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Pakistan’s Own Aurat March: What Does The Movement Want?

Aurat March will be held on March 8 in Lahore to celebrate International Women’s Day and no one can stop it; freedom of association is a fundamental right”, Lahore High Court Chief Justice Mamoon Rashid Sheikh declared in his judgment on February 27.

Earlier, on the 24th of February, Advocate Azhar Siddique acting counsel for Munir Ahmed filed a petition against the Aurat March for being “anti-state” and “un-Islamic”. He submitted an application at the LHC seeking a permanent ban on the Aurat March which is scheduled to be held on March 8.

The petition also stated that the march is, “against the very norms of Islam” and that its hidden agenda is to spread “anarchy, vulgarity and hatred”. The petitioner claimed that “morality and decency have to be safeguarded and protected by the state at all costs”.

Siddique contends that the basic purpose of Women’s Day is to recognize and appreciate women for their achievements as well as to express solidarity with women struggling all over the world against cruelty, discrimination, ignorance and domestic violence. However, by fixating on their agenda, some people are daring to create an environment that is traditionally, culturally and morally less binding upon them. Siddique further claimed in his petition that, “there are various anti-state parties present who are funding this Aurat March with the sole purpose of spreading anarchy amongst the masses”.

Activists organise the marches every year in March to commemorate International Women’s Day in various cities throughout the country. The participants march along a designated route and chant slogans against patriarchy, oppression and usurpation of rights of women and transgender people. Since March 2018, it is better organized in major cities across Pakistan as Aurat March. It is a growing movement of women, trans-gender people and the queer community who are looking to challenge structures of misogyny in homes, workplaces, society, and in the state-endorsed institutions and policies that govern the people.

As Aurat March has become the talk of the town, let us have a look at the manifesto to clarify the politics and the purpose of it. The manifesto of Aurat March is in the framework of feminism of purpose (health, education, inheritance, marital rights) and the feminism of pleasure (bodily autonomy, agency over time and leisure).

  1. Aurat March Movement calls for economic justice. Women form a large part of the labour force, especially in the agricultural field and informal sector, in Pakistan. But they don’t have an equal right to voice their opinions, concerns, and issues related to work, wages and employers. Although a minimum wage gap policy was introduced, but women are suffering with workplace exploitation. Aurat March demands change.

  2. Women demand that their right to Climate Justice be protected and enforced. It is the right of all people to be dynamically involved in laws, policies and actions that affect the environment because ultimately, it affects everyone. The movement also demands protection for animals’ rights, clean drinking water, and enjoyment of environment.

  3. Aurat March demands an immediate and total end to gender-based violence against women, all genders & sexual minorities. As more and more cases of sexual assault are being reported, they strongly demand that laws must be updated and implemented to safeguard and rehabilitate the victims of sexual assault.

  4. Focusing on ‘inclusion’ the Aurat March demands that public spaces should be made friendly for disabled people, their efforts should be recognized. People with less visible disabilities like chronic and mental illnesses should be recognized and survivors should be accommodated.

  5. As an inclusive movement, Aurat March seeks to bring change to the lives and livelihood of the Transgender community. By improving social, professional, and educational conditions for them, they must be ensured that they are as equal as any other citizen. 

  6. It is the right of the people to raise concerns about their reproductive health. Women and suppressed genders should have total autonomy over their bodies. Quality reproductive and sexual health facilities should be made accessible to women and various genders.

  7. Women ask that steps should be taken to ensure that public spaces are inclusive and safe for women. They further demand affordable, safe and gender-inclusive public transport and clean public toilets. The moral-policing of women be recognised as impediments to equal access to public spaces, and development of the self.

  8. Aurat March demands to work more on educational opportunities for all genders, especially women.

  9. Aurat March Movement seeks to reform the personal laws of religious minorities by eliminating discriminatory provisions.

  10. The women believe that war is a business and it further strengthens hatred and masculinity that deeply divides society. They denounce warmongering, militarization, and politics of destruction.

  11. The women stand in solidarity with victims of police brutality. They assert that police reforms be put into action specifically focusing on disarming the police and greater accountability for abuse of power.

  12. The state should immediately halt the practice of abducting people unlawfully as it is the gravest violation of human rights. Women have also been disappeared and a huge number of families have suffered because of this state violence.

Looking at the above points, this is a comprehensive set of demands for equality of citizens. However, in past two years, women have been subjected to online and offline abuse, facing severe backlash for simply marching for their rights in peaceful protest all over the country. From derogatory tweets to prickly family WhatsApp conversations, feminists of all ages have been engaging with critics to defend the March.

Last year, some of the posters and slogans raised during the Aurat March had been condemned and had become a topic of debate with certain people criticizing them for being “vulgar”. This was despite the fact that the posters in question had been highlighting the issues faced by women on a daily basis. Evidently, the slogans on these placards need to be clarified.

A poster that says “Mera jism meri marzi” for example, is against rape; it is against sexual abuse and sexual harassment; it is against child marriages, forced marriages and exchange marriages; it is against forced conversions; it is against harmful traditions like Vanni; it is about a woman’s agency to do what she likes with her body without reprimand or harassment; it is about her right to move freely; it is against victim-blaming in case of assault and protecting the victim’s right to redress no matter how they dress up. It also encapsulates reproductive freedoms and right to health for women.

This year the criticism and interruptions started even before the event. Aurat March volunteers, after getting due permission, put up a mural in Hussain Chowk, Lahore to voice the concerns of women. Ironically, the artwork was torn apart by a mob within hours. After two days the above mentioned petition was filed in LHC. However, the decision is encouraging due to the LHC upholding the civil liberties and rights of citizens.

In summation, the Aurat March has a broad and far-ranging agenda, which is reflected by the Manifesto. It is an inclusive discourse and if we don’t treat it as such, we allow feminism to discriminate. But a piecemeal application will not work. Gatekeeping feminism is patriarchy’s way of reinforcing the binary of purpose vs pleasure.

Feminism with conditions is no feminism at all.

The writer is a human rights activist and trainer with a focus on UN Mechanism and Child Rights. She works with Sanjog and is Executive Body Member of Child Rights Movement Punjab. She can be reached at [email protected] She tweets @NabilaFBhatti

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