The women who kicked the hornet’s nest

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Thousands of women across Pakistani cities will join the Aurat March (Women’s March) on Sunday to mark the International Women’s Day, defying threats and warnings issued by conservative and right-wing groups. Since 2018, Aurat March has been held in many cities including Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, demanding equality and an end to gender discrimination.

This year’s charter of demands include a just economic system, freedom from exploitation and discrimination, reproductive rights, transgender rights and child rights. However, certain groups have come out against the march, threatening to use violence against the activists.

Last year, right-wing groups had targeted the organisers of the Aurat March, mainly on social networks. This time, posters and murals prepared for the march were vandalised in Lahore. In Islamabad, a mural that was being painted ahead of the march was defaced by students of a seminary associated with the Lal Masjid. Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who led a march against Prime Minister Imran Khan in November, threatened the Aurat March by saying that his party would not allow “vulgarity” and “obscenity”.

‘Mera Jism, Meri Marzi’ (My Body, My Choice) is one slogan that has become a huge bone of contention once again. Last week, on a live television show on Neo News, rights activist and journalist Marvi Sirmed was called “a b****” by writer Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar, when she repeated the slogan ‘Mera Jism, Meri Marzi’. The show’s anchor didn’t stop Mr. Qamar. Instead, she kept asking Ms. Sirmed to talk when her turn comes. The organisers of the march have not backed down in the face of threats.

Right to say ‘No’

Talking to The Hindu, Ms. Sirmed said she would march because she wanted to exercise her right to say ‘NO’. “No to stereotypes and the social construct that makes women perpetually suffer while men keep abusing them with impunity. Because I want to say no to male privilege. Because I want to say no to sexual harassment, honour crimes, domestic violence, structural exclusion of women from economic, social and political spheres. No to the glass ceiling.”

Ms. Sirmed added that most of all, she would march because “I want to smash patriarchy to little pieces. As little as the minds of men who enjoy and abuse their privilege.”

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), told The Hindu that his party has and would always support women’s rights movements and causes of the marginalised. “We strongly believe and wish for an inclusive, progressive and tolerant Pakistan. We should not allow right-wing elements in our society to disrupt the Aurat March. Freedom of expression and right to a peaceful assembly is enshrined in our Constitution. The government must provide security to the Aurat March processions after open threats by extremist groups.”

Mr. Bhutto-Zardari’s late mother, Benazir Bhutto, was the first woman Prime Minister of Pakistan. “My mother broke the glass ceiling decades ago.” Mr. Bhutto-Zardari said that those who used to say that women cannot successfully rule a country were proved wrong. “She [Benazir Bhutto] successfully led the democratic struggle against two dictatorships and in both her tenures brought about much-needed social reforms. It was during her tenure that Pakistan signed and ratified the UN convention on elimination of discrimination against women.”

Also read | After a ban of 23 years, female worshippers can now pray at Pakistan’s Sunehri Masjid

The controversy over the march has even reached the High Court in Lahore. A petitioner wanted the court to stop the march from going ahead as it would “spread anarchy, vulgarity, blasphemy and hatred” of Islam. The court ruled it should proceed. Earlier this month, the Islamabad High Court also dismissed a petition to stop Aurat March. On March 6, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority asked TV channels to refrain from broadcasting “vulgar/inappropriate content” with regard to the march.

Feminist scholar and educationist Rubina Saigol said the march was important at so many levels for the feminist movement in Pakistan. “The way that some provocative slogans and placards are being discussed in mainstream media and social media shows how fragile male ego can be and how these slogans have hit patriarchy.” Ms. Saigol believes that Aurat March has started a new phase in feminism.

“This is the age of social media. It helps get out the word far more quickly and far more forcefully than in the past.”

(Mehmal Sarfraz is a journalist based in Lahore)

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