Opinion & Analysis

Hate intensifies as backlash mounts to women’s rights movement in Pakistan

In Pakistan, hushed tones argue that demanding women’s rights in the country is tantamount to feebly asking for basic human rights.

Such has, till recently, been the struggle for a largely voiceless half of the country’s occupants – its women. But this weakened and marginalised community has, of late, found a voice through the country’s burgeoning women’s rights movement – an organised protest against gender-based violence, discrimination and lack of access to healthcare, education and social spaces led by Hum Auratein (We, the Women), a collective of women’s groups determined to change the system.

Aurat March Facebook page

A poster promoting Aurat March. Image source: Facebook

The culmination of everything this organisation works to achieve has been seen out in the country’s streets every International Women’s Day (March 8) since the movement first started in 2018 – it is called the Aurat March (women’s march) and it is a thing of powerful beauty for the many women who have lost their voices in one of the most patriarchal and dangerous places on earth for women.

Each year, the organisers of the Aurat March present a manifesto demanding greater accountability against gender apartheid – this year, the manifesto centred around healthcare and how ill-equipped Pakistan’s women are in accessing it. It asked for an increase in the state’s health budget for women’s and transgender, reproductive, mental and rehabilitative health. It tackles female access to birth control and safe abortion – both hugely contentious issues in the largely conservative country.

Since 2018, the march has been gathering traction with thousands of women protesting in the streets of Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad – main urban centres. The march is a rare sighting of the rich and poor, privileged and dismissed coming together in a hugely classist society. What is rarer still is the audible pitch of a menagerie of women outside their homes, sheltered existences where the men speak for them. They chant meaningful slogans, hold provocative placards and demonstrate their determination through a fighting spirit that has been singular in its scattered appearance when the implementation of the law has rarely been in a woman’s favour. 

Placards displayed by Marchers during Aurat March 2019 Wikimedia

Placards displayed by Marchers during Aurat March in 2019. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

And the hate this movement has been fermenting in opposition groups since 2018 has now taken a dangerous turn. Pakistan’s men and the patriarchal systems of governance they have designed are being seen as under threat from the movement – and when that happens, any means necessary are usually employed to squash dissent and re-establish control.

The lives of Aurat March campaigners are now under threat because opponents of women’s voices in the country have levelled blasphemy charges against the organisers and participants, spreading doctored videos and false social media posts online in an attempt to target anyone who sides with the march. The videos allegedly show – in clearly edited audio and subtitles – ‘anti-Islamic’ slogans being chanted during the march, which have been debunked with the original videos released in response. It is not the authentic video that is making the rounds on social media. A mere hint of blasphemy allegations in Pakistan is akin to having a target stamped on your back where mob lynchings and lone attacks against the accused are sacrosanct – expected even. They are an incitement to murder and Pakistan’s women are now ground zero.

“Anti-march groups want to continue to preserve the traditional women’s subordination so that they are excluded from the decision-making process. The Aurat March gives these women agency to speak and creates discourses of individualism and feminism, which is seen as a threat to the patriarchal system that Pakistan is running on,” says Ayesha Khan, an Australian-based Pakistani feminist writer and academic. 

Women displaying placards during Aurat March 2019 Wikimedia 3

Placards from the march in 2019. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A protest bringing to light and condemning sexual harassment of women and children has been turned into a rallying call against blasphemy by religious and conservative elements, and the disciples they have weaponised to silence critics. Blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan but where the courts falter vigilantes succeed.

On the Friday following the march, religious mobs protested in the streets demanding blasphemy charges be officially levelled against the march organisers. The banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan outfit also released a statement: “Fix your ways. We know how to protect Islam and the boundaries set by Allah”. The group is responsible for the murders of tens of thousands of Pakistanis in suicide bombings since 2007.

The Aurat March has irked Pakistan’s right-wing extremists and religiously inclined masses to an extent that was, even for Pakistan, unanticipated. Slogans such as “Mera Jism, Meri Marzi” (my body, my choice) is being equated with a call for nudity and ‘free sex’, a breakdown of social and family values, instead of a woman’s right to consent, and not be harassed, raped or assaulted. The movement has, since its inception, been called a foreign-funded agenda with endless social media trolling shutting down all avenues for debate and level headed conversation.       

Sabahat Zakaria, a Youtube vlogger known as Feminustani (a witty take on the words feminist and teacher) who breaks down some of the ingrained patriarchal structures in the society’s pop culture, and previous participant of the march, laments “Blasphemy is the easiest charge to level if you want to settle a score with someone and that is exactly what is happening here. The Islamic extremists hate the Aurat March for being the most visible progressive movement in Pakistan and they want to eliminate it.”

And that’s just it; the only recourse left for those who benefit from the status quo is to level charges that cannot be repeated in a court of law, lest that too be considered blasphemy.

The organisers of the march are currently laying low because of the insidious nature of the campaign launched against them and, by extension, against the entirety of the nation’s women.

- Asia Media Centre