are challenged, met with straight-forward denial, or mostly go unfulfilled, the posters pushed these implicit expectations that often manifest behind closed doors, out in the public eye. The dialogues that typically animate people’s domestic lives were now being initiated, rather, continued in the open space of the streets and public parks by the protesters.

The images above were circulated on Twitter under the khud khana garam karlo hashtag. They provide us with a clear sense of the underlying logic that dictated the criticism directed at posters engaging with gender issues that are constitutive of women’s mundane day-to-day realities.

“How would I know where your sock is!” poster. — Source: Twitter
“How would I know where your sock is!” poster. — Source: Twitter

Issues worthy of the movement’s attention, such as income disparity, education inequality, rape culture, domestic violence, period taboos etc are starkly juxtaposed with the khud khana garam karlo demand.

Clearly, the binary opposition between purposeful/important and trivial/insignificant is at play here. But also note that domestic violence and taboos surrounding periods are issues that are commonly listed under the banner of ‘private’, ‘personal’, or every day, yet the critic of the khud khana garam karlo poster above has no qualms accepting them as significant issues.

Why? Because of their legibility as an already established discourse that one can easily distance themselves from and discuss as a human rights issue applicable to all and any, but never to themselves specifically.

“(Un)real issues”

But what happens when the ‘ongoingness’ of everyday living and the texture of realities that converse with ordinary spaces are invoked in a time bound and charged event like the Aurat March? It is perhaps important to clarify that the posters in question blended well with the overall vivacious and celebratory atmosphere of the events. The Marches are often animated by musical performances, staged short skits, moving personal speeches, and scattered dances erupting impromptu at different parts and stages of the events.

It was later, when these posters were isolated from the overall vibrancy of the happenings and subjected to the internet’s scrutiny that a discourse surrounding the appropriateness of the posters, and subsequently the March itself, surfaced and consumed all other accounts and experiences related to the March — a transference of lived experience onto the restricting level of discourse.

Underlying these critiques of the inappropriateness of the posters was the notion that the productive and change-inducing potential of the movement was being squandered on frivolities when it could have been directed towards addressing more pressing gender related issues and injustices.

Supporters of the March too found themselves in an uncomfortable position defending these posters, hence, their rebuttals mostly involved pointing instead at the plethora of other posters that raised issues that held the conventional appeal of being crucial.

Critics, in return, were also accused of fixating on a handful of careless posters that were held not representative of the larger agenda of the March. The issue such a stance poses has been succinctly summarised by Sadia Khatri:

“What are the implications of redirecting people to the manifesto when they bring up the posters? What separations are coded in the action of holding up this manifesto as a qualification of ‘real’ issues? When we use the language of real and serious, we create a distinction between ‘actual’ issues and ‘pretended’ ones. When we rush to clarify that we have included ‘important’ causes in our demands, we suggest that other causes are unimportant.”

Our concern is not solely the importance of the issues raised, but also the creative potential of the everyday that can open better ways to conceptualise gender-related issues that take place in real time and space and can generate more effective and enduring modes of accountability.

The ‘serious’ structural issues that critics of the Aurat Match expected the women to advance — such as child marriages, education inequality, domestic violence, honour killings etc — have for long been acknowledged and taken up as causes by numerous NGOs and other welfare institutions as critical human rights issues.

While there is no denying the existence of these problems, or the fact that despite the attention they receive, they still remain prevalent issues faced by women in Pakistan, being swept under the human rights discourse has granted them the quality of being abstract categories. They have been rendered a timeless quality and are removed from the possibility of occurring in real time and space.

They then become issues that can be haunting any household, city, or village across the country — just not our homes. In contrast, the posters concerned with everyday happenings alluded strongly to specific spaces, times, and relations where these issues commonly manifest — making them recognisable as realities of our own homes that can now easily be realised in the exact moments of men entering their homes from the outdoors and demanding a hot meal or when frantically searching for a missing sock while getting ready for work; they now become statements that intimately address not an abstract somebody or anybody, but the very men we know and live with!

Aired in the public during the exceptional time of the Aurat March event, the message of these posters expose us to the nature of gender inequality — a lived reality that is processual, every day, and intimately tied to ordinary space, time, and living.

Of humour and play

Characteristic of all such posters deemed as ‘frivolous’ is the underlying playfulness and humour with which grave social realities are presented to and comprehended by the public. Many of these posters that were popularly criticised for indulging in trifling and insignificant matters highlighted everyday experiences of women through cutting humour.

 A publicly shared tweet. Translation: “I had no idea that Pakistani feminism would leave behind issues related to women’s murders, rape, harassment, employment, education, malnutrition, period taboos, only to reduce itself to the issue of (warm) food.” — Source: Twitter
A publicly shared tweet. Translation: “I had no idea that Pakistani feminism would leave behind issues related to women’s murders, rape, harassment, employment, education, malnutrition, period taboos, only to reduce itself to the issue of (warm) food.” — Source: Twitter

While certain messages appear to be intentionally spun with the thread of humour, others take on the garb of humour by suggesting a playfulness that entails directly addressing the perpetrators of unjust acts and compelling them to engage with the issue at hand.

As one of the numerous other Pakistani women who could not help but laugh at the sheer cleverness of those messages, I found myself frantically nodding my head in agreement to the veracity of the mentioned happenings.

