A concerted socio-political struggle for the reclamation of the rights of women and other marginalized genders, leading to their emancipation from a lop-sided order and an explicitly/implicitly violent state of affairs, is a dire need of the hour in Pakistan. The Aurat March 2019 was a much needed conversation restarter in that ambit, as disparate groups from all walks of life cutting across boundaries of class, caste and creed, gathered together in displays of solidarity and collective resistance, in the main urban centers of Pakistan. A week onwards, it can safely be asserted that the Aurat March provided indigenous women with the self-belief that they could take matters in their own hands, fight for their rights, reclaim their rights to public spaces and question the deep-rooted institutions of patriarchy and toxic masculinity in creative manners. From Twitter feeds and in-group communication dynamics, the post-Aurat March encouraged feelings of hope, optimism and shared notions of a viable alternative future amongst the participants and sympathizers of the cause suggest that a lot of positive ground was gained. On the other hand, first time entrants have been exposed to the intricacies of protest and resistance politics and gained valuable experience. The attendances were much higher than last year, but the struggle is far from over, and the pursuit of higher feminist ideals being delivered in practice, require organizational solidarity, strategic consistency and openness to innovation. Grassroots movements need to develop a positive inertia so that the initial momentum can be sustained, especially because detractors of the feminist effort in Pakistan, both male and female, are visibly shaken by the success of the efforts, and the potency of the message, and were quick to latch on to the bandwagon of cynicism.
In contemporary Pakistan, 90% of all women have faced sexual violence at some point in their lives. It has been reported that around 80% domestic households in Pakistan have incidences of violence, where males are obviously the perpetrators. Pakistan ranked at 148 out of 149 countries in the ‘Global Gender Gap Index 2018’ report on gender parity, released by the World Economic Forum. 74% of all Pakistani women have less than 6 years of education. Pakistani women constitute 49% of population, but make up only 24% of the labor force. Female share in wage employment is only 15% as they are engaged mostly as ‘family’ workers (54%), working without pay in the informal sector. Only 21 out of the 559 companies listed on the stock exchange have a woman on their board. The pension system for government servant widows is highly discriminatory – if a widow remarries, her right to obtain pension for herself and her children is revoked, thereby, turning her more vulnerable to financial dependence. The facts are startling and anyone who claims that “women do not need equality” or employs a misplaced religious or cultural argument to obfuscate the suffering of women, and even men who are also victims of the ages-old institution of patriarchy, is either oblivious to social reality, or hiding behind a cloak of internalized misogyny. I have found it extremely dangerous that in the reactions to the Aurat March, seemingly progressive people with apparently liberal and/or progressive facades, have been extremely dismissive of the whole exercise. Some have either stooped so low as to question that moral character of some of the women who attended the march and their individual life choices, while others have reduced the participating male allies who are sympathetic to the causes, to be effeminate and opportunistic. These narrow minded responses do not even deserve counter-arguments. Some women, surprisingly enough, are castigating the protesting women to be using the feminist cause for their own selfish ends and building their own social capital. In a global setting where the “personal is increasingly political,” some political ends are greater than others, and public political posturing runs much deeper than self-gratification – it situates one’s person in a historical context, which in this particular case, is replete with human suffering, inequality and illegitimate domination.
The media coverage that the Aurat March received was highly skewed and debates were situated in manners which were highly unfavorable for the march. Critics from the right-wing constantly pointed out that some of the placards were extremely controversial and not in line with our cultural milieu. The organizers refuted those notions by suggesting that the marches were a democratic exercise and they did not want to police the marchers’ right to self-expression. It seems like a virulent form of literalism has taken over the Pakistani populace who read the placards on face-value without unpacking their hidden meanings. For example, a woman suggesting that “unsolicited images of genitalia are unwelcome” really upset fragile male egos, and one upset political commentator went as far as suggesting that the “local Station House Offer should have made arrests, and the Supreme Court should employ sou moto justice,” in a comical display of admonishment. In an increasingly inter-connected world, where social media is not just a tool in the hands of urban elites, sexual harassment is an extremely real and frequent occurrence. In that context, men who are finding it hard to digest the fact that some woman could hold such a placard in public, are either unable to resolve their internal conflicts regarding a woman’s freedom to her sexual agency, or are sheepishly trying to defend their right to send unsolicited images. Those arguing that women are stretching the quest for freedom too far are also missing the point. When it comes to narratives of resistance and seeking emancipation from an unequal order, one rarely gets what they seek. In such testing times, revolutionaries are served much better if the demand for as much as they can, because they cannot control the negotiating process due to being in weaker positions, and will always receive less than they initially aimed for. At any rate, some radical feminists would argue that the placards could have been even more hostile and progressive, and that they achieved their short-term purposes by initiating dialogue and upsetting the status-quo.
The feminist struggle in Pakistan is not novel. Historically, it was articulated under the overarching umbrellas of “British colonialism,” “Pakistan national movement,” “the struggles between martial rulers and civilian-led political dispensations, and the violent battle between “Islamists and liberals.” Feminist legends like Fatima Jinnah, Begum Rana Liaquat Ali Khan, Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan, Fehmeeda Riaz, Kishwer Naheed, Asma Jehangir, amongst many others carried the flame in the past, in legal, political, literary and pedagogical spheres. The time has come, now, for the younger generations to carry the flame further, move beyond internal splits which have dampened the efficacy of the struggle, and find new narratives that resonate within the indigenous Pakistani context. Younger feminists point out that there is an inter-generational difference between the approaches from the past and more contemporary narratives, and responsible dissent is always necessary for any political movement. However, it must be kept in mind that power is greater when it is shared, and whilst seeking common broader goals, some specific internal differences need to be tolerated and shed away with. A new form of engagement with post-Modern, radical, and neo-Marxist strands of academic feminist literature is also required, as there is a glaring dearth of Pakistan-specific work. Vive la résistance!