The Aurat March (Women’s March) in Pakistan does not have a longer history as it began recently in 2017. On 8th March, which is celebrated worldwide as women’s day, both men and women from various walks of life and socio economic classes marched across various cities with a torch of equality. Their agenda included ending discrimination against women, patriarchal structures and violence against women. However, there was a strong back lash against the slogans and some play cards raised at the Aurat March.
The slogans chanted at Aurat March distressed the entire country and became the subject of extensive debate and criticism especially slogans such as: “my body, my choice”, “See now I am sitting properly” ( the play card showed a girl sitting with her legs open, a manly sitting position considered indecent for a woman) and “keep your dick pics with you”. Such slogans were considered to be threatening the moral fiber of the society supposedly by spreading vulgarity. Thereafter, abuses started pouring in online and offline on the organizers and participants of the Aurat March. This stirred a heated debate on feminism, women’s rights, sexuality, women’s space and values of Pakistani society. This article employs the Aurat March as a starting point to interrogate the construction of power and sexuality in Pakistani society.
Patriarchy, Sexuality and Power
Patriarchy signifies the power relations prevalent in the social order. It establishes male supremacy in the family life and in the society in general. Liberal feminists view it as a system based on unfair division of rights and female oppression in the society. Radical feminists, on the other hand, perceive patriarchy as an institutionalized system of male power. In Western society, birth of daughters is not frowned upon. However in Africa women are still subjected to genital mutilation and in India and Pakistan, female children are unwanted.
Some cultural sensitivity prevails in parts of Pakistani society and that overpowers the religious one. Hence, one must be careful when generalizing a particular practice. The honor of the whole clan and not just family’s is bestowed to women generally and particularly in tribal and extremely rural areas with no modern education.
Pakistan’s response to sexuality and power is like other Islamic societies, manifested in “a socially sanctioned silence”. There is a vacuum of open discussion on female sex and sexuality. Women’s relationship with their partners, to other women and their reproductive roles are governed by gendered power relations. Marriage is considered as the only legitimate site of sexual relations. Virginity of unmarried girls and fidelity of married women is regarded as the highest virtue. Interestingly, hymen is regarded as a physical obstruction or natural hindrance to sexual desires/ actions. Women are expected to cover up their bodies, restrain their sexual urge and protect their (and thus family’s) honor. Through such discourses, a new vision of a proper woman is built who is an ideal citizen of the Islamic state.
The traditional Islamic discourse in Pakistan is based upon gender boundaries which encourage private space for women and public spaces for men. Family is regarded as the essential social unit and women’s role as a wife, mother and a sister is regarded as essential to the integrity of the family and honor of its male members. Fatima Mernissi clarifies the concept of gendered spatial boundaries in the following words:
“Muslim sexuality is territorial: its regulatory mechanisms consist primarily in a strict allocation of space to each sex and an elaborate ritual for resolving the contradictions arising from the inevitable intersections of spaces. Apart from the ritualized trespasses of women into public spaces (which are, by definition, male spaces), there are no accepted patterns for interactions between unrelated men and women. …Any transgression of the boundaries is a danger to the social order because it is an attack on the acknowledged allocation of power. The link between boundaries and power is particularly salient in a society’s sexual patterns”
Life altering decisions for women concerning their education, life partner choice, employment and even health are taken by male family members. Single sex schools are preferred for girls because of social and religious sanctions. Irrespective of the social class, all women are expected to do domestic chores whether they receive education or not.
During General Zia’s rule, extremist forces gained political power. Besides rapid Islamization, the state imposed strict gender biased policies which emphasized on female domesticity and male superiority which ultimately rendered conservative outcomes. A few courageous women (including late Asma Jahangir) came onto streets to protest against such restrictive measures, only to receive state’s heavy handedness. Since then, women’s rights have become the focal point of national discourse. There has been a gradual rise of feminist movements in Pakistan, and currently we are witnessing a new wave of feminism.
Though feminist notions of equality are viewed with suspicion as being unIslamic, driving women away from their domestic responsibilities, third world feminists including Pakistan’s feminist continue to struggle for equal rights. They demand end to patriarchy and more control over their bodies and reproductive health.
Owing to recent activism, a shift has occurred. Women have increased their presence in mass media, entertainment and news and politics. They are comparatively free in the choice of their appearance and speech. Gender roles are switching and there is an increasing number of women in educational institutions, increased awareness of women rights on social media and a widening of space for women in society. Yet, there are contradictory trends as violence against women, honor killings and domestic abuse persist.
The Aurat March: A Historical Juncture
Two main practices which marginalize Pakistani women are: an emphasis on women’s role as primary caregivers and home makers and gender based segregation in public life. Within this ideological discourse, the woman’s role has been considerably reduced to the domestic sphere. Hence, the role of mother is regarded as the noblest of all functions of a woman. By monopolizing cultural production, the state has tried to create a uniform image of an ideal woman – a devoted wife and mother.
The Aurat March seen in the drop back of Pakistan’s context is understood by many as a challenge to the patriarchal boundaries which prohibit any expression of sexuality and determine what discourses one can indulge in. The fact of the matter is that the March displayed so called controversial slogans to mock stereotypes. It was satirical impression rather than ‘desperate’ calls for sexual emancipation. The wind was cleared later by the participants through blog posts, TV shows and other platforms. To conclude, the Aurat March signified an important juncture in reshaping the politics of gender and politics within post colonial discourse. The long felt grievances of Pakistani women found their way in public discourse and occupied public spaces, which is perhaps the most troubling thing for the conservative factions of the society. Pakistani society which considers female silence as a virtue was, undoubtedly, troubled by this development.