There was an undeniable sense of relief, and subsequent pleasure, that I derived from knowing that a part of my lived experiences — realities that are experienced in the hidden or suppressed from erupting out in the open — were inscribed on placards and posters for the world to witness.

A major contributor to this described feeling of relief and pleasure was also knowing that these often-unexpressed experiences were lived and shared by many other women across the country. The creative capacity of humour makes it possible to not only bring to our attention those social practices and truths that shape the shared worlds of women who have, or are still living in the urban centres of the country, but also the ways in which we collectively create, recreate, maintain, and accept that reality.

The conversations evoked in the posters are familiar but it is also easy for familiarity to make us think that we have a better grasp about a subject or situation and impose those contours of understanding on other people’s experiences.

The familiarity of the everyday situations brought up in the posters can be argued to hold the same kind of effect on the men who later initiated the Mard March [men’s march] project online. The issues raised by the posters during the Aurat March were everyday knowledge that most people were intimately aware of, resulting in a swift response by men on social media debating why the performance of certain gender roles was reasonable and hence justified.

None of these surfacing counter arguments denied the existence of such practices. What they hinted at was a one-sided understanding of these familiar situations based on a simplistic logic of reciprocity that completely discounted the structural inequalities at play (some of the placards that circulated online under the Mard March hashtag directly responded to Aurat March posters, borrowing the same rhetorical style, such as, “get your own credit card” or “bring the yoghourt yourself” — bringing yoghurt and roti [bread] from a nearby shop are outdoor tasks that are known to be performed mostly by men in the family).

It is in irony and humour that we find creative ways to break from such limiting patterns of familiarity. They play a necessary role in emphasising the distance between our perception of things and people’s lived realities, and serve as a tool that can be used by people to critique their everyday lives.

Humour, irony, and related categories that fall under the purview of everyday trivialities become a valuable resource through which the fixity of social and political categories can be challenged.

Imbued with colloquialism and witty humour, the Aurat March posters managed to unsettle the formalism associated with political rhetoric that presupposes a knowable and unchanging reality in favour of a nuanced and complicated perception of social worlds — one that presses us to look beyond the facile argument of reciprocity (which justifies women’s performance of certain roles simply because men perform others) into the intricate webs of power and gender inequality at play.

 Image comparing the ‘serious’ demands furthered by feminists back in the day with the triviality of the “heat your own food” demand made during the Aurat March. — Source: Twitter
Image comparing the ‘serious’ demands furthered by feminists back in the day with the triviality of the “heat your own food” demand made during the Aurat March. — Source: Twitter

A question that occupied me as I browsed through the saved photographs of posters was why I found those specific posters funny in the first place. It would not be false to assume that these placards made purposeful use of humour to question prevalent gendered practices.

But there is nothing particularly funny about refusing to find a lost sock, or not giving in to the demand to heat food for the men in our families — I, for one, have always found such insistence and my refusal to comply an unnecessary and annoying inconvenience to say the least.

What, other than the fact that the message resonates with a great number of women, then, renders the mentioning of these patterns on a placard the quality of being sharp and amusing? It was perhaps the acknowledging of these common, yet often ignored, happenings out in the streets and public areas that elicits an ‘aha, that’s clever’ response from many of us.

Another crucial reason why these posters appealed to many as humorous was because they rendered as a focal point, issues that struck many as trivial, casual, or even random considering our established understanding of socio-political marches as urgent calls for political action and social change. A degree of seriousness is attached to such processions since they often relay a crisis demanding immediate remedial measures.

The very thought of these playful posters marking a political movement taking place in prime locations of the cities is enough to surprise, and in some cases even shock, the audience. The seriousness attached to political movements and the decorum expected of gendered bodies in public spaces, destabilises conventional modes and mannerisms associated with protest culture.

It is these uncertainties and elements of surprise, manifesting due to the multiplicities of bodies, affects, messages, and voices, that troubles our held conceptions of political and social spaces as coherent wholes.

From the presence of playfulness and humour in the March emerged resistance to the accepted discourse on gender and political action, alternative constructions of lived gender realities, as well as new ways of conceptualising spaces as open and always in the making.

Why settle for less?

“It is a time to transgress more, in this beautiful moment when everything has exploded, when the scales are in the air and new norms are being set,” writes Khatri.

With the Aurat March gaining momentum each passing year, it is indeed a wonderful time to push the circumscribed boundaries of normative politics and further the discussion on the political potential of ‘everyday’ — the time and space where Pakistani women live and experience the realities of gender inequality most prevalently and intimately.

The normative discourse on gender inequality and political action cannot fully capture the dynamic nature of gender realities that are so tightly woven in the fabric of people’s everyday lives. These realities demand to be read and understood in the concreteness of real ordinary time and space.

The everyday, with all its spontaneity, humour, messiness, frivolities, and trivialities, can be mobilised to unsettle the formalism of political rhetoric and create new political spaces and modes of accountability that take into account the intricacies of everyday gender inequalities.

In this important moment, when women are introducing new ways to press their demands and initiate creative political dialogues out in the streets, why resist the dynamism of this bubbling politics by insisting they recite the conventional script? If scales really are in the air and the artifice of the imposed public-private binary is being exposed by the protesting women through their invocation of the everyday, why settle for less?

Header image: “Heat your own food” poster spotted during the first Aurat March. — Photo: Dawn Images/ File