Aurat March: Call for equality ruffles feathers in Pakistan

Groups resort to threatening marchers, Sindh govt vows to protect them under all circumstances


Hafeez Tunio March 05, 2020
Participants holding placards at the Aurat March in Karachi. PHOTO: EXPRESS

KARACHI: With International Women’s Day around the corner, preparations for the 3rd annual Aurat March are in full swing across the country.

Aurat March 2020, organised by a diverse group of women, transgendered persons and gender non-binary individuals across class, sexuality and ability, hopes to collectively raise voices and engage in political action for issues affecting them and their communities in a public rally on Sunday, March 8.

Days before the rally, however, the idea of women’s rights has ruffled the feathers of certain religio-political organisations, who have taken to the streets deeming the procession ‘against the spirit of Islam’ and calling for its termination.

According to Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), a religio-political party, last year’s Aurat March, which featured posters calling for women’s autonomy over their bodies, was in opposition to the essence of Islam and thereby unacceptable in an Islamic republic. “Slogans like ‘mera jism, meri marzi’ (my body, my choice) are vulgar expressions and an Islamic society like Pakistan has no space for such notions,” said JUI-F president Maulana Fazlur Rehman, directing his party to clamp down on the march.

Following Rehman’s speech, his party leaders in Sindh have written to the police and local administration in Sukkur, advising them against permitting the march to occur. Various banners against the Aurat March have also been put up across the province, including megacities like Karachi, and the party’s women’s wing too has planned various oppositional marches of their own on the same day.

“Our burqa-clad women will also take to the streets and demand women’s rights in the spirit of the Quran and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad,” revealed members of JUI-F and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).

Not bowing down

On the other hand, multiple political parties and members of civil society including women rights activists, writers and intellectuals have objected to JUI-F’s stance on the march and have instead announced their support for it.

“We will not bow down or succumb to extremist pressures. The Aurat March will take place in Sukkur, Karachi and other cities of the province as planned and women will march for their rights come what may,” said Dr Arfana Mallah, a women’s rights activist from Hyderabad.

Speaking to The Express Tribune, JUI-F Sindh secretary general Maulana Rashid Soomro said that they are not against the Aurat March or the independence of women, but it is the ‘vulgarity’ in the name of any event which his party condemns and has protested against.

“We are peaceful people and none of our workers will come to the streets or create a riot. We have only appealed to the provincial authorities to not allow events where vulgar slogans like ‘mera jism, meri marzi’ and ‘khaana khud garam kerlo’ (warm up your food yourself) are chanted,” commented Soomro. “Islam is the first religion to offer rights to women and we stand by them. We talk against honour killing and child marriages; we also demand equal rights for women. How can we be against women’s cause? We just want the Aurat March organisers to avoid slogans which go against the teachings of Islam,” he added.

Misinterpretations

However, threats against the Aurat March by various religio-political parties and groups have sparked fear and unrest among circles of women taking part in the event.

“I don’t mind speaking but there has been a constant target painted on our backs ever since the threats started pouring in and I can only give quotes off the record,” said a women’s rights activist while talking to The Express Tribune.

“The religious parties are misreading our slogans; we have no intentions of upsetting them. The Aurat March isn’t being organised by a particular group or party, it is just a walk to unite women and gender minorities, and seek equality and justice through collective action based on principles of inclusion, dignity and freedom,” she added.

Addressing last year’s wildly popular slogan ‘mera jism, meri marzi,’ which has remained a bone of contention between religio-political leaders and Aurat March supporters, the activist said that their intentions have been misinterpreted by the opposing parties.

“There’s a lot of hullabaloo for nothing. ‘Mera jism, meri marzi’ simply refers to women’s autonomy over their bodies in terms of reproductive health and consent of marriage,” she explained.

In solidarity

On the other hand, the Sindh government and the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) have announced their unwavering support for the Aurat March and vowed to protect the participants of the march under all circumstances.

“PPP stands in solidarity with the organisers of the Aurat March and all attempts at silencing women will be categorically resisted,” said PPP leader Sherry Rehman. “Democratic countries handle all such public conversations about equality and empowerment with tolerance and so will Pakistan,” she maintained.

Apart from the provincial government, Federal Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari too has voiced her support for the march, condemning those who plan to forcibly obstruct the procession.

“Women, like other segments of society, have the right to peacefully protest and demand their rights, which are already enshrined in our constitution,” she stated.

Meanwhile, Sindh Information Minister Nasir Hussain Shah, in anticipation of International Women’s Day, has provided assurances that all necessary security arrangements for the march will be made by the provincial government and the Aurat March will take place on Sunday as scheduled.

“Protecting the people is the responsibility of the government. We will take stern action against any individual, organisation or entity who tries to disrupt the march or create any hurdles at the venue,” Shah asserted.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 5th, 2020.