“At some point, I felt bad for the men,” Tooba Syed told me over a Whatsapp call. “Everything they thought was being dismantled.”
Syed is a member of Pakistan’s Awami Workers Party (AWP) and Women Democratic Front (WDF), as well as visiting faculty at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. For the past few years, she has also been involved in organizing what has become Pakistan’s most talked-about feminist gathering — the Aurat March.
While the AWP has been organizing marches in honor of International Women’s Day since 2014, it was only last year in Karachi that the Aurat March and its accompanying conversations gained momentum. This year’s Aurat March, held in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Quetta, and Hyderabad, among others, was by far the largest of such gatherings. Not only was it the best attended, but it also opened the floodgates to a dialogue that, five months later, continues to thrive in the country.
Women — artists, health workers, transgender, residents of urban katchi abadiyan (makeshift communities or slums) — came together to sing, dance, vocalize their demands, and celebrate rights. One image from the March showed women shouldering a shrouded charpai that represented the corpse of Pidar Shahi — the patriarchy. The absolute transgression of it — in Pakistan, it is always men who carry bodies to the grave — was lost on no one.
How did so many women galvanize together in a manner more pronounced than we have seen in decades? And why did it unsettle so many entities, from WhatsApp uncles to legislators? Less than two weeks after the March, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly unanimously passed a resolution declaring the March to be “shameful and un-Islamic.” In a country created in the name of God, there is no insult more damning than ungodliness.
Though Pakistan has had a long history of feminist struggle, starting with the All Pakistan Women’s Association right after Partition and continuing to the 1980’s resistance to Zia ul Haq’s repressive Hudood Ordinance laws, the recent movement is significant because women are not only demanding equality in the eyes of the law, but also asking for fairness in all matters private — at home and in bed.
Tinder boy, keep that dick pic to yourself. Uncle, keep that sexist joke to yourself. Brother, heat up the food yourself. Husband, heat up that bed yourself. Incendiary demands lit up the colorful placards raised during the March. They did not target the state or the mullah, the obvious perpetrators, but dismantled the entire concept of the Pakistani man. You’re unacceptable, the signs said. Your existence is a threat to us.
Really, people asked, are these the most pressing topics you could find in a country with so many “real issues” — sexual violence, honor killings, acid attacks, or your choice from the platter of horrors that Google serves up every time you plug in the country’s name?
Patriarchy in Pakistan masquerades as the chivalrous man in a starched kameez, protecting every woman related to him through blood or marriage, providing food and shelter, weathering the torment of the outdoors so that his women can stay inside the four walls of his house, away from all eyes except his. Soon after, other photos appeared on social media, of men and women holding up placards mocking the March. One seared into my memory was of a woman wearing a burqah, holding a sign that read, “Mujhe ghar ki malika banne ka shauq hay, aur tujhe galli ki kuttiya.” I wish to be the queen of the house, while you wish to be the bitch of the street. I stared at the image for several moments, stunned. How powerful, I thought. And how devastatingly vile.
This distinction between good and bad women is an important binary that has been carefully cultivated by religion and state — even after years of training myself otherwise, my first thought upon meeting a Pakistani woman is, “Is she the religious type or the modern type?” The latter comes with associations for most of the country — morally corrupt, calamitously independent. A memorable placard from last year’s March read, “We think every self-governing woman is a prostitute, because the only self-governing women we have seen are prostitutes.”
In Syed’s view, these reactions to the March are hardly surprising. When both men and women have bought into the same system mandated by religion and state, why should we expect women to respond differently when this system is under attack? Data unequivocally shows that patriarchal systems have devastating effects on the lives and happiness of women across all classes and ethnicities, but there are always benefits to being an insider. There are private and public bargains that many women have struck with the system — they’ll work outside but wear a burqah, they’ll ask the gynecologist to cut off their tubes but only after birthing a boy, they’ll learn how to drive but only for chores.
Syed insists that it is important to remember that women across the country are fighting daily battles and pushing for their own preservation at every step. Whether they call themselves feminists or not, their lives are acts of feminism. Our realities are similar even if our articulations differ.
The five-member organizing committee of Lahore’s Aurat March points out that while provocative placards about sexuality and freedom got widespread attention, the March was a much more encompassing project that discussed issues such as clean air, domestic worker rights, and dowry culture. “Women have been resisting and continue to resist,” they said. Karachi’s Aurat March organized the event around the city’s anti-encroachment drive and lack of affordable housing. On the one hand, the committee members say, it was liberating for women to air their grievances — the right to pleasure is a feminist concern. And yet, it seems like an unintended consequence is that a few viral images changed the course of the conversation, in some ways hijacking it.
