Thinking big: Aurat March

March 9, 2020

Thousands of women, men, transgender people, and children attended the nationwide Aurat March on March 8, 2020, which coincided with International Women’s Day. Organizers pulled through despite facing threats and petitions to stop the march.

Multan organized its first Aurat March. On March 7, women in Sukkur also held a torch rally. Assailants tied to a religious group threw stones and sticks at Aurat March participants in Islamabad, but that didn’t stop the marchers.

In honor of International Women’s Day, The NewsRun interviewed Aurat March (AM) organizers to learn more about their mission, impact, and future efforts.

The first Aurat March in 2018 followed closely after the global #MeToo movement began. In many ways, the Aurat March was a response to mounting cases of harassment, and the need to release years of pent-up anger. The march was also carried out in solidarity with non-men in Pakistan, and around the world. The key message they wanted to convey was “unity.” Each year, AM organizers release a manifesto that pushes for justice, accountability, and inclusion for women. This year, their manifesto also demanded an end to forced conversions. When asked where they have seen the most visible impact of their manifestos, organizers said:

“Open dialogue… it has fostered at home and in the media. It has brought contentious issues like transgender rights, forced marriages, marital rape, and bodily autonomy to the living room. TV programs across a range of networks have become increasingly willing to discuss formerly taboo topics regarding women’s rights, as well as key demands from our manifesto, such as economic justice and an end to violence against women. We’ve also seen a number of gender-inclusive safe spaces springing up online, which offer support and guidance to disempowered women and LGBTQIA+ people.”

The AM team also created Aurat Haq, a diverse intersectional political platform that focuses on women and gender minority issues in Pakistan. Since launching their movement, AM organizers are most proud of giving people a chance to be heard in the public sphere. The point is to promote dialogue, even if it’s contentious. They are also thrilled to see women and non-binary people take to the streets every year to raise their voices for themselves, and for others who are unable to make it. In their opinion, the biggest hurdles for women’s rights in Pakistan are:

“Hierarchies of caste and class that commoditize non-men in a gendered manner, violent barriers in the path of women’s right to education, economic justice, and safe public/private spaces.”

When asked what women can do outside of the march to protect their rights, empower themselves, and confront imposed gender roles, AM organizers suggested:

“…Women and non-binary folks should develop a strong network within themselves, one that supports and lifts them up. Reclaim public spaces and retain visibility. We will not recede once the March is over.”

There are also women in Pakistan who oppose the same Aurat March movement that is trying to give them a voice. While trying to wrap their heads around this backlash, organizers explained that:

“Women in Pakistan have often had no choice but to eke out what power and privilege they can within the patriarchy. In doing so, they’ve been persuaded that these are all the rights they are ‘allowed’ and deserving of. They worry about losing what they have if they were to protest. In a sense, they pick a vaguely defined honor over their fundamental human rights.”

When asked how they cope with ongoing threats and harassment, organizers said they have found great support systems in each other. Volunteers are also encouraged to take breaks if “it gets too much.”

AM organizers also started a dedicated support group to protect march participants in case they’re dealing with cyber harassment or other forms of abuse. Their social media team is “poised and ready” to help victims of online harassment. Plus, organizers advise participants to wear masks or cover their faces if they’re worried about being photographed.

“At the end of the day, we’re aware of the risks, and each of us is making informed decisions in their personal capacity about how to deal with them,” they said.

AM organizers will continue to confront opposition to their movement. They intend to keep the Aurat March relevant as long as there is oppression and harassment in Pakistan. In order to make the march an enduring institution, they will also work towards increasing legal and societal support.

Another long term goal is to make sure every marginalized person undergoing oppression has a space to air their demands.

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