Pakistan’s Aurat March 2021: ‘Women’s Health Crisis’
Lina Idrees reflects on and discusses the upcoming Women’s March in Pakistan
It is one of my favourite times of the year again. It’s the time when the organisers of Pakistan’s annual ‘Aurat March’ (Women’s March) come together to prepare for the marches on International Women’s Day across the major cities of Pakistan. Since it was first organised in 2018, Pakistan’s Aurat March has come to symbolise a form of resistance, unique in how it reimagines a brighter and better future for women in Pakistan.
Founded by a diverse group of women, transgendered persons, and gender non-binary individuals across classes and sexual orientations, the march is symbolised by the collective term of “Hum Auratein” (we women). The marches are held across Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi, Peshawar, Multan, and Quetta. Each year the organisers of the Aurat March decide on a theme which embodies a multitude of issues that women and minority groups are unfortunately subjected to. Last year, the theme was ‘khudmukhtari’ or ‘autonomy’ and violence, which encompassed sexual violence and related economic hardships.
This year, to also bring attention to the effects of COVID-19, the theme is “Women’s Health Crisis”. The organisers also release a manifesto each year based on the decided theme. This year, in accordance with “Women’s Health Crisis”, the manifesto is titled “Feminist Manifesto on Healthcare” which outlines a list of issues relating to women’s health both at an individual and structural level. It includes the proposed actions required to be taken by different government authorities and other responsible institutions in respect to each of the issues raised. These include issues of rape and the treatment of rape victims, child marriages, honour killings, discrimination against gender and sexual minorities, and several others which various institutions are urged to address. You can read the manifesto here.
When we say women or aurat, we include everyone who self-identifies as a woman, regardless of their assigned sex at birth. We also include and advocate for non-binary identities, working to deconstruct these oppressive binaries and any identity oppressed by patriarchynote from Feminist Manifesto on Healthcare, published by Aurat March Lahore 2021.
In a country ranked third worst in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, successfully organising such a geographically wide-ranging event is commendable. The widespread and devastating violence and harmful mentality towards females is as widespread as it is commonplace. Whether it is refusing a marriage proposal like 19 year old Mahwish Arshad or posting content on social media which is deemed ‘indecent’ like 26 year old Qandeel Baloch– the fact is that ‘honour’ is structured by society and state through accepted patriarchal norms and values. It takes events like the Aurat March to try and somehow move that needle from complete indifference and acceptability to anything approaching what would be considered a ‘first-world view’. But for this annual mass mobilisation across Pakistan, there would be little chance of addressing this diabolical imbalance.
We will not bow down or succumb to extremists’ 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.Dr. Alfana Mallah, women’s rights activist from Hyderabad.
Sadly- but unsurprisingly- the marches have been heavily criticised since their inception in 2018. Political parties such as Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) deemed slogans such as ‘mera jism, meri marzi’ (my body my choice) as ‘vulgar expressions’. These groups, howsoever they may wish to hold themselves as ‘religious’ are in fact political and pushing their own political agenda. In this case, as they do in all cases, their opposition to this march is solely based on trivial nitpicking. This is done to intentionally detract from confronting the issues at hand and what the march represents to avoid any meaningful discussion on such issues- like women’s rights over their bodies in terms of consent and reproductive health. Equally, however, the Sindh government and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) have announced their unwavering support and solidarity with the organisers and participants of the Aurat March. While this support is encouraging for those participating, I am hopeful that this is not simply lip service but support which will lead to meaningful action and allyship.
Revolutionary social change of this nature which affects not just government policies and laws, but an entire mindset of a country doesn’t happen overnight. It has never happened overnight in any country. The suffragette movement is an example of this. But through courage and persistence and the recognition of these issues at a local and then national level, events like the Aurat March will ultimately achieve a tectonic shift in Pakistan’s social paradigm. The organisers and participants of Pakistan’s Aurat March are the pioneers of this change and while it may seem like one step forward and two steps back- but not for them there wouldn’t be any steps forward at all.
But through courage and persistence and the recognition of these issues at a local and then national level, events like the Aurat March will ultimately achieve a tectonic shift in Pakistan’s social paradigm.Lina Idrees