Women's Empowerment and Pakistan’s Aurat March
Updated: Mar 18
Editor’s Note: On International Women’s Day, Pakistan holds an Aurat March. The March marks one of the most powerful women’s rights movements the country has seen since its inception - it is the result of the growing role of feminism in a deep-rooted socio-religio-political patriarchy. The first March was held three years ago in Karachi; the movement has since expanded across the country to Sindh, Punjab, Peshawar and Quetta. The March advocates peacefully for numerous causes. It calls for accountability for domestic abusers, for better legislation to prevent violence against women and an end to child marriage (among others).
By Faryal Khan
The Aurat March has, in recent times, divided people in Pakistan. The movement has only grown larger resulting in either harsh criticism, or intense following. However, to understand the March and its importance in a society like Pakistan, it is important to understand what this movement stands for.
As times have progressed, traditional gender roles have been redefined. The patriarchy, for a long time, defined the role of women as a homemaker, and no attention was paid to their skills. To limit half of the population and not consider their potential was problematic. However, as the roles changed, and women became a part of the labor force, people realized that there is a lot more to them. In fact, they can compete against, and be equal to, men in every field, if given the opportunity. Women can be scientists, leaders, doctors, and engineers, but there is still gender-based discrimination in their workplaces.
Demand for equality came in the form of waves of feminism, where women pushed their cause by challenging the norms of society. This was not easy, as men did not want to be stripped of their power, and society was not willing to adapt. However, this change was necessary, as otherwise the nation could not compete on the global stage.
In Pakistan, standing up for these rights is not easy. Pakistan is a traditional society, where the idea of such change is inconceivable. However, as the number of educated Pakistani women has grown, they have become a part of the workforce. Women knew they deserved better; they knew they had to challenge the toxic norms that oppressed millions of women.
Today, women know that standing up for their rights will only improve and uplift the country. They know that the next generation of girls should not be judged or categorized by their gender, but by their abilities. They know that revolution is the only way to go.
#MeToo in Pakistan - And How it can Backfire
Certain instances in the past few years have made the Aurat March more controversial. People oppose it by arguing that it’s an extremist movement against men. They generally cite the cases of Meesha Shafi and Ukhano to show how people take advantage of feminism.
Pakistani singer Meesha Shafi's sexual harassment allegations against singer and actor Ali Zafar stirred up a storm in the entertainment industry and beyond. Many celebrities supported Meesha and called the statement as a major milestone in Pakistan's own #MeToo movement.
In 2018, Shafi accused Zafar of harassing her "on more than two occasions". In response, Zafar filed a defamation suit of Rs1 billion against her, arguing that her "baseless and unfounded" accusations had tarnished his reputation. The case lasted about two years - but as of now nothing has been proven against Zafar.
Some of Meesha's supporters still call Ali a ‘harasser’ on social media or at his rehearsals, despite the fact that the court dismissed his case. Zafar has also filed a criminal case in the FIA against Meesha and all the social media accounts made to defame him through a “designed and pre-planned smear campaign”.
Meesha Shafi’s case is an ambiguous one. Since none of her allegations could be proven in court, those who oppose the women’s movement use it as an example of a false accusation. Shafi’s supporters who continue to attack Zafar have been used as examples of irrational feminists that blindly attack vulnerable men.
Another allegation that came last year was against one of the most popular Pakistani YouTubers, Umar Khan, popularly known as Ukhano. Several sexual harassment allegations were made against him for harassing young women and reportedly trying to rape a young girl. Ukhano registered a First Information Report (FIR) for defaming his reputation and against the ‘false’ accusations of sexual harassment made by multiple women.
The woman who claimed that Ukhano tried to rape her had initially posted her statement on Facebook. She later rescinded her accusations, saying that she had not made these comments and that her account was hacked. Many feminists believed that she was forced into backtracking.
