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Aurat March: Pakistan's Rising Women's Movement for Justice

The origins of the women’s rights movement in Pakistan have usually been traced to the vibrant but violent women’s movement of the 1980s spearheaded by members of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF). Vibrant, because it’s mandate encompassed a wide array of legal, economic and social issues pertaining to women’s rights and freedoms. Violent, because it was subject to both state erasure and brutality, particularly under the then military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq.

But the fight for women’s rights in Pakistan can actually be traced to as far back as soon after partition in 1947. This was when in today’s parlance, the country’s first “feminists”, Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah, sister of Pakistan’s founder and Begum Rana Liaqat Ali Khan, wife of the country’s first Prime Minister, laid the foundations for women’s equality in the fledging state.

If one can label these two very different forms of resistance and the fight for women’s rights in Pakistan, as a first and second “wave”, the current third wave of women’s activism is perhaps the most different.

This third wave is now defined by the Aurat March.

Since its formation in 2018, this group of urban, who many would call millennial, women activists, has led to the revival of the women’s movement in Pakistan. After over three decades of politically suppressed and socially solvent silence, Pakistan’s women have once again begun to openly question state policies and practices, or rather the lack of them.

Aurat March 2021 in Islamabad. Source: AlJazeera

Not yet a formal organisation per se, and spread across Pakistan’s main urban centres of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, the Aurat March is literally that, a march. For the last four years, organisers of the March have gathered on March 8, International Women’s Day, to rally against injustices to women across the country.

And it has struck a nerve both domestically and internationally. Aside from becoming a regular annual event, the Aurat March has galvanised a new generation of Pakistani women who have far more to fight for than their predecessors did. It has gradually begun to provide a much-needed platform for young Pakistani women to engage in issues that have thus far, been swept under the carpet. Issues that are now becoming frighteningly more common, with heightened cases of rape, child molestation, sexual harassment and domestic violence. Pakistan now ranks at 151 out of 153 on the Global Gender Parity Index.

Also, more than ever, there are nefarious forces fighting to silence them. While previous women’s movements were faced with physical brutality and opposition by state forces, Aurat March members are faced with its modern-day equivalent. Online abuse, death threats by the overzealous religious right and perhaps the most frightening of all, a case of blasphemy registered against this year’s organisers.

But despite the obstacles facing it, they continue to move ahead with their mandate, which fluctuates every year with a new cause/slogan. It is this momentum, albeit still nascent, that has led to the Aurat March becoming a defining moment in Pakistan’s history of women’s rights.

But the March has also received its fair share of critique from the liberal left. Some of it unwarranted, some of it fair.

The most prominent of these, has been that the March is limited to the affluent class of women in the country’s three large urban centres and does not reflect or include the voices of those in smaller towns and the rural areas. Issues such as the struggle of Baloch women against state sponsored oppression, or minority rights. Likewise, some of the older generation of Pakistan’s rights activists have observed, that the Aurat March needs a shift in its communication strategy to be more inclusive of all women in Pakistan and resist the calls of classism.

But what this particular movement, which some are calling the fourth wave (the third being characterised in the 2000s by a more donor-fuelled agenda of rights), has brought to the fore, are issues that include both the public and the private sphere of women’s lives. Issues such as bodily autonomy, the role of women in family, and sexual harassment. Issues that previous waves did not address with the openness that we are currently witnessing.

The #MeToo movement has also significantly influenced the Aurat March. Prominent sexual harassment cases such as the Meesha Shafi case, have highlighted how the legal system legitimises male harassers and offers them protection. This is a country now, where the Prime Minister openly asserts that vulgarity in society is the cause for rapes and that rapists should be publicly hanged.

It is true that to a certain extent, the current wave is openly divorced from the experiences of the previous waves. Indeed, no one even incites the foundations set by WAF, let alone Fatima Jinnah or Begum Liaqat Ali Khan as pioneers who paved the way for a movement in the first place.

But this generation of women activists, also has far more to contend with than any of the previous generations. Not just socially, but also economically. Pakistan’s female labour force participation rate still stands at a meagre 22 percent and the informal economy which employs most low-income women, is not even adequately reflected in official statistics. Globalisation, the digital sphere and lack of basic rights is adding even more pressure, as is the growing religiosity that is engulfing Pakistan to create a more “pious” Pakistani woman.

In this challenging environment, the Aurat March is for now, like a pebble in the ocean. But there are gradual hints of a movement forming. This year, several smaller cities like Multan, Sukkur and Hyderabad saw similar, but independent Aurat March’s. The platform also periodically addresses other civic and rights issues online, outside its annual March.

But to influence any form of permanent change, and encourage more women to participate and ultimately, demand for their rights, it will have to move beyond its current symbolic activities and make concerted attempts at aligning the various causes it embodies and resist fragmentation.

And if we truly want the Aurat March to become an activist-oriented movement, it will have to seriously consider bringing in the periphery of Pakistan’s women, which make up the majority female population, to the core. It will have to be both physically and conceptually inclusive.

And Pakistan’s women desperately need to be organised, connected and sustained activism for any hope for a better life. The Aurat March is as good a beginning as we need to achieve this. It must now move to the next level.

Themrise Khan

Independent development professional and researcher based in Pakistan

Themrise has over 25 years of practitioner and policy-based experience in international development, aid effectiveness, gender, and global migration. She has worked with a vast spectrum of multilateral and bilateral organisations, INGOs and civil society organisations in Pakistan, Canada and South Asia. She has several publications and articles to her credit. She blogs, speaks and writes actively on notions of decolonisation, North-South power imbalances in development, race relations and immigrant citizenship and integration.

This article gives the views of the author, and not necessarily represent the position of Women for Politics

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