Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 42, 11 March 2020

'Aurat March': A New beginning across Pakistan 
Lakshmi V Menon

In the news

On 8 March 2020, Aurat (Women's) March was held nationwide in Pakistan to celebrate the International Women's Day. Marches commenced from the Frere Hall in Karachi, National Press Club in Islamabad and the respective Press Clubs of Multan, Quetta and Lahore. Equal rights, access to education, economic justice, inclusion, responsibility, justice for violence against women, ending of forced conversions and funding for missing persons' families were the demands raised. Marchers highlighted human rights' violation in disputed Kashmir and condemned socio-tribal practices such as Swara Wani and Karo-Kari. 

Aurat March 2020's manifesto revolved around 'khudmukhtari' (independence) of women. Women, children, transgenders and men attended the march. PPP leader Shaheed Bhutto and Ghinwa Bhutto also took part in the march. 

The contending 'Haya march' also took place in Islamabad, following which its participants pelted the Aurat march attendees with stones. Meanwhile, in the Punjab Assembly, PML-N MPA Kanwal Liaquat submitted a resolution condemning underage marriages, seeking social, economic and legal protection for women and demanding an end to gender discrimination.

Issues at large

Aurat 1 March began in 2018 in Karachi to coincide with World Women's Day on 8 March. Organized by a feminist collective standing for nonbinary persons, transgender people along with sexual and gender minorities – Hum Aurtain (Us Women), it had a manifesto demanding women's basic rights. In 2019, it extended to cities of Multan, Lahore, Larkana, Faisalabad and Hyderabad. 

Aurat March 2020 took place amid various issues. First, divisive arguments regarding gender inequality and women's role in society. Second, slogans such as "Meri Jism Meri Marzi" (My body My choice) triggered backlash from across all political parties. Third, appeals for restrictions on Aurat March were filed in Islamabad High Court. Chief Justice Athar Minallah rejected the petitions expressing hope that the marchers will exercise their rights in accordance with the law. Fourth, strong opposition from far-right factions in Pakistan's polity. Fifth, a warning by Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority's (Pemra) to all satellite TV channels against airing of 'indecent content' while covering the Women's Day celebrations. The spiteful live debate between play writer Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar and activist Marvi Sirmed, aired by Neo News on 4 March worsened the state of affairs.

In perspective

The Aurat March has become the new face of Pakistan's women movement. In a conservative society, it is no small feat. It has become a noteworthy resistance movement against misogyny and patriarchy prevalent in the country's societal structures resulting in sexual and structural exploitation of women; thus, triggering strong backlash. Organizers have faced online harassment and threats as they were accused of being western agents trying to sabotage Pakistan's culture and were labelled "bad women".

While polarising the population at large, the march has made organizers and participants vulnerable to austere criticism from political parties and religious persons. Nevertheless, it has created awareness among women of Pakistan regarding their rights, provided a platform to demand the same and garnered international attention for their struggle.

This is a new beginning in Pakistan.

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