By Sara Arshad / Sapan News
In 2021, my elder daughter Noor, then 14, first asked to attend the annual demonstration held on International Women’s Day in Lahore. Called the Aurat (women’s) March since the first such demonstration in Karachi, 2018, it is now replicated in cities around Pakistan.
As a single mother in a conservative society like Pakistan, this was a no-brainer, not just for any public demonstration, but for one that faces threats, harassment and violence every year.
“You’re too young, I can’t let you go. There are too many security threats,” I told her.
Noor argued that I had internalised patriarchal views about a woman’s place in society.
“Women are victims of patriarchy from the time they are born,” she added, suggesting that Aurat March was a way to combat it, a place for me to realise that even I have been a victim.
I refused to budge. She was disappointed but understood that I feared for her safety.
Things have changed since then. At the end of last year, encouraged by my mentor, the well-known artist and educator Salima Hashmi, I joined the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) established by the late Asma Jahangir. I also joined the Southasia Peace Action Network (Sapan), a coalition of individuals and organisations around the region and diaspora. Salima ji is deeply involved in both.
Joining these platforms, I began engaging in discussions with people who speak up about the lack of rights of the underprivileged, participate in public protests, and initiate petitions.
I realised that while I have always stood for human-rights values, it has been in a limited way. Now, engaging with people from these organisations standing for human dignity, rights, and values, I found myself gaining confidence.
Still, when Salima Hashmi suggested I attend the annual Aurat March in Lahore this year, I felt confused and hesitant. I had only attended one public demonstration before, organised by the HRCP against the targeting of the Peshawar Police Lines mosque.
Opponents of Aurat March say it promotes ‘fahashi’ (vulgarity),‘uriani’ (nudity), and incites hatred toward men. They raise slogans like, “Azaad Aurat Awara” (a free woman is a vulgar woman). Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) Islamabad chapter chief Abdul Majeed Hazarvi last year threatened to use a baton against the participants.
In that atmosphere, to not only attend but take along my younger sister and daughters as Salima ji suggested, felt even scarier. While I agreed that more and more women should come forward to take a stand for their rights, I still wondered if it was a good idea to attend a demonstration that faced security threats.
I shared my hesitations with my daughters, 16 and 15 years old. They were clear: We need to get out of the house. Those who remain quiet are doomed to suffer.
I felt a shift inside myself. As a mother it was not an easy decision for me to attend the march with two young girls. But their hope and confidence gave me the courage to join hands with other women who come out in public to raise their voice for their rights.
So we all piled into our WagonR and I drove towards the centre of Lahore where the march was taking place.
On that bright sunny day in Lahore, March 8, 2023, the Aurat March was not the only high-profile event in the city. Imran Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan, announced an election campaign rally on the same day.
For security reasons, roads leading to the Aurat March were closed off. There were massive traffic jams, and many drivers were making U-turns to try and get out of it, only adding to the confusion.
A drive that normally takes 40 minutes took us two hours. Taking alternative routes, we finally reached the red-brick Alhamra Arts Council on main Mall Road, and managed to find parking.
Then we walked over to the historic Faletti’s Hotel where the March began and ended.
The theme for this year’s march around Pakistan was climate justice. Participants held posters with slogans like, “No climate justice without gender justice”, and “The River Ravi is drying up, Lahore is not Lahore without Ravi”.
Interestingly, the Embassy of France in Islamabad celebrated International Women’s day this year by recognising the efforts of three Pakistani women, Humera Iqbal, Irum Fatima, and Mehreen Raza as role models in the field of climate change and gender equality.
To enter the space with exhibitions and speeches, we had to duck under trucks mounted with containers that cordoned off the area for security reasons. My younger daughter Duaa took videos of us going under those trucks and emerging triumphantly on the other side.
The demonstration had a short pre-planned route on the main roads, going from the NADRA office by the grandly named Shimla Pahari where the Lahore Press Club is located, to Faletti’s Hotel.
I marvelled at the peace and sense of safety I felt in the cordoned-off area. It was a moment of realisation, a turning point for me. The feeling of standing among women and the supporters of the march generated positive energy in me and all my fears evaporated.
Women dominated the area, including a contingent of the Punjab Women’s Police force, whom speakers appreciated. There were some men too, many with their families. They held placards calling for girls’ education, an increase in pay, transgender rights, and justice for rape survivors.
There was minimal catcalling or harassment. I could hear my inner voice shouting out for my rights. I could hear myself saying a big ‘No’ to those who harass me when I walk on the road. As one of the slogans at the event went:
“Jitni sarak tumhari hai
Utni sarak humari hai”
(We have the same right to the streets as you)
“The march reassured me that women are still fighting. I feel so energised,” said Nighat Saeed Khan, pioneering feminist activist, researcher and author, who joined the event despite being in a wheelchair due to her fragile health.
An exhibition based on actual incidents of sexual violence had clothing hanging from clothes-lines, a poignant reminder of what rape survivors and victims were wearing when attacked. Approximately eleven women are raped every day in Pakistan.
The installation provided stark, humanised data about this soul-destroying crime, the onus of which is often put on the victim or survivor. It included information about the victim’s age. Words about how the assault took place were painted on the fabric — like ‘knife’ on the shirt of a minor girl. Words about the perpetrator: ‘mullah’, cousin, friend, uncle, and even father. Where the incident took place: market, house.
One hears about such stories in the news or through social media daily, but seeing the victims’ clothes on display felt unbearable, as if these shirts were shouting for justice. The clothes exemplified women’s bodies signifying the horror and assault they faced.
This was just one aspect of the event.
Another art installation was a tent tunnel at the corner of the road by Faletti’s Hotel. The tunnel symbolised the fear and suffocation faced by women and girls who experience the predatory male gaze on an everyday basis on the roads while going to schools and colleges.
At the end of the march, the participants convened in front of Faletti’s Hotel for speeches and performances, addressing various topics — from stories of rape victims to a dance performance by the Khawaja Sira (transgender) community to humorous ‘tappey’ (folk songs that describe emotions or stories) about public figures.
The number of young men participating in solidarity with women on Women’s Day suggests that future generations will stand equally with one another and walk together towards a new dawn.
Sara Arshad is a teacher and poet in Lahore.
Lead image: Aurat March Lahore / Instagram
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