Aurat March Was About A Lot More Than Just One Slogan

A famous playwright hurls abuses at an indignant writer over a slogan. The slogan itself, among chants by its diehard followers, is echoed as well as slammed. The platform for the slogan receives support amid harsh criticism. Aurat March is in the air.

Some frown over the occasion, others are jubilant. What is obvious is that Aurat March has not only become a centre of controversy in Pakistan, it has also laid bare the already existing cleavage in the society between feminism and patriarchy – it has not created it, as is commonly perceived. What is also interesting to note is that the clash is not just between men and women but also among women, as many blatantly slam the concept.

Why is Aurat March a hot issue? A growing number of women in Pakistan participate in street rallies by the name of Aurat March on the occasion of International Women’s Day on the 8th of March to promote women’s rights. It has mostly been a peaceful occasion, but has come much in limelight since last year, owing to its strong slogans. Glimpses from last year include a placard showing a girl sitting with her legs apart along with the slogan Lo baith gayee saheeh say (see, I sit appropriately), others saying Khaana garam kardoongi bistar khud garam Karlo (I will warm the food, get cosy in the bed yourself), Mujhay kia maaloom tumhara moza Kahan hai (how would I know where your sock is?). The cherry on top is Mera Jism Meri Marzi (My body, my decision) which has become the highlight and also the centre of controversy surrounding this year’s Aurat March.

Reading these slogans here as well as on placards on the street does make eyeballs pop out, because we as a society are still talking inside closed rooms or closed halls about issues which are open secrets. We as a society may look away or simply stare if a man showers indecent words to a commuter on the street, but would open Pandora’s boxes of morality and decency when a woman assumes the role.

Gender roles remain strong: at home, in careers, in manners.

The issue is not the Aurat March. The issue is the shockingly bold manner in which it is being executed. Why is there a need to switch to an amplified mode? The organisers argue that if they continue with subtle, decent remarks like Bol kay lab azaad hain teray (speak for your lips are free) they go unnoticed and do not get the message across. So what are the messages being sent out?

Lo baith gayee saheeh say (see, I sit appropriately) refers to the constant reminders that girls receive for sitting properly and demurely in public, ideally with ankles wrapped around while boys generally are relieved from any moral lectures or guidance about posture or mannerism in public. Khaana garam kardoongi bistar khud garam karlo (I will warm the food, you get cosy in the bed yourself) refers to the quiet gender role a woman carries on for life of serving hot chappatis (flatbread) on table to her husband along with fulfilling all his other needs, whether tired or disinterested. Mujhay kia maaloom tumhara moza kahan hai (how do I know where your socks are?) points out to the extension of this gender role with the wife or mother or even sister responsible for the maintenance of a man’s wardrobe. Aaj waaqeyi maan behan aik hogayeen (Today mothers and sisters are standing together) is against the use of women in abusive words. And Mera Jism Meri Marzi (My body my right) is aimed at forced marriages, forced pregnancies, rape and critique on dress code.

To say that the issues are nonexistent or superficial is a fallacy itself. The outburst has come up now because traditionally and culturally, women are held to be the bearers of morality while men are exempted.

Religion has always been brought in to hush up critics. But that approach backfires since the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was the epitome of manners, decency and etiquettes.

The concepts that we sheepishly adopt and follow, like “boys will be boys”, are actually Western concepts. The reactions to all this from women are coming out because stringent gender roles, lack of authority in decision making, sexual harassment, gender discrimination – although now openly discussed – are still being practiced largely in the households and workplaces of Pakistan. The anger, the cultural shocks and rudeness are visible because they have been suppressed too long.

Marketing gimmick? That’s another accusation which is being made on the open style of remarks and comments encouraged by the organisers, who claim that they are necessary to make heads turn and hear people out. Can there be a way in between?

The answers are in last year’s rally. Aao khaana saath banain (let’s cook together), My body is not your battleground, Khaana khud garam karna seekh liya (have you learned how to warm up your food?), Meri beti parhegi (my daughter will get educated) are strong, direct words which make the messages clear.

A measure of success for any movement is the number of its participation and its popularity. Aurat March has today become a talk in the households. So much that a petition was actually filed in one of the courts against holding it, which was thrown away, the judgement by the court read “The alarming aspect is that there is no outrage against the practices and mindsets, which are a blatant violation of the unambiguous injunctions of Islam.” It even went on to point out the violations in the form of cases routinely being followed in courts across Pakistan, saying that

The Courts across the country are inundated with litigation brought by women against the denial of their inheritance rights[…] Women are forced into marriage against their will. Heinous traditions of Karokari, Swara, Wani and other forms of exploitation are being practiced in a State where 97% of the population professes to be Muslim […] The tribal and other societal norms seem to have taken precedence over the Islamic injunctions.”

Aurat March could not get better validation.

However, it came along with a word of caution:

This Court expects that the proponents of the Aurat March will exercise their constitutional rights in accordance with law having regard to conduct that is consistent with the norms of decency. It is an opportunity for them to prove those who doubt their intentions wrong.”

At a women’s conference at Karachi titled “Meri zindagi, mera ikhtiar” (My life, my authority), a speaker said, “Aurat March has been confined to [just] one slogan by a patriarchal society when it (actually) talks about equality.”

One slogan has largely become an excuse to slam Aurat March. In retaliation, it is expected that it will become the highlight of this year’s event. It comes with a hope that now the woman would herself stand up and shun coercion.

In any case, the controversy will be prolonged. It will be bitter. It will only end when egregious violations of women’s rights would end. However, if it gets entangled in a war of words, then the underlying issue might get put on the back-burner in the future.