The organizers say that a lot of work needs to be done to include less privileged women in the organizing committees and to increase their representation. The Hyderabad March has been widely lauded in its success in forming linkages with existing grass-roots movements. Syed agrees as well, but pushes back at the criticism, which mainly comes from upper class men, that the March was an elite project. How can such protests be representative, she asks, when we have spent so much time annihilating the politics of the poor? In true post-colonial tradition, the country was birthed by elites who fought for freedom from colonizers even as they were copying down their notes on governance. A strong Left never grew in Pakistan; the little there was of it was brutally squashed in the Zia and Afghan War era. Student unions have been banned for 35 years. Kis ghareeb nay kee hay siasat, Syed asks, frustrated into the rhetorical. When has the poor woman ever done politics?
These questions are unanswerable without interrogating the very existence of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan — a nation doddering around, drunk despite its abstinence, in search of identity. I ponder the same questions while on the phone with Sadia Khatri, a longtime friend and organizing member behind last year’s March. Khatri has traveled extensively in South Asia and tells me that each time she goes elsewhere in the region, her body feels completely different — freer, less apologetic, not in search of the next shelter. I tell her I agree. In terms of public spaces, Pakistani women are singularly, spectacularly screwed.
For Khatri, a major reason for this is an uncompromising insistence on gender segregation. While many in the country hold that segregation in public spaces — buses, bank queues, local restaurants — is necessary for women’s safety, Khatri vehemently rejects this, insisting that it has nothing to do with safety, and everything to do with middle class respectability. Working class women have always been present in crowded bazaars, transport wagons, and the sidewalks. More often than not, segregation is the domain of the middle class. It aims to weed out the poor, especially the poor, working class man, who is localized as the greatest threat to middle and upper class women. He is the scapegoat for all wrongs that can befall them. Meanwhile, it’s 2019 and many of us are waking up to a far more ruinous fact — the greatest threat to the Pakistani woman rests inside her home, the abuser lurking around in the guise of the protective father, husband, or brother.
In 2015, Khatri started Girls at Dhabas to encourage women to occupy public spaces that society has excluded them from — parks, streets, and most importantly, dhabas, cheap roadside joints that serve Pakistan’s best chai. Women from all over the country and region were encouraged to submit photos of themselves — selfies with chipped teacups, blurry pictures of cricket games, lazy snaps at the neighborhood park.
Girls at Dhabas got tremendous response from women around the country. The media coverage, Khatri says, was unprecedented, as were the reaction from critics, declaring that such activities — women hanging out without purpose in public — was not part of Pakistani culture. What is our culture then, and who is part of it? I wonder how an entire society has decided that it is normal for one half of its population to be terrified into constant purdah from the other half.
“I wasn’t asking for much,” Khatri insisted. The right to unapologetically exist in public does seem like a rather quotidian demand. For many women, the day of the March was when this demand was met — for an entire day, they could be loud and boisterous outside, occupying a public space that they felt welcome in.
For young feminists in Khatri’s milieu, the Internet is not only a source of vitriol and backlash, but also an essential tool, allowing them to communicate across urban hubs, to involve diaspora, to engage in conversations with like-minded women across South Asia. When I ask her about the future of Girls at Dhabas, she says that she imagines it to be an eternal online archive of photographs and narratives celebrating awaragardi — the delightful word that means wandering around, untied.
I ask Syed about hope; she says she has plenty. This is the first time she is seeing women come out on the streets and identify themselves as women and as feminists, raising slogans that would be unimaginable five years ago. Since the March, several cases of women speaking up about harassment and abuse have been publicized. In July, Fatemah Sohail shared details of domestic violence at the hands of her husband and well-known celebrity Mohsin Abbas Haider. Since then, she has been contacted by countless other women suffering in abusive relationships. Is it too optimistic to make the connections?
I ask Khatri about hope. Recently, she says, she has been feeling drained. The fight seems long; it’s no country for young women. “I’m not patriotic at all,” she told me. “But if I’m here, and this is the only place I’m allowed to own…then I’ll continue to challenge it.”
I think about her words long after the call has ended, wondering when Pakistan will start deserving the unpatriotic women who own it.
Dur e Aziz Amna is a Pakistani writer based in Rawalpindi and New York. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Roads & Kingdoms, Dawn, The News, and London Magazine, among others. She is working on her first novel.
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