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‘Aurat March’ 2021 presents feminist healthcare manifesto in Pakistan

Aurat March 2021 in Islamabad. Image via Facebook group Aurat Azadi March. Used with permission.

Aurat March 2021 in Islamabad. The banner says ‘Free women means free society.’ Image via Facebook group Aurat Azadi March, used with permission.

Women protested on International Women’s Day in Pakistan to reclaim their space in society, speak up for their rights, and demand justice from the system that has failed them because of patriarchal structures. This year, the Aurat March (Women’s March) protests also focused on the damage caused by the COVID-19 outbreak in Pakistan. Calling it a “Pandemic of Patriarchy,” the protesters demanded the government increase the health budget to 5 per cent of GDP so that women may get better healthcare.

For the fourth consecutive year, the Hum Aurtein feminist collective organised the protests across Pakistan, which took the form of marches, public art displays and performances highlighting challenges faced by women.

Among the issues the protests drew attention to was the significant increase in domestic violence and child abuse worldwide as families are families confined to their homes during the pandemic, with women deprived of proper healthcare or help—and that Pakistan was no different.

Each city chapter of the Aurat March (Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Multan, Bahawalpur, Hyderabad) wrote separate manifestos.

Lahore's manifesto concentrated on women's healthcare.

Karachi's manifesto centered on gender-based violence inflicted upon women, transgender and non-binary people.

(Sada haq, Aithay rakh – Put our Right Here. Aurat Dharna – Women sit-in.)

Islamabad focused on issues ranging from healthcare, economic justice and patriarchal violence to disability justice and the climate change crisis.

The Aurat March always touches upon pressing issues in Pakistan. Every year people come forward with personal accounts of friends and family who have been the objects of the male-dominated society.

Art and protest in Lahore

Innovative protest —slogans on hanging cloths. Aurat March 2021. Image by the author.

Innovative protest — slogans on hanging clothes, Aurat March 2021 in Lahore, Pakistan. Image by the author.

The Aurat March Lahore set up an art installation depicting the “patriarchal stains” on women's clothes, calling it “dirty laundry.” Messages from women and girls, mentioning the age at which they first encountered violence, harassment, emotional abuse or denial of freedoms, were displayed.

Artists and designers from across the country made feminist public art that told the stories of women, their ordeals, how they have suffered in society, highlighting the crux of the manifesto.

A #MeToo red cloth panel, with stories of abuse, harassment, violence, exposing the system that has failed them for ages, was also displayed.

The protesters in Lahore also sang the Chilean feminist song “You are the Rapist” in Urdu, and Alina, a transgender woman, danced to a Sufi (mystic) folk song.

Slogans and reactions

Women, girls, transgender and non-binary people, and also men of all ages, attended the march in Lahore, carrying anti-patriarchy slogans on placards.

Just days before the Aurat March was to be held, social media trends opposing it began going viral. One hashtag claimed that the Aurat March was foreign-funded and promoting Western agendas. People also said that the march was contrary to religious beliefs and that women already had rights in Islam.

Khalil Ur Rehman Qamar, a drama writer and director tweeted (the tweet was later deleted):

Conservative and right-wing organizations are aggressive opponents of the Aurat March feminist collective. Last year's Aurat Azadi March in Islamabad,  was disrupted when participants were pelted by bricks and stones by people at a counter-protest, the “Haya March.” This year, the women's wing of the Jamaat e Islami, a religious political party, organized a march in various cities across Pakistan. Their slogan was Familialism, not Feminism.

Media coverage of the Aurat March is usually limited to showing selective slogans and placards aimed at disparaging the movement. This year the organizers asked the media to register the names of reporters, preferably female, to cover the march. But this did not go well and YouTubers who wanted to cover the event called it as being “against freedom of the press.”

Since the march, several social media posts have called out citizen journalists (self-proclaimed journalists, YouTubers, local content creators, etc.,) for how they treated protesters, asking insensitive questions to make them uncomfortable.

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