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In Pakistan, a women’s march comes with a price

International women's day
A woman carries a sign and chants slogans during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Lahore, Pakistan March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza
A woman carries a sign and chants slogans during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Lahore, Pakistan March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza
 

 This month, across 10 different cities in Pakistan, thousands of women took to the streets in a call to arms for economic and social justice for women. Reporting from the metropolitan city of Karachi I joined the organizers of the second-ever aurat (women’s) march to take place in Pakistan.

Some of the issues the marchers were protesting about were poor maternal healthcare, unresolved cases of harassment and a dramatic spike in honour killings. Despite the Protection of Women against Violence Bill that passed in 2015, honour killings remain rampant in the country. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) documented 737 ‘honour’ related crimes between June 2017 and August 2018; this figure in no way reflects the full picture, being only the number of reported incidents. Most women shy away from reporting such incidents fearing retaliation from family members. The most common cause of honour killings is because a girl wishes to marry the person of her own choice. Despite the existence of a law that prohibits such killings, victims of this crime rarely get justice because the law is not implemented.

Karachi’s Frere Hall was teeming with pun-clad placards poking fun at sexist comments, with hundreds gathered to chant and speak about healthcare, the abolition of child marriage and transgender rights.

As the sun set, hundreds of participants regardless of gender set out into the streets of Karachi, marching to the sound of beating drums, proudly holding up their signs.

But talk of consent and inequality unsurprisingly rattled large swathes of men. Many onlookers called the placards ‘obscene’, ‘shameless’ and ‘derogatory to cultural values’.

The organizers and some participants received death and rape threats in their Facebook inboxes and Instagram DMs by outraged men claiming that the march was against Pakistani cultural values. Many went as far as creating fake social media profiles for participants of the march just to harass them. A number of campaigners have limited their social media use since then.

Several men, outraged by this public denouncing of patriarchy, decided to hold their own mard march (men’s march) to denounce ‘bread-winner obligations’ and to call for women to ‘cover up’ in a bid to reinforce ‘modesty’ norms.

More worryingly, lawmakers in Pakistan’s northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa unanimously voted in favour of passing a resolution condemning the march.

Members of the provincial assembly denounced the march, labelling it ‘un-Islamic’ and ‘shameful’. The resolution that passed stated that the ‘obscenity’ witnessed on 8 March was unacceptable. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government requested the federal government to prepare a strategy to ‘expose such elements and deal with such incidences in the future’.

Despite such blowback, the demand for an aurat march swept across the country this year, with marches in Lahore, Islamabad and cities in predominantly rural areas like Quetta and Hyderabad. And the movement saw significant support from male and transgender activists.

Bakht Ansari, one of the organizers in Karachi told New Internationalist: ‘All the organizers are women who work full-time, none are professional activists. We had to raise funds entirely on our own, primarily through donations. However, we made it very clear we would not accept donations from any major corporations. We solely accepted and utilized individual donations to organize the event. Several people proved to be extremely charitable, donating to our cause purely out of the goodness of their hearts. Our most generous donors were other women, showing how much good can be accomplished when women support each other.’

She went on to add that wide gender disparities are evident across the board in Pakistan. In rural areas of the country, girls are not given the basic right to an education because their parents withdraw them from schools, believing that an education will be useless to them. Even when parents are open to the idea, girls are forced to abandon schooling due to the lack of safe public transportation.

The political aspirations of the march were rooted in the material demands of women from multiple classes: safe transportation and accessible infrastructure for rural women, and functioning reproductive healthcare to put an end to early maternal deaths.

Campaign illustrator and activist Aziza Ahmad told me that KP lawmakers and the men attempting to block such marches fundamentally misunderstand the goals of the aurat march.

‘The women’s march is not just limited to fighting for the rights of women only,’ she said. ‘We wanted to give a platform to members of religious minority groups, members of marginalized communities and people with special needs regardless of their gender to raise their voices about their concerns.’

 

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