On March 8, International Women’s Day, thousands of women in urban centres across the country took to the streets and organized huge demonstrations on a broad charter of demands relating to gender equality. These demands were linked to economic and reproductive rights, environmental justice and access to education and healthcare. Those who attended what is popularly known as Aurat March, brought with them posters and placards which expressed in creative ways a range of issues faced by women and minority groups in economic, political and social domains.
As has been its (recent) legacy, this year’s Aurat March was shrouded in controversy. The national conversation leading up to Aurat March was charged and divisive. Petitions were filed against organisers in courts to prevent them from marching; posters inviting the public to the march were torn down and murals promoting feminist solidarity were defaced. On television, talk show hosts and their guests fixated on one slogan ‘Mera Jism, Meri Marzi’ (My body, My Choice), terming it an attack on traditional values of the society. A particularly nasty exchange – between abusive playwright Khalilur Rehman Qamar and defiant rights activist Marvi Sirmed on television – made Aurat March a common topic of discussion in many households and exposed hardline ultra-conservative positions which are common in society.
It was clear that traditional attitudes were reacting to the demand for progress from women across the country. This charged atmosphere exploded on the day of the march itself: in Islamabad, activists of hardline religious parties gathered near the marchers and pelted them with rocks. Several people were injured and taken to hospitals. Unshaken and undeterred by the attack, the protesters continued their demonstration and made charged speeches for the need for unity and collective action.
In the aftermath of Aurat March, some quarters expressed discomfort with the pronounced left-wing nature of the demonstration. They particularly objected to the slogans raised by the protesters, saying that not everyone who was attending the march subscribed to the Left’s ideology. It was as if those objecting to the Left’s dominance in the discourse were unaware of how grounded March 8 – Women’s Day – is in communist history. After women gained suffrage in the Soviet Union in 1917, March 8 became a national holiday there. Since then, it was predominantly celebrated by the socialist movement. The United Nations only began celebrating the day in 1977.
There is no doubt that the young organisers of women’s marches in Pakistan have captured the imagination of the public through consistent and organized effort. It takes months of hard work to organize a one-day event dedicated to women and other sexual minorities. Before Aurat Marches, Women’s Day celebrations were held by NGOs and small groups. Womanhood was celebrated through sales on beauty items. The scale of Aurat March events of the last few years, however, has superseded anything ever organized by politically conscious young women before. This burgeoning feminist movement will have to sharpen its demands and deepen its relationship with the working women and men of the country in order to grow and create conditions for women’s emancipation it seeks. Historically, women’s movements were strengthened when their demands were framed as issues of the working masses. This is how first wave feminism in Europe made gains for women workers – campaigners organized and demonstrated for equal pay with trade unions and women’s labour organisations.
Aurat March in each urban center is organized through a committee of senior and young activists. These committees are independent and autonomous and each city produces its very own expansive list of demands before the state and society. The broad framing of demands allows the march to be inclusive, however, it conveys no concrete objective to the public that the movement intends to achieve. Currently, the movement is being defined by its slogans. This has opened it up to attack and much of its discourse has been defensive; campaigners of the movement have spent great time and energy clarifying ambiguity in its slogans. There was very little public attention on the actual demands of the marchers (beyond superficial hullabaloo) and the event remained largely symbolic. Representatives of political parties extended support to the marchers for their own opportunistic gimmicks but no one made any commitment to the marchers.
Next year’s Aurat March will be a fresh opportunity for women’s rights campaigners and organizations to not only assert their thoughtful slogans, but also put to test the experience gained of more than three years of organizing, and make concrete gains for the women’s movement in this country. This time, however, rather than letting the slogans define the movement, the movement should define and assert its slogans in favour of the working people of the country who are the most vulnerable under this patriarchal, capitalist order.
Addressing the gender wage gap is the first goal that comes to mind. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Pakistan has the highest gender wage gap in the world – women in Pakistan earn 34 percent less than men on average, ILO noted in 2018. A Global Wage Report from 2019 found that women in Pakistan constitute 90 percent of the bottom one percent of wage earners in the country. Access to a decent work environment, family-friendly workplaces, safe transportation for commuting to and from work, the importance of quality childcare services, inclusive employment opportunities for all, including transgender persons, are all part of the effort to close the gender wage gap. ‘Equal Pay for Equal Work’ could be the central plank and a unifying theme for women to rally behind on Aurat March next year. It could become the slogan that achieves social justice for working women in Pakistan.
The writer is TFT News Editor and can be contacted on Twitter @aimamk