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Should Aurat March Really Have Gotten So Much Backlash From The Right?

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The 8th of March this year marked the electrifying celebration of International Women’s Day across the globe. Those countries where patriarchy has long gripped societies to continue depriving women of their legal rights have witnessed an influx of demonstrations over the years. Pakistan is one such country where a movement of resistance against the patriarchal structures, has gained momentum of late. In line with global demonstrations on International Women’s Day, a considerable number of women – accompanied by progressive men and persons belonging to the transgender community – steadfastly organized and observed “Aurat March” in Pakistan, calling for complete erosion of the prolonged “oppression of women” and patriarchal structure of society, in the face of a barrage of opprobrium and continuous resistance from the lunatic fringes of the society.

A brief history of International Women’s Day

The history of International Women’s Day dates back to the 28th February 1909 when for the first time Women’s Day was observed by Socialist Party of America, in the heart of New York State. Thousands of women participated in the event and raised their grave concerns about the gain of legal status and rights––especially, right to vote. Inspired by this event, as rampant inequality and deteriorating condition of women had prevailed at that time across the globe, protests in different parts of the world erupted, claiming the legal rights of women in the realms of gender equality, economic opportunities, handsome wages, working conditions, treatment of parents and society and share of inheritance. One year later, in 1910, the Socialist International met in Copenhagen for the establishment of a Women’s Day to support the struggle of woman for suffrage. Meanwhile, German activist Clara Zetkin came up in her mind with a revolutionary idea. She said, “Every year in every country there should be a celebration on the same day–a Women’s Day–to press for their demands.” At the very first instance, March 19 was chosen and observed as Women’s Day in many countries including Austria, Denmark and Germany. Year after year demands for right to vote grew louder and louder. In 1914, finally, 8th March was unanimously chosen as International Women’s Day.

As a result of the protests that sped up three years later in 1917 there, USSR gave in, ultimately, providing women the right to vote, which proved to be a harbinger of the transformation of conditions of women around the globe. It was indeed a moment of happiness and pride for women––both working in industries and staying at home. It paved the way for international recognition of women when United States of America likewise ended up dispensing suffrage to women through the 19th Amendment to the US constitution in 1920. After around 67 years of global uphill struggle of women, the United Nations finally started celebrating it from 1975.

A cursory glance at the women’s rights violations in Pakistan

Since its inception, Pakistan has been mired in menaces that continue wreaking havoc on the dignity of women. Despite the fact that Pakistan through its constitution and various acts of legislation has upheld to a considerable extent women’s rights in many cases. But its implementation in a true sense remains a distant dream. Deprived of their very fundamental rights, women in our society are subjected to different sorts of torture and violence. According to the statistics reported by Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (2017-18), prevalence rate of domestic violence stands at 32% in the country and thirty four percent of ever-married women have suffered spousal abuse. Sorrowfully, 56% of Pakistani women who have gone through some type of violence at the hands of men have never talked about it, or sought any sort of help, adds PDHS.

Living for women in Pakistani society has become a Gordian knot to untie. Deemed as subordinate to men, they are denied their fundamental rights such as provision of education, equality of justice, freedom of action, their will in decision-making and their choice of a marriage partner and their say whether or not they want keep up an agonizing marriage. Female literacy rate in 2017-18 stands at 51 percent in comparison with 73% of male literacy rate, with around 22.8 million children, mostly girls, are out of primary schools. Even if being signatory to the international commitments to restraint on child and enforced marriages, Pakistan is reported to have sixth highest number of absolute child brides in the world over. Ritual of bartering of girls for the resolution of tribal and caste-related disputes, agreements of girls’ marriages before they are born, and marriages with their cousins still runs through the social, cultural and tribal milieu. Even in the 21st century, dissolution of marriage is a taboo subject. For the fear of being divorced, a substantial number of women live a miserable, compromised life, and those who have opted for divorce are seen to be living the rest of their lives unmarried at the mercy of father and brothers.

Ranking sixth on the list of world’s most dangerous countries for women, Pakistan is infamous for a quagmire of sexual violence and harassment. Because the subject of sexual harassment is still a taboo and women talking about it are rendered responsible for the situation in the very first instance and then are supposed to face the music for what they aren’t at fault though, a significant number of cases go unreported, without perpetrators identified and behind bars for the acts of harassment they do. Although women are bulldozed into “properly covering up” to go outside homes, yet they pay the price in the form of beating and restraint on stepping outside home, if they complain about any assault caused by men on their way. Similar is the case with women working inside industries. In response to sexual harassment, a whopping 35 percent of women were silenced by their colleagues and bosses, according to a survey conducted by Dawn in 2018. Fearing the consequences in case they complain of wrongs, for instance, hooting and staring on roads, groping and fondling in public areas, harassment and molestation in the workplaces, blackmailing and making of amorous advances in educational institutions – which they are not responsible for – women in the country remain silent and continue suffering from mental stress.

