The unstoppable Aurat March

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By Rasul Bakhsh Rais

The more you suppress the higher they rise in their struggle for rights, equality, and justice. This is a somewhat heartening story of Pakistan’s feminist movement that has changed its orientation, methods and goals since independence. At the time of independence, about seventy-three years back, the upper class, activist women formed the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA). More or less it was an exclusive club of elite families working out of benevolence to help improve the conditions of women in the society. Their focus was on girls’ education by sponsoring schools and vocational training for women. The early phase of feminism was liberal in demanding equal rights and reforms of social customs and institutions shaped by feudalism, tribalism and patriarchy. They achieved a big success with the enactment of family laws in 1962 under a military regime that gave women the right to seek  divorce, set a marriageable age for girls and made it mandatory for men to seek the first wife’s consent for second marriage.

By the standards and practices of Pakistani society at the time, these were “radical” developments that infuriated the religious parties in the country. Added to this was an ambitious family planning program in that decade to cut down Pakistan’s population growth rate by introducing contraceptives, health clinics and media campaigns on the merit of smaller families. The agenda of feminism was quite extensive, which included setting up of a commission on the status of women and addressing widespread violence against them, such as honor killings, wife beatings and forced marriages.

While many issues relating to the poor conditions of women remained unresolved, the third military regime of General Ziaul Haq (1977-1988) passed discriminatory and often unjust laws that negatively impacted the lives of women. In cases where a woman was raped, she had to prove that it was not with her consent by producing four reliable witnesses. The law of evidence in some matters was also unfair since it required two women witnesses again one man standing as a witness. Even when the political activity in the country under the military regime was banned and active members of political parties were harshly suppressed, the urban women took out processions and demanded a repeal of the discriminatory ordinances. Most of these women were young professionals, educationists belonging to universities, colleges and schools, or doctors and engineers. They formed the Women Action Forum (WAF) that symbolized activism of the new middle class. Unlike APWA, WAF was confrontational, uncompromising and determined to fight back, not just in the courts but also in the streets of the major cities. WAF demonstration, though small in numbers, in the beginning, distinguished women activists against the Zia regime from political parties that either remained silent or realigned themselves for power-sharing.

The achievements of Pakistani women activists over the decades can be best described as “one step forward, two steps back.” What is quite admirable, however, is their relentlessness against all odds. The social structures of Pakistan, though not frozen in time, have retained the rough and heavy layers of feudal and tribal characteristics. Women are still murdered in thousands each year in a custom that has earned the label of “honor killing.” The suspicion that a girl or woman within a family is having an illicit relationship can result in her murder— to restore the “honor” of the family. It is against the law, but it does happen. In fact, in many cases, this is done quite secretively by her family behind the mud walls.

The “honor killings,” pre-age marriages, domestic violence and depriving girls of the benefits of education are old and somewhat unresolved issues. While they remain on the agenda of women activism, the idea of freedom of expression in a wider sense has emerged as the new platform for the younger generation of women. For some years, they have organized women marches in major cities coinciding with the World Women Day on March 8. The last year’s rally in Lahore, with the display of colorful posters highlighting social freedom issues, like “my body, my will” ruffled the feathers of patriarchal social forces in the society. The right-wing religious parties termed the “Aurat March” (or Women’s March) “un-Islamic,” and a move to secularize and westernize the Pakistani society.

Months before the Aurat March this year, some of the religious groups went to the court to stop it on the grounds that it was against the “identity” and “Islamic values” of the society. After much debate, the Lahore High Court rejected the petition, saying it could not interfere with the freedom of expression since it was the constitutional right of every citizen. Failing to get a favorable order from the court, some of the religious groups have threatened to attack the planned procession on March 8.

However, the threat of violence is not likely to prevent the march from going ahead. The movement is now beyond old social rhetoric and well developed to meet any legal or political challenge. The social-liberal ethos of women activism presents the globalized values of the new woman in Pakistan’s society. That is not a comfortable thought for the older layers of traditional society. With democracy, expanded middle class and urbanization, the women of Pakistan are bound to take their activism to a new level.

(Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Twitter: @RasulRais)