These two stories highlight the ambiguity of Pakistan’s #MeToo movement. The lack of clarity and evidence in these cases causes people to assume that women falsely file reports against men, taking unfair advantage of feminist movements. As a result, there are concerns that those who have genuinely been assaulted will not be believed when they do step forward.
Some opposers of the Aurat March and its ideology also compare how men and women are treated in courts. If a woman is accused of a crime, they are considered innocent until proven guilty. Men are not always given that luxury, especially in sensitive cases regarding sexual harassment. Men often claim that false accusations defame people and destroy their careers. This can often feel exacerbated in the social media age, as people online can boycott and “cancel” those that they feel are guilty - regardless of any evidence to the contrary.
This creates a negative cultural cycle, where women who dare to speak out and break the culture of silence are called liars. The reverse of what the men fear occurs - the criminal is held blameless.
While it’s difficult to find proof of sexual harassment, the cycle of blame benefits nobody as true and genuine cases of harassment are often dismissed as attempts to ruin mens’ careers.
People Against the Aurat March
Mera Jism, Meri Marzi - My Body, My Choice
Many of the educated men of Pakistan fail to understand the meaning and context of ''Mera Jism Meri Marzi'' and continue to oppose it based on their misunderstanding. It has been portrayed as a symbol of vulgarity as opposed to freedom. The Aurat March has been presented as a movement against the Islamic values of Pakistan. These men have been blaming and defaming women for defying religion and culture without understanding what they are trying to say.
‘Mera Jism, Meri Marzi’ is all about women having control over their bodies. The movement opposes
Judgement of women’s clothing choices
Despite the actual meaning of the movement, misogynists oppose the slogan, calling it Western propaganda that will damage Islamic society. The slogan "My Body My Choice" originated from Western women’s rights movements. Some women who oppose it believe it may even aim to legalize prostitution. Pakistani men, who call themselves the protectors of Islam, don't know that the very same slogan is used by the Muslim women of France. They use it to advocate for religious freedom and the right to wear hijabs and burkas in defiance of the government’s regulations. If men denounce this slogan for violating Islamic beliefs, it is tantamount to saying that the governments of these countries were right to ban Islamic garb.
In Pakistan, more than 21% of women are married before the age of 18, while 3% become wives before they have even turned 15. These young girls are often expected to give birth to, and raise, children. Many Pakistani men still do not support the notion that women should be allowed to make these life-changing decisions for themselves.
Your Clothes Define your Character
People often believe that women’s outfits are the primary reason for rape. Pakistani citizens often forget that girls under the age of 12 years get raped and sexually abused. These children are unlikely to be wearing “revealing” outfits. The child sexual abuse rate in Pakistan was 7 children per day in September 2019.
–3,881 cases of rape, 1,359 cases of child sexual abuse registered in Punjab in 2019.
Women are not even safe after death! There have been cases where men dig up graves to rape women’s dead bodies. To those who believe that women get harassed for wearing immodest clothing, what should five-year-olds wear? What should a dead woman wear while being buried?
Status of Women in Pakistan:
In terms of women’s rights, Pakistan is number 151 in the world, ranking only above Iraq and Yemen on the Global Gender Gap Report 2020 by the World Economic Forum. About 30 years ago, Benazir Bhutto was the first woman to become Prime Minister of a Muslim country. However, the lack of tolerance that some men have for women who demand rights is damaging for the country's future and progress. This year, the Aurat March is more publicized than ever. . People are supporting it. However, at the same time, there have been more and more controversies surrounding it. All we can hope for is that this year, the march brings positive changes in the mindsets of men and women, leading to optimism. The government has also announced support for Aurat March and the representatives have said that they will act upon genuine cases of harassment They have also announced that they will make legal amendments for the protection of women’s rights.
We hope that the Aurat March will help to empower women and create a new Pakistan!
*Edits have been made for clarity and flow of thought throughout the essay.
Faryal Khan is on her way to achieving a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science. She likes to spend her time doing things related to art and social issues, current affairs and politics aiming to bring positive change in people's thinking. Currently, she's learning graphic design and photography.