Last year Aurat March in Pakistan sparked a national conversation on women’s rights and attracted no small amount of vitriol both online and offline. Pakistan’s human rights record with regards to women, trans and non-binary folk has always been particularly horrific. Despite its ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1996, Pakistan has yet to integrate CEDAW into its domestic laws.
Human Rights Watch estimates that 70-90% of Pakistani women are liable to experience domestic violence at some point in their lives. Female literacy rates are as low as 45% while only 22% of Pakistani women participate in the labour force. 13 million girls are out of schools in Pakistan which is the second-largest rate of out of school female students in the world. A UN report approximates that it will take Pakistan 300 years to close the gender wage gap present.
These issues cannot be attributed to rampant poverty as some argue, but to a culture that vilifies and amplifies a narrative against women as a segment of society with no place in the public sphere. it is a great irony then that a majority of the unchecked sexual assault and harassment of women in Pakistan takes place inside their homes, from male members of the community.
The law rarely delivers justice for these cases and often defendants are pressured through additional violence to take back their reports. In recent years there has been a rise of sexual assault against children, both male and female as evidenced by the shocking Kasur case in 2015 where 250 children had been abused by a pornography ring in the region, in which several of the country’s politicians were implicated. Honour killings, acid attacks, female genital mutilation, forced conversions, revenge rape and female infanticide are a litany of some of the crimes pervasive in Pakistani society.
It was in this politically charged atmosphere that the feminist movement in Pakistan experienced a revival. A flood of young women and men have turned the tide and tried to raise issues previous feminist movements did not. The focus of these was to change the social mindset of Pakistani issues and tackle the microaggressions and ideas that encourage more serious crimes against women.
It was between the throes of this revival that Aurat March 2020 became an issue discussed on the national stage as well as in every home. Celebrated playwright Khalil Ur Rehman has written many mainstream popular dramas in Pakistan and is well known as a serial misogynist. His comments on women and the feminist movement have often gone viral, his portrayal of women in his plays has been notoriously sexist projecting them as licentious and unfaithful. On a local news show, Khalil ur Rehman was asked to give his opinion on Aurat March, opposite Marvi Sirmed a human rights activist. The use of a popular feminist slogan by Marvi Sirmed “Mera Jism, Meri Marzi” (My Body, My Choice) resulted in a barrage of slurs and insults from Khalil Ur Rehman.
The tirade that followed on live television was one of the most shameful ones to have been witnessed in Pakistani television. Mr Rehman exploded red-faced and screamed: “What’s in your body? Who the hell are you, go look at your body and face; no one even wants to spit on it. Don’t talk in the middle, don’t talk in between the lines. What is your body, bibi? Don’t talk no bloody nonsense. You bloody shut up. B**ch!”
All this while a determined Marvi Sarmad reiterated the slogan as much as she could. Following this, the clip of the interview went viral and multiple Aurat march organisers, supporters and ordinary citizens responded in the following week by repeating the slogan online as much as they could and showing their support for the movement.
Aurat March itself on the 8th of march featured numerous slogans denouncing Khalil Ur Rehman and the slogan ‘Mera Jism, Meri Marzi.’ Online spaces and media featured a lot of commentators stepping up to explain what the slogan meant for them and its historical significance. The slogan refers to bodily autonomy, not just with reference to reproductive rights for women but also the right to not be harassed, the reality of marital rape and forced pregnancies in Pakistan.
It also speaks to the daily harassment faced by women in public spaces and the policing of their bodies and clothing. Mera Jism Meri Marzi calls for a reclamation of women’s bodies that has long been denied by the religious right of the country. It calls for the freedom of women from fear, from insecurity and from the disadvantages given to them by the very country that is supposed to preserve their liberty.
Detractors of the movement have labelled it as a “foreign agenda” financed by “western” countries but have offered a solution to the epidemic of physical and sexual violence against women in Pakistan. This year’s Aurat March will be the third time it has taken place and it’s popularity continues to soar. Whatever the sentiments the movement has managed to rouse a debate that could signal a new era in women’s rights for Pakistan.