Aurat March: Pakistani women gather in search of safe public space | Women’s Rights News

Islamabad, Pakistan – Tens of thousands of Pakistani women gathered in the country’s major cities as part of the sixth Aurat March (Women’s March) to mark International Women’s Day.

This year the march was held simultaneously in the capital Islamabad, Lahore and Multan in the northern province of Punjab and Hyderabad in the southern province of Sindh.

The Aurat March, which has been taking place since 2018, has drawn backlash from a section of the population for its provocative slogans, banners and posters challenging the patriarchy and highlighting issues faced by women such as divorce and sexual harassment.

Karachi, the country’s largest city, will hold the march on March 12.

Organizers had to approach the Lahore High Court after the city authorities refused permission for the procession due to security concerns. The court gave the go-ahead for the procession to continue in the eastern city.

Afghan refugee women carry signs as they participate in the Women's March in Islamabad.
Afghan refugee women carry signs as they take part in the Aurat March, or Women’s March, to mark International Women’s Day in Islamabad. [Akhtar Soomro/Reuters]

As women and members of the transgender community marched in Islamabad, trying to break through a police blockade, they were batoned by the police. Several members of the transgender community were injured.

Imaan Zeinab Mazari-Hazir, one of the organizers in Islamabad, called the state “anti-women”, adding that what the participants faced today was nothing new.

“We’ve been saying this for decades. Whether it is the time of previous dictators or today. Nothing has changed,” she told Al Jazeera.

“We are talking about socialist feminism. We are talking about democracy. We are talking about combating enforced disappearances. We are talking about equality and access to public spaces for women. These are the reasons why the state always has a problem with us.”

“Unsafe and dangerous”

Although it was a weekday, many people turned up at the ground outside Islamabad’s National Press Club to participate in the procession, carrying placards and banners.

Maryam Fatima, a lawyer based in Islamabad, carried such a banner with an inscription in Urdu that read: “My shirt is colorful, but don’t take it as my consent.”

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Fatima, who is originally from Karachi, said she had attended all the previous marches and for her, the event was a place where she could express her views on her personal experiences.

“For me, Aurat March is the one day of the year when I can talk about what I feel,” she said.

However, Fatima said she feels things are not necessarily getting better or better for women.

Women's Day events highlight gaps in gender equality
An Afghan refugee woman participates in a rally to mark International Women’s Day in Islamabad. [Anjum Naveed/AP Photo]

“I moved to Islamabad two years ago and even though it is the capital, I feel more insecure and insecure here. We can’t just go to a public park for fear of harassment and assault,” she said, adding that even in court, where she practices law, men treat women leniently.

Another participant, Khushbakht Sohail, said from his experience that while the Aurat Marches have given people a platform to come out and raise their voices, the state’s response has only become harsher.

“There is a constant backlash every year that you see before the march,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to the photoshopped banners and slogans used to coordinately harass Aurat March organizers and participants on social media.

“We saw today how the police used violence against us, but we will defend our positions.

The participants were supposed to make a short journey of about three kilometers (1.9 miles) from the National Press Club to D-Chowk, a city square in front of the Presidency after the speeches, but the police initially refused to remove the containers and barriers which blocked the participants from starting their march.

However, after more than an hour of sloganeering, the authorities eventually removed the barricades.

With popular songs like singer Hasan Raheem’s, Peechay Hatt, (Move Back) blaring from the speakers and loud chants from the crowd saying “Let us go to D-Chowk, or else leave your place of power” and “We are against oppression, come walk with us,” a huge roar went up as the police removed the barricades.

Aurat March in Islamabad.
Aurat March organizers in various cities presented their charter of demands, including increased representation of women in decision-making on climate issues [Syed Abid Hussain/Al Jazeera]

Sohail, who worked in the development sector, said it was clear from the tenacity shown by the crowd and sticking to their demand to march that people’s anger was growing and would not stop.

“This country also belongs to us. We will take it back if we are not given the rights,” she said.

Aurat March organizers in various cities presented their charter with demands including an end to patriarchal violence, increased representation of women in decision-making on climate issues, ensuring women’s safe access to economic opportunities and more.

Gender-based violence remains a serious problem in Pakistan. Global rights group Human Rights Watch said in its 2022 report that violence against women and girls, including rape, murder, acid attacks, domestic violence and forced marriage, is “endemic” across the country.

“Human rights defenders estimate that approximately 1,000 women are killed each year,” the report added.

Momal Malik, who attended the march with her friends, said the Aurat March and International Women’s Day were for her a reminder that change is possible.

“Women in power have always faced resistance everywhere, not just in Pakistan,” Malik said.

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