Women in Pakistan are fearlessly marching for their rights on International Women’s Day

Women's march in Pakistan for International Women's Day 2020
Afroze Fatima Zaidi

International Women’s Day has become a national event in Pakistan. Women and non-binary people have taken to the streets along with men in marches coordinated nationally under the banner ‘Aurat March’ (Urdu for ‘Women’s March’).

Marches have taken place in Islamabad, Karachi, and Lahore among other cities. They may be happening in different places throughout the country, but the atmosphere is consistent – and it’s electric:

 

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Why they march

Aurat March is a network of female grassroots organisers who have mobilised to ensure the marches are safe and successful. While women have their individual reasons for marching, the organisers laid out a specific set of demands ahead of the rallies. These include freedom from sexual harassment and violence, economic justice, reproductive rights, and environmental justice:

However, the main slogan for this year’s march, ‘mera jism, meri marzi‘ (my body my choice), has created severe backlash. The woman who came up with the slogan has been harassed so much as a result that she’s stopped using her real name in the media. And Amnesty International has condemned “the horrific threats of violence, intimidation and harassment of the marchers”.

One volunteer shared the sense of danger that women who march are facing. She said they fear harassment and doxxing as well as acid attacks and bomb threats. Pakistani society, which still remains patriarchal and largely conservative, hasn’t been open to women asserting control over their own bodies.

My body my choice

But the backlash hasn’t held them back. And women have defended the slogan and shared reasons for why it resonates with them. And since it’s International Women’s Day, women are the ones we should be listening to:

Importantly, the slogan has started a conversation about women’s bodies which has, so far, been silenced by social norms:

While the slogan has generated much controversy, at its core is bodily autonomy, i.e. consent and reproductive rights for women. This mega-banner for the Lahore march had women’s experiences of sexual assault and harassment painted on it:

However, some placards transcend language and aren’t beholden to translations:

Inclusive and intersectional

One of the most heartening aspects of the marches is how inclusive and intersectional they appear to be. The trans rights flag can be seen in this video:

And women are using the march, as well as the viral hashtag #AuratMarch2020, to call attention to the plight of women from ethnic and religious minorities:

Bringing attention to the issue of forced conversions, which has plagued religious minorities in Pakistan, is just one of the positive outcomes of the march. In forced conversions, “women and girls from religious minorities are abducted, forcibly converted and then married off to their abductors”. Horrific in itself, this crime is often made worse by the fact that victims are often girls under 18:

Dignity and respect

At the end of the day, the demands of Pakistani women aren’t that different to women anywhere else in the world – dignity and respect:

So whether it’s demanding bodily autonomy and equal rights, objecting to patriarchal culture, or any number of issues affecting them, Pakistani women are using today’s marches to make themselves heard. And they’re using their own voices, loud and clear, to do so.

Featured image via YouTube/Maaz Khawaja

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