Aurat March – Urdu for Women’s March – has been held since 2018 in many cities across Pakistan to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 08.
This weekend, in the face of violent threats and legal petitions, women across Pakistan are again preparing to march, knowing full well that those who took part last year faced intense backlash, especially online. Some said they had received death and rape threats afterwards.
Conservative groups in Pakistan often invoke a famous saying: the proper place of a woman is in her “chadaraur char diwari” – meaning veiled and within the four walls of her home.Pakistan women are preparing to demand their rights in direct defiance of that belief.
And this year, voices on both sides of the debate have grown louder in the lead-up to the march.
While religious and right-wing groups have said the march goes against Islam, even moderate factions have taken issue with what the marchers themselves acknowledge is a provocative approach.
“There’s a deep conflict in the society that we live in, about the right of women to ask for their rights; to be mobile, to be out in the streets,” says a 38-year-old organiser in Karachi, who did not want to be identified.
The idea for Aurat March began when a few women decided to mobilise their networks and gather in a park in the port city of Karachi on International Women’s Day to ask for an end to violence and harassment.
It has since evolved into a wider movement, including transgender people, demanding better laws to protect women and enforcement of existing laws, as well as raising awareness and changing attitudes.
The march took inspiration from similar events in the US, but has been further fuelled by incidents at home. The “honour killing” of social media star Qandeel Baloch by her own brother and other incidents have shone a light on violence against women in recent years.
“The need for younger feminists to have a voice was already there,” says the organiser, who was part of that original group of women.”We are challenging the status quo. We’re challenging the regressive elements in our society.”
This year the key demand is economic justice for women, as highlighted in the manifesto.
But it was the slogans and signs held up in 2019 which drew wider attention to the movement. Participants faced criticism and abuse in the mainstream media, alongside intense trolling online.
It was the rallying cry “merajism, merimarzi”, which translates to my body, my choice, in particular which touched a nerve last year and continues to cause controversy ahead of this year’s march.
Aurat March proponents have argued it is about a woman’s control over her own body, but the phrase was seen by critics as obscene, having a sexual connotation and going against the highly prized expectation of modesty in a woman.
It’s also contributed to the voices saying the movement is too Western in its ideals. (Source: BBC)