Organisers push through backlash to hold Pakistan’s International Women’s Day march

Ahead of the March 8 rally, legal cases sought to block the protests while campaigners reported harassment and threats

Pakistani women activist hold placards durig a rally ahead of the International Women's Day in Karachi on March 6, 2020.  / AFP / Asif HASSAN

Two years ago, Mahila Chaudhary recalls her ex-boyfriend saying she wore her nose ring on the wrong side.

"He would always tell me my nose piercing looked too provocative," Ms Chaudhary, 25, tells The National.

Fed up, she took to the streets last year as part of Pakistan’s annual International Women’s Day march. Ms Chaudhary says the event allowed her to connect with other women but it also exposed her to online trolls.

“A lot of us were bullied on social media or found our pictures Photoshopped with obscene messages,” she says.

Lahore march organiser Shireen Rizvi was also on the receiving end of abuse.

“The backlash was outrageous,” she explains, before mentioning several obscene messages that were aimed at her by abusers.

As Pakistan gears up to mark International Women’s Day on Sunday with a series of rallies, some of the critics have upped their campaign.

In several areas, legal cases attempted to cancel the gatherings. In others, organisers say there was a campaign of intimidation.

How can it be anti-state if we are asking for equal rights, economic justice, inclusion of disabled and trans voices, and freedom from violence?

For many critics, the focus of ire has been on the placards held up by protesters. In particular, the popular slogan "mera jism, meri marzi" (my body, my choice) has ignited a fierce debate nationwide.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl, called the slogan “indecent”.

In the south-east Sindh province, the JUI-F demanded the government stop local marches, saying the gathering would likely “cross the limits set by Islam, society and the constitution.”

In Lahore, a petition argued the Aurat March (women’s march) movement was “anti-state” and had an intention to spread "anarchy, vulgarity and hatred."

But the organisers have pushed back, saying they have a constitutional right to assemble.

“How can it be anti-state if we are asking for equal rights, economic justice, inclusion of disabled and trans voices, and freedom from violence?” says Takreema Aurooj, a 20-year-old Aurat March organiser in Lahore who attended the courtroom hearings.

The legal campaign has ultimately been unsuccessful, but posters and murals promoting the march were torn down.

Ms Aurooj says she has waited years for a safe space to connect over shared struggles. "I don't think there's any other platform that provides this welcoming stage to women," she explains. "I have been to so many marches, and I have never felt as safe as I have at Aurat March."

Activists say much work still needs to be done.

Last September, prominent activist Gulalai Ismail fled the country after being accused of defaming the state and earlier this year singer Meesha Shafi, a high-profile victim of the now global #MeToo movement, appeared in court for defamation after naming her accused abuser.

Nearly a quarter of Pakistani women are married before the age of 18 and, according to UN estimates, 70 per cent of births still take place at home, often without trained midwives. Across the country, gender-based violence is rarely prosecuted.

March organisers insist that viral catchphrases like “my body, my choice” reflect a women’s right to independence.

The manifesto for this year’s march outlines a broad list of demands from minority and religious rights to access to family planning and judicial equality. It shows how much the movement has changed since it began in 1947, when the country was founded.

Nighat Khan is a founding member of the Women’s Action Forum, one of Pakistan’s earliest women’s rights groups.

She says Pakistan’s early waves of feminist activism challenged state capitalism, feudalism, regressive religious structures and dictatorship. They were, she says, inherently pro-democracy movements.

Today, Ms Khan says the women’s rights movement has shifted toward body politics and discussions around the #MeToo movement.

She sees her role as reminding a younger generation that the laws her generation fought for still exist on paper, even if they are weakly enforced.

Indeed, Pakistan’s constitution enshrines equality between the sexes as well as the right for women to vote and hold office.

“Pakistan is almost over-legislated in terms of women’s rights. There are many laws in place, but they’re not implemented,” Ms Khan says.

For example, the country has yet to implement an anti-harassment law. In Punjab, a landmark bill protecting domestic workers – the majority of whom are women – is also not implemented.

This year’s focus on economic and rural community rights is part of that shift to a broad platform.

“This year’s movement is more connected to the land,” says Lahore march organiser Ms Rizvi. They are calling for a living wage and protection for women in Pakistan's agriculture sector, where nearly 70 per cent of Pakistan’s female workforce are employed although 60 per cent of their labour is unpaid.

She says linking the struggles of underprivileged women at the margins is imperative to creating an inclusive women’s rights movement.

“We won’t be able to come out on the roads, if these women can’t come out of their homes.”

Ms Rizvi says the Aurat March has also generated a rare conversation in offices, workplaces, and other places where men have long drowned out women’s voices.

At least for one day a year, streets that are usually packed with men will open up to women, she says. “That never happens. Lahore’s streets are now full of women of every religion, colour and class.”