The World Economic Forum ranks Pakistan 151 out of 153 on this year’s Global Gender Parity Index. The ranking has dropped drastically from 112 in 2006 to 151 in 2020, making us reluctantly face the reality that the country is not very safe for women. Every year around International Women’s Day, there is global discourse around women’s rights. In Pakistan, the Aurat March has been organized on this day for the last few years. In essence, the march is organized to commemorate Women’s Day and to acknowledge and protest the mistreatment of women.
Historically, women have played a significant role in political and social movements in Pakistan. The 1983 demonstration in Lahore is a key example of that. On February 12, 1983, around 200 women led by revolutionary poet Habib Jalib, gathered at The Mall to protest against the military dictator General Zia ul Haq and patriarchal culture. These women were met with shelling, stones and police batons, but they played a vital role in movement that overthrew the dictator.
In the last few years, Pakistan has made numerous commitments to gender equality. The Government has passed many laws against sexual assault, harassment and honour killing. But despite that, our rankings for gender equality remain one of the lowest in the world according to the UN.
According to Human Rights Watch, approximately 1000 women are killed in the name of “honour” in Pakistan each year. A report by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in the country found that at least 1000 girls of Hindu or Christian faith are forcibly married to Muslim men each year. Human Rights Watch Claims that 21% of girls in Pakistan are married before the age of 18 and 3% before 15.
According to a report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a woman is raped every 2 hours and an incident of gang rape occurs every 4 to 8 days in the country. According to Dr Shama Dossa, a community development practitioner, every 37 minutes a woman dies due to childbirth related complication.
Yet we ask ourselves, “Why an Aurat March?”
One of the most argued issues about the march this year has been the slogan “Mera Jism Meri Marzi”. This slogan was originally used in the Women’s March in the US as “My Body My Choice”. Here, it was interpreted as women wanting to parade naked in the streets or anything else along those lines. However as writer Bina Shah puts it, the intended meaning for the slogan boils down to just one word: Consent. Women want control over their bodies and to have autonomy over what happens to them. To not be forced into harassment, marriage, rape, pregnancy, abortion, sexual trafficking and prostitution. Learning the true meaning behind the slogan, no sane person would oppose it.
Many critics used religion to oppose the March, despite the fact that Islam is one of the most liberal religions in terms of giving women their rights. According to a paper on women’s rights in Islam, compiled at Cambridge University, Islam gave them the right to vote centuries ago, it gave them the right to consent to marriage, it is one of the only religions to allow a woman to pursue divorce unilaterally (Khullah). While in an Islamic Republic, as history has shown us, religion can be an unopposable argument, it should not be misinterpreted and used selectively without context to oppress a faction of society.
The organizers of the Aurat March 2020 recently released a Charter of Demands, supported by experts in all related fields. The demands included an end to sexual harassment and violence in homes and institutions, women’s participation in the economy, reproductive rights of women, environmental justice and right to cities etc. upon going through the charter in detail, not many would be opposed to their demands.
Despite that we ask, Why an Aurat March?
Many, like the renowned writer Khalil ur Rehman Qamar, have said that these are not women’s issues but rather people’s issues. However, all issues of discrimination are either class related or gendered. It is gender that discriminates against women and trans-gender’s rights. “It is women who fear walking to the store alone, sitting at a bus stop alone. It is women who have to fear for their lives, their bodies, and their respect. Men do not know fear like women do”, said Aliya Fareed, an activist and participant in last year’s March.
The question we should ask is not “Why an Aurat March?” but “Why do we need an Aurat March?” We need to take a deeper look at how we treat the women around us. We need to understand these issues from their point of view. Anger and disagreement on issues of gender and class often comes from a place of privilege. Those who say that the Pakistani women have all her rights are the few who have the privilege of not having their rights taken away. However, another thing that can come from privilege is empathy. From a place of privilege, one cannot fathom the living the life of someone without it, but they can use it to help those less fortunate.
The Government should heed to their demands. They should act on implementing existing laws and create new ones for the protection of women. In addition, as a society, we need to do better. We need to be open minded and patient when factions come forward to demand justice. Rather than blaming women the moment they decide to speak up, we need to actually listen to what they’re saying to understand why they felt the need to speak up in the first place. We need to acknowledge our privilege and their struggle and put in a conscious effort to make the country safer for women.
The Aurat March celebrates International Women’s Day in Pakistan. Everyone, regardless of their gender should attend to show that we care about the women in our lives, to show that we are listening and that we care about their wellbeing.