12 min

The Plight of the Noisemakers: A Look into Pakistan’s Women’s Marches

Women Protestants.
Written by
Zainab K. Durrani
Published on
July 27, 2022

Pakistan is the land of the plentiful — in our love, our hospitality, our respect — and unfortunately, our misogyny. Framed by the curse of our pre-Partition colonists and their legacy, our subcontinental traditions and an abiding belief in awarding the upper hand to those considered stronger in every way that matters — our men — we continue to happily uphold the patriarchal structure of antiquity.

The recognition we have received indicates that we continue to tread along this path. Unfortunately, that recognition happens to be cause for further notoriety; Pakistan’s latest Global Gender Gap Index rating from the World Economic Forum now places us in the bottom five of 156 nations ranked in terms of gender parity.

This ranking, though captured in statistics and numbers, translates directly into acts of duress, blackmail and violence for the women and girls of Pakistan. When patriarchy is so deeply entrenched in every thought process and norm of a society, the consequences of digressing, for the female form, are unsaid promises of retribution. It is this fear that has kept many, many moments of mass outrage from turning into an uprising.

Not anymore.

March 8, 2018 saw Pakistan’s first Aurat March (Aurat means woman in Urdu), where determined crowds in the three biggest cities, Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad stepped out to march for women and gender minorities' rights, in commemoration of International Women’s Day. With joyous faces, a buzz of excitement, and bold placards, these fearless women and their allies walked through the main arteries of their cities, not only demanding basic rights to life, education, and economic equality among many others, but also reclaiming their streets. Streets they had traversed through all their lives but rarely without apprehension and never with a sense of ownership, as they did that day. The traffic bayed for blood. Onlookers ogled at what to them was a fantastic spectacle; prey so easily and in hundreds just walking past them.

The final nail in the conservatives’ coffin was the slogans that were being chanted and displayed on placards. The cries of ‘Mera Jism, Meri Marzi’ (My body, my choice), ‘Khana Khud Garam Karo’ (Heat up your own food) and Agar Dupatta Itna Pasand Hai Tu Apni Aankhon Pe Baandh Lo’ (If you’re so fond of the veil, use it to cover your own eyes) all indicated a watershed moment.

Suffice to say, it made a splash. And then some.

The occurrence of multiple high-profile cases of child sexual abuse, honour killing, sexual harassment, rape and murder (detailed ahead) may have been the trigger for the march’s occurrence. However, this bottle rocket of oppression had been a long time in the making. Instances of gendered abuse are rife in this country where honour and morality are placed above all, and especially above women. Barriers to access of education, domestic violence, emotional and physical abuse all add on to the fire of rampant oppression and for many, acted as tipping points for saying enough.

The Aftermath

Immediately, the media and social network channels were alight with debate over why these women were out. Why their demands and the slogans were so outspoken. Their intention, character, agenda — everything was questioned. By the time the second March came about in 2019, ‘Aurat March aunties’ as they were derisively called, had sufficiently irked enough of Pakistani society to become Public Enemy #1.

The main brunt of this rage was and is borne by the organizers, volunteers and supporters of the March. The immediate price they paid and continue to pay is an entitlement to their time and energy, to not only go through the exhausting process of bringing about political awareness and change through organizing but also combatting the online contingent of hate. These women extend considerable energy in responding to the volumes of indignant questions, comments and attacks on their person and their values as a whole. The hit that their reasonable expectation of privacy takes is easily ignored, given the trivial value our culture places on the right to privacy, particularly that of women.

Complaints with the law enforcement agencies against cyber crimes have yielded disappointing results for those who have taken the tedious step of contacting the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA)’s Cyber Crime Wing, the agency responsible for the investigation and possible prosecution of those accused of violating any sections of Pakistan’s cybercrime law, Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA). Section 21 of PECA denotes doctoring of images and blackmail as a crime. Section 24 criminalizes cyberstalking and distribution of images or videos taken without consent. Despite this, the law and its implementation are grievously gendered in nature and Section 21, which also penalizes criminal defamation, has been a vital tool in silencing victims of #MeToo and their supporters. Given this is the terrain volunteers, participants and organizers of the March find themselves in, it is to no one’s surprise that any attempts at achieving redressal remain elusive.

The women of the Aurat March were the sole reason the values of society are in decline, the right-wing claimed. The first March may have stumped them but every year, as the traction grew, the fervor spread to the cities of Peshawar, Hyderabad, Multan, Dera Ghazi Khan. The numbers surged and the messaging became more audacious, and so did the backlash. If a surprising cross-section of society could be seen at every succeeding March, the detractors were not far behind.

