Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ministers and advisers never cease to amaze and surprise the people of Pakistan by their pearls of wisdom. First it was the PM himself who stated that the reason for increasing sexual violence in the country is the way our women dress. Earlier, the PM’s favourite Islamic scholar Tariq Jameel had stated that the Covid pandemic is caused by ‘obscenity’ – a reference to women’s choice of clothes. The latest misogynistic statement was issued by Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Noor ul Haq Qadri who wrote a letter to the prime minister, seeking a ban on the Aurat March scheduled to be held on March 8, on the grounds that the event is anti-Islam.
He said that the International Women’s Day should be celebrated as International Hijab Day rather than Aurat March and no one should be permitted to mock Islamic rituals and values.
The minister did not elaborate as to how some women marching to defend their constitutional and legal rights will be a threat to Islam or how this peaceful demonstration will mock any Islamic value or ritual. The minister needs to understand that this is a critical juncture in history, when women rights movements are gaining strength not only in Pakistan but around the world — in response to increasing gender based crimes and injustices.
The letter by the minister is nothing but a regressive measure to alter the status of a UN-designated international day that aims to celebrate “the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women”.
The International Women’s Day highlights the importance of creating awareness about the rights of girls and women by holding rallies and programs to shed light on social injustice, gender bias, and a lack of implementation of laws to protect women. Noor ul Haq Qadri terms slogans raised in women’s day event ‘un-Islamic’ and writes, “No organisation should be allowed to question or ridicule Islamic values, norms of society, hijab or the modesty of Muslim women at the Aurat March or any other event held in connection of the International Women’s Day as these acts hurt the sentiments of Muslims in the country.”
Nothing could be farther from the truth. This suggestion by the federal minister is another blatant attempt to Talibanise our society. This day is dedicated to women from all walks of life and it is meant to raise awareness in our society regarding gender violence and discrimination against women and any move to ban this march tantamount to depriving women of their freedom and constitutional rights on the International Women’s Day.
Senator Sherry Rehman tweeted that the minister’s letter to the PM was ‘concerning’.
“Such a statement from a Federal Minister is strange,” she wrote, adding that March 8 is celebrated across the world as women’s day. “What will you gain by imposing a ban on a march by unarmed women,” she further asked.
“On one hand, we condemn India’s attitude, but on the other you talk about banning a women’s march” Pakistan’s former ambassador to the UN Maleeha Lodhi also expressed disappointment at Qadri’s letter. “Unbelievable. And unfortunate. Noorul Haq Qadri asks PM Imran Khan to ban Aurat March,” she tweeted.
Religious parties and extreme right wing organisations have always linked many things to a danger to Islam but it is hypocritical to defend Indian women’s right to wear hijab while dismissing Pakistani women for seeking their rights.
For the last two years, the Aurat March slogan ‘Mera jism meri marzi’(my body, my choice) has been the cause of controversy. This slogan is seen by the critics as obscene, with sexual connotations and against the modesty of a woman, but in reality it is about a woman’s control over her own body and her life.
Pakistani feminists and women’s rights activists, despite this backlash, are undeterred. Organisers and participants of women’s rights movements are faced with a sustained campaign of misinformation, blasphemy allegations and threats of physical violence. The brave leaders of the movement in Pakistan firmly believe that Aurat March is a day to celebrate their femininity, to share their traumas and pain, to express themselves as they deem fit and to demand their right to equality, health, education, mobility and freedom from violence and gender discrimination.
The violent and extremist backlash including street demonstrations against the march by some religious parties and an organised social media disinformation campaign against the Aurat March highlight how unsafe, unjust and violent this country remains for most of its female citizens.
We need to counter these efforts to term Aurat March anti-Islam, because it is a genuine women rights movement.