Pursuant to the Global Gender Gap Index Report 2020, Pakistan ranks 151 out of 153 countries, which demonstrates the worst of situations in the country for women. One is horrified at the fact that even if constituting 49% of the total population of Pakistan, women in Pakistan are confronted with paucity of economic and educational opportunities, restraints on participation in these realms, inequality of wages and salaries, inadequacy of women complaint centres, and ineffectiveness and efficiency of judicial system. Women workforce participation rate is staggeringly low. According to the data provided by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Labour Force Participation rate for women stands at 24.8%. More dismaying is the fact that as much as 85000 female doctors after completing their education are reported to be hardly taking part in the labour force, for the primary reason being they are married off to stay home and set time aside for their family. Nonetheless, of those working on wages, 37% women were paid regularly and of them 55% were paid lower than the minimum wage (Rs. 12,000) in 2014-15, estimated a UN Women study. And when women appear to be willing to work, they negligibly succeed at finding some sort of job. A widening gap is reported in the unemployment rate, for men standing at 5% and for girls at 9%.

Moreover, there is no doubting the fact that the menace of enforced disappearances, forcible conversion of religion, rape or honour killing, has prevailed in the nook and corner of the country which is claimed to be human rights preserver. According to a 2019 report issued by Human Rights Watch, Pakistani activists are quoted estimating about 1,000 honour killings every year. Over some years, an orgy of forcible conversion of innocent and immature girls on the flimsiest pretext of marriage has created an atmosphere of fear, anguish and despair for the minority communities. Although a body of research and accurate data are lacking in the field, a substantial number or at least 1,700 girls in Pakistan from minority communities have so far been forced to apostatize from their own faiths – according to a report by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace. There is no denying that the government of Pakistan has taken laudable action to put a stop to forced conversions, but the problem nonetheless persists. In a country where minor girls continue to be kidnapped, raped, killed and thrown out in the garbage dumps, quagmire of forced conversions appears to be a matter of less concern.

Can Aurat March guard women’s rights?

The dismal state of affairs for women in Pakistan demanded for long a strong platform where a unanimous voice concerning the rights of women can be raised to free themselves from the shackles of patriarchy. To this end, observance of “Aurat March” in Pakistan in the wake of the global celebration of International Women’s Day commenced from 2018 with thousands of women demonstrators holding various placards and chanting various slogans against the oppression and heavy-handedness of patriarchal structures. In a similar vein, roads of Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi reverberated on the 8th of March this year with the sounds of various revolutionary slogans. Organized by a bevy of progressive women, Aurat March aimed at getting the legislative assembly switched on to the violation of their constitutional rights – the provision of which law enforcement agencies are continuously failing to ensure. No matter what the perception of public opinion might be, Aurat March has become a unique symbol of diversity and women’s empowerment. Its demands ranging from the elimination of gender discrimination to the safety of women from every kind of violence were quite reasonable and legitimate in view of the present constitution.

That the freedom of speech and action of women disturbs men in Pakistan can be proven from the whopping backlash against Aurat March on social media and from the reaction of Khalil Ur Rehman Qamar, a dramatist and poet, to the slogan: Mera Jism Meri Marzi. To impede the progress of Aurat March, three petitions were filed in different cities, protests were held and threats were issued from hard-line groups. Days before its observance, JUI (F) leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman issued threats to stop the Aurat March by hook or by crook. In a similar way, such threats were hurled by extremist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). Social media thronged with posts and statuses that lamented Aurat March to a great extent. Nonetheless, the marchers fearlessly overcame the challenges and transcended their expectations about their celebration of the event. Their determination in the face of growing challenges was enormous. To forestall their progress and freedom, scores of more obstacles are likely to impede Aurat March in the future.

Conclusion

In a male-dominated society where man wields authority over woman and continues to be a tormentor to her, it necessitates woman not only raising voice against injustice, but retaliating against it. Although a part of our society has transformed and adopted the practice of giving relative freedom to women, it cannot be denied that the majority of society is far from such an attitude.

To me, it is a sign of an effective and developing society that women under the banner of “Mera Jism Meri Marzi” are standing upright and steadfast to achieve full protection for their rights, and to oppose the legal and moral infringements. In a nutshell, Aurat March has become a light in the time of darkness and a last hope when everything seems to have been lost.

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Naya Daur