Kiran*, an organizer from the Karachi chapter of Aurat March relays that the backlash was immediate. “Those who follow right-wing ideals, were slow to catch on in the first year since the March and its volume was unexpected but since then the backlash both in the lead-up to and after the March has been constant,” she laments. The main targets for the online and social vilification became the organizers of the march, some of whom were identified and discussed in open forums. Funding for the March became a point of contention, and rape threats also become common, not only directed at organizers but also at participants.

Doctoring the text on images of marchers holding up placards was the first truly dangerous counter-attack, with ramifications that could extend into their personal lives. By turning the placard text into offensive sloganeering, the online trolls and hate groups put the protester in the image in jeopardy. Sharing data that was identifiable and in such a controversial context put the marchers in the line of fire. Many such cases were reported to the Digital Rights Foundation’s (DRF) Cyber Harassment Helpline. DRF is an NGO that works on safer internet advocacy and for escalation and removal of non-consensual or doctored image sharing with the intent to defame, harm or blackmail. Complaints were also made to the cyber crime wing of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Authority (FIA) but with little effect.

Kiran also shares that along with the standard, expected reaction from opponents who do not believe in your narrative, is the surprising attitude of the progressive community. The March and the movement, she says, are labelled as ‘radical and exclusionary’. This reaction from would-be allies she feels is based on the three principles laid down in the first year: for the March to be organized and managed by individuals and not through any organization or NGOs, for there to be no involvement from political parties and for there to be no corporate funding. What was intended as a tool to keep the March and the movement autonomous and democratic, is seen as ‘rigidity’ by its organizers, leading to an increase in critics.

Funding for the March has been a core source of concern for some, though the concerns vary drastically based on your vantage point. If you are a critic of the movement, the narrative you may espouse or be tempted to lean towards is that the March is ‘foreign-funded’. This is a particularly infamous rejoinder for anything deemed to be coming from ‘vested’ (or ‘Western’) interests. If something appears to clash with our national sentiments, many Pakistanis are happy to believe in a foreign hand navigating the waters, automatically demonizing it.

Similarly toxified are the labels of ‘feminist’ and ‘liberal’ which are routinely used by trolls online as a profanity. However, the campaign of hate does not stop here. Year after year, one can almost marvel at the creativity with which the opponents of the movement attack it. In 2021, the Islamabad Aurat March faced a unique controversy where a purple, white and red flag waved at the March by the Women’s Democratic Fund (WDF) was disingenuously touted as the French flag to strengthen the foreign interests narrative. Further, given that the substantially powerful radical right-wing group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) had marched the previous month to call for the expulsion of the French Ambassador to Pakistan over blasphemy rows, the context of the flag became exponentially loaded. Resultantly, the WDF was forced to clarify this distinction later as the vitriol and pressure grew through online trends following the March. This would be comical were the fallout not a menacing reality.

Person holding yellow poster.
Woman at a protest holding a poster.
Levity and wit are crucial tools in sloganeering against insurmountable odds. Image credits: Aurat March Lahore

This reality presents itself in the form of sheer and unrelenting hate. Whether on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, the Aurat March socials are hit with a torrent of hate every year in the month of March. Death threats. Rape threats. Abuse. And the worst thing possible in Pakistan: blasphemy charges.

Resistance to the simple act of demanding basic rights to life and education, to safety and economic independence had rubbed people the wrong way in previous years too, of course. But that year, the organizing against it was a whole other ball game. The march had asked for too much. Demanded bodily autonomy. It had ruffled religious sentiments.

For a country that finds itself 4th from the lowest rank in terms of gender parity, this reaction was not absurd. In fact, it makes all the sense in the world. We hate our women. Or at the very least we make a very convincing argument of it.

All countries are riddled with their own share of problems. Many enjoy horrific stats in terms of the treatment they met out to their women and gender minorities. That we are at the bottom of that rug should be a point of deep and urgent introspection.

Thankless and unbridled labour is almost a given for women around us, and for the tireless organizers and volunteers of the AM movement, this is not a one-day job. Months of preparation go into an event like this. Every city chapter of the March creates a detailed manifesto outlining its focus and demands for the year. There are outreach programs in some chapters where lower-income and rural houses receive door-to-door campaigners who explain the rights women have in Pakistan, as per its Constitution, and the need for raising our collective voices for ourselves and our future generations. Other community activities like free medical camps are conducted, as well as internal crowdfunding to help women in danger or need of help.

