Pakistan’s Aurat Marches Spark Gendered National Controversy

Marches held in the name of International Women’s Day, March 8, across numerous cities in Pakistan this year ignited intense controversy, specifically surrounding the nature of many march-goers’ signs. Although the slogans displayed on the signs in question challenged the existing religious, economic, and gender norms in Pakistan, the lines of battle drawn between those who supported and opposed the march, its participants, and their signs appeared to be decidedly gendered. While, according to TheNews, Rubaina Rajbhoy faced criticisms and verbal persecution for her posters depicting communist revolutions, the BBC reports that Rumisa Lakhani and Rashida Shabbir Hussain faced similarly negative public reactions nationally for their sign which included an image of “woman-spreading” coupled with the assertion that, “Here, I’m sitting correctly.” In addition to the violence threatened and carried out, in both the rhetorical and physical senses on the personal level as a result of the marches’ contents and missions, the poor reactions to these marches indicate both broader national and international patterns of gender-based violence and inequalities.

When asked by the BBC about their sign and its background, Rumisa and Rashida, creators of the “woman-spreading” sign explained that “the way women sit is a constant issue. We have to be elegant; we have to worry about not showing the shape of our bodies. The men, they man-spread and no one bats an eye.” Rashida further emphasized the fact that in her experience in Pakistan, “Women are told how to sit, how to walk, and how to talk.” Lubaina, however spoke more directly of the events of this year’s march, in relation to the nature of her sign evoking revolution, as well as the attitudes toward the march in general, stating, “The level to which they took [offense], to the point of giving death threats to the people who were the organizers…is too much.” Referring to the march responses which were fraught with anger and inferred violence, Lubaina laments the hijacking of the march’s goal of recognizing women in Pakistan.

In assessing the events in Pakistan in the context of the challenges faced by feminist movements around the world, they appear to be representative of the ways in which the feminist movement is not immune in the least to internal division and strife, due both to the term it self’s chronological dissemination of meaning, but also due to the fact that the very goal of feminism is prohibited from being fulfilled when one individual or groups speaks for the interests of the whole, thereby assuming the existence of a set of homogenous female interests. Because much of the dissent against the 2019 Aurat march’s signs came from feminists themselves, as well as national officials, these reactions show that marches themselves have the potential to ignite strife regarding aspects aside from the organization of the marches themselves. These controversies highlight the importance of disputing notions of one unified feminist movement or interest.

In terms of the national history of Pakistan, the Aurat marches mark an important moment for the nation’s feminist movement. According to the BBC, this year’s marches indicated progress in class inclusion, in addition to including the LGBT+ community. The BBC has also reported that the 2018 World Economic Forum ranked Pakistan second to last out of one hundred and forty-nine countries in terms of gender equality. While it is of course important to bear in mind the power structures which dictate who assesses these conditions and creates these rankings, it is safe to assert that gender equality has not been realized in most of today’s societies.

In addition to the shifting national attitudes toward gender represented by the organization of recent Aurat marches in Pakistan, the internal strife which has divided the feminist movement in ways directly represented according to views of the signs as virtuous versus sinful for Pakistani women highlights the emerging questions which various feminist movements must answer in order to realistically actualize what they purport to achieve.