On March 8, 1983, 200 women activists defied the military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq by taking out a public demonstration in Lahore, despite the prevailing martial law of the time. Images of the same women being beaten up by the police still irk the collective yet fleeting conscience of our society.
These were the iconic women of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and the Pakistan Women Lawyers’ Association (PWLA) who rallied to Lahore High Court to file a petition against the law of evidence. It is reported that when these women reached the Lahore high court, revolutionary poet Habib Jalib joined them in their demand for an egalitarian society. Hours later, he too, was beaten up.
Photo: Police brutality on a demonstration in Lahore on February 12, 1983, courtesy of Shirkatgah Women's Resource Centre.
Almost four decades passed, and on the same day in 2018, another group of iconic women mobilised their networks to carry out a much larger protest in the port city of Karachi. Coinciding with International Women’s Day, they called the event the Aurat March, which has since then evolved into an inclusive platform for sexual minority groups and the marginalised at large.
While last year’s charter of demands emphasised bodily autonomy, this year, Aurat March aims to highlight patriarchal violence and the discrimination faced by women and sexual minority groups when accessing healthcare in Pakistan.
Why march tomorrow?
"Aurat March Lahore ’21 will focus on our sehat ke masail [healthcare struggles]. We have also been listing them down in our manifesto and charter of demands on social media in both Urdu and English," Noor, a 21-year-old organiser requesting partial anonymity, told The Express Tribune. Afraid the march may witness a decline this year due to the pandemic, we asked Noor if she and her fellow organisers were prepared for a decrease in numbers.
“On the contrary, there is a chance that the number of participants may increase this year,” she said. Although domestic abuse aggravated across the world amid the initial lockdowns, according to a report by The Guardian, limited access to healthcare facilities made things worse for women and sexual minorities in Pakistan. “For trans and other marginalised communities, the source of income, and access to basic healthcare facilities, which was previously limited, became near to nonexistent during this time,” claimed Noor.
Photo: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters
A recent tweet by Aurat March’s official Twitter handle reads, “In hospitals, trans people are denied treatment, even in cases of severe trauma. Murder, physical and sexual violence against the transgender community is rampant. The denial of emergency treatment [makes things worse]. The same denial led to Aleesha’s – a transgender person hailing from Peshawar – death in 2016. This was the first case of a trans person's murder to receive media attention.”
Dr Sher Shah Syed, a leading specialist in maternal health and a social worker, acknowledged that there is a strong bias in our healthcare system against women and marginalised communities. “Our healthcare system is not women-friendly and not transgender-friendly at all,” Syed told The Express Tribune.
“Even the biggest hospitals in Pakistan don’t give female patients the attention they deserve. There are cases where women have died before even being treated because there was no emergency ward available for them. As far as the transgender community is concerned, no hospital treats them like humans. They are not given any kind of healthcare facility at all.”
According to Syed, a central issue for women is having no authority over own treatment, even after being admitted. “They are not allowed to make decisions about their own bodies. The men who come with them get to make the call on their deliveries, their pregnancies” he exclaimed. “I have also seen so many underage girls who were married off to 40-year-old men being brought into the emergency rooms on their wedding nights, what is that if not patriarchal violence?.”
The bigger picture
Sheema Kermani, the founder of leading women’s rights organization Tehrik-e-Niswan claimed that while there are certain areas of focus, the Aurat March Karachi will continue to shed light on overarching issues such as patriarchal violence.
“Aurat March this year as a whole aims to tackle patriarchal violence in all its forms,” Kermani told The Express Tribune. “We feel that nothing is being done by the state institutions to curb violence against women and transgender people. Naturally, that violence then stems into our healthcare as well; even women in the healthcare are being subjected to it.”
There are many clearly laid-out points for the year’s march but patriarchy is a nemesis that will be fought and highlighted in every possible fashion. “Since we are always tackling patriarchy, we will focus on the violence which is overlooked by society and all its institutions,” Kermani concluded.
It is said that “when you can’t convince them, confuse them.” But most people would rather stay confused, and that is something the past three years of Aurat March has established. People who refused to study the manifesto last year were adamant on believing that ‘Mera Jism Meri Marzi’ was a woman’s way of telling society she wants to run around naked.
Photo: Vandalised Aurat March posters in Lahore [Amal Awais Chughtai/Al Jazeera]
What if similar confusions arise this year and another counter march proceeds? “The way Aurat March slogans have been sensationalised has always brought us in the limelight in a negative way,” Noor sighed. “But what people fail to understand is that Aurat March is more than just its slogans,” she added.
“Any person’s slogan is their expression of an issue. The whole movement, what it stands for, has many layers; it is much larger than a placard.” She went on to clarify that sparking controversy is never the intention of any marcher. “Nobody wants to be hated on and threatened. But everyone wants to speak their truth. That truth may even come off as aggressive but what else do you expect from someone who’s been silenced for so long?” she questioned.
Aurat March Lahore will take place at the Press Club 2 pm onwards while Aurat March Karachi will be carried out at the Frere Hall at 3 pm. The organisers have ensured crowd control, along with the implementation of a six-foot distance between the marchers. All protestors are required to wear masks and in case of emergencies, PPE will be served at the gate.
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