The physical and emotional toll is high enough. Unfortunately, it is also coupled with the psychological stress of having to maintain low profiles or complete anonymity on social media. That or publicly distancing themselves from AM work are the only ways they can avoid scrutiny, doxing, threats and being named in First Instance Reports (FIRS) with the police when aggrieved misogynists decide to pursue legal recourse.

The question then becomes, why in all this mess and madness, do these women risk everything and continue?

People protesting.

Sana* a member of the Lahore chapter of AM believes that for most feminists, the answer lies in ‘the personal is political’. “These issues impact me and those around me, they impact us in our homes, and they relate to our every existence,” she says. “If we don’t fight, honestly, there’s no guarantee that society won’t kill women like me. It’s a matter of survival,” Sana reckons.

She goes on to share that she regularly supports the March through her own social media accounts but does not identify as someone involved with it directly, for safety reasons.

Sana is one of four supporters and organizers I spoke to on this issue and out of the four, only one is a public proponent of the March in a way that identifies her as an organizer. For all the right reasons, the rest maintain distance for fear of a connection being drawn and the resulting hell breaking loose.

Laiba, a journalist and communications specialist, spoke of her experience with beginning a new chapter of the March in Multan in 2020, two years after the initial event began occurring nationally. While a certain level of difficulty and resistance is a given and can be seen to be the organizers’ experience in the metropolises, Multan brings in a different category of adversity, being home to a more conservative and feudal mindset. In the midst of sheer disbelief and open vitriol, her vocal and identifiable support for the cause has earned her recognition amongst state institutions, with inquiries being made at her residence about her motivation behind associating with and organizing the March. Denouncing her privacy has resulted in real-world backlash, instead of just threats and hate online. Despite all that, she says “One thing I cherish is resistance.”

The determination for this cause seems to heighten day after day, given that every year for the past five years, at least one case of gender-based violence (GBV) has come forth that has been so gruesome that it caught national attention and yet that attention or the heinousness of the crime has done little to propel actual change.

Be it Qandeel Baloch’s honour-killing in 2016, 5-year-old Zainab’s rape and murder case in 2018, Noor Mukaddam’s heart-wrenching murder in 2021 or the Motorway rape case in 2021, headlines were cast. Notices taken by those in power. Ratings increased due to the media frenzy. Yet no tangible product came forward.

No space was made for introspection or justice.

For Aaminah*, a young member of the organizing committee of AM, there is anger. Anger that has nowhere to go and even when it was expressed through protests after Noor’s murder, she says it felt draining. “The conversation of the collective turned to what could be done besides being angry on behalf of all those who were victims and survivors of the country’s male-dominant mentality,” Aaminah notes. The answer to this question, perhaps, lies in the demands of the marchers and the vision they present for a better society.

Women protesting.
Marchers holding up some of the flagship banners of Aurat March (Lahore), demanding real justice and defunding of public surveillance systems, as a part of their list of demands. Image credits: Daniyal Yousaf

Way Forward

The need now is the systemic shift in bias and opinions held by society on women. The State and its agents need to implement gender sensitivity as a bare minimum requirement for the employment of an officer of the law, to humanize the basic process of filing a complaint and accessing justice. The fundamental right to free speech has to be strengthened by repealing Section 20 of PECA and decriminalizing defamation, which has by and large been weaponized. Silencing dissent by allowing a criminal charge to be slapped onto anyone for any view they express sets the dangerous precedent of wresting autonomy out of the hands of the person exercising their right to speak freely and handing control to whomever is institutionally or financially in a stronger position. The power to reset the missteps sanctioned under the current version of the law rests with the lawmakers and parliamentarians of Pakistan, whose immediate attention to this issue is vital.

The most crucial element of all, perhaps, is for the streets and spaces of Pakistan, whether online or offline, to be made safer for our women. For those who walk, who work, who march. The burden of creating recognition of the humanity of women and gender minorities cannot and should not solely rest on their own shoulders alone or that of a few select people, such as the brave organizers and participants of Aurat March.

In my opinion, every act coming from this collective and those who support it is an act of service to the rights-based minority of women in Pakistan. The toil and trouble of organizing a mass-scale event, of earnestly raising funding for it all year round through bake sales and small-scale dholkis and events celebrating feminist ideologies, through every individual supporter offering up whatever they can afford, is the real hope for a system this flawed and unrelenting to its better half.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the subjects.

This article is part of Open Heroines’ writing grants series, intended to elevate the voices of women and non-binary people in the open spaces.

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Zainab is a lawyer by education, a passionate advocate for gender equality and animal welfare and a data privacy advocate currently working as a Program Manager at the Digital Rights Foundation. She tweets her very original but not very popular thoughts at @yougoglencocco.

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