Illustration by Oscar Bray

Is the Aurat March Too Radical for Pakistan?

Despite the apparent success of the women’s movement, it has faced immense backlash from the religious clergy and conservative parties that rule Pakistan, to the extent that the lives of those marching have been endangered.

In 2018, a group of young feminists in Karachi decided to organize a march to raise awareness for women’s rights in Pakistan and protest the social, economic and legal injustices they face. They called it the Aurat March. This small movement was endorsed by multiple organizations working to secure women’s rights in Pakistan, such as the Awami Workers’ Party and the Lady Health Workers Association.
Today, three years since the first Aurat March, the movement has spread to multiple cities across the country, amassing crowds of women, men and children from all social classes. But despite the apparent success of the movement, it has not been free of controversy and criticism, particularly from the religious clergy and conservative parties that rule Pakistan. Every year, such groups have unleashed a wave of anger against the march and its organizers, to the extent that the lives of those marching have been endangered.
In 2018 and 2019, one of the earliest criticisms of the march regarded it “vulgar” and “un-Islamic”. Slogans such as “Mera jism, meri marzi” (my body, my choice), for some, promoted an indecent and immoral image of a woman, implying that this chant called for complete sexual freedom and liberation in terms of clothing for women. In a conservative country like Pakistan, even the abstract idea of a liberated woman is perceived as a threat to the nation. The organizers of the march were recently made to clarify that they did not intend to challenge women’s modesty, but rather defy the patriarchal control of women’s bodies in Pakistan. These include the injustices which are incurred upon Pakistani women on a daily basis such as forced marriages and pregnancies as well as pervasive sexual harm.
Some Pakistanis have also charged the movement for its allegedly Western agenda, as it was perceived to cater to the elite class which is constantly accused of diluting traditional “Pakistani values”. The march has persisted, resisting the vandalization of its posters and murals and petitions made to the High Courts of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi demanding a ban on the march itself. The petitions turned out to be unsuccessful, given that such a ban would be a breach of the freedom of expression. The courts did, however, demand that the contents of the march be kept “culturally sensitive”.
Perhaps more painfully, the resentment against the Aurat March has spilled blood. During the 2020 Aurat March held in Islamabad, nearby religious groups organized an opposing “Haya March” (Modesty March). These groups pelted the attendees of the Aurat March with stones, gravely injuring one of the participants. Those who attended the marches received constant threats of bombings and acid attacks. Death and rape threats, as well as regular online abuse for participation in the March continue to occur.
Given the violent pushback, danger posed to the lives of the participants and threats from religious parties, one must ask: is this conservative country even ready for a movement such as the Aurat March? The answer, unequivocally, is not just that Pakistan is ready for such a movement, but that such violence and backlash only reinforces the urgent need for it in the first place. Those hiding behind the veil of “Islamic values being threatened” are the very ones who have twisted religion into a device of power and as a means to continue patriarchal control of women. The same religious groups opposed to the march have partaken in acts of terrorism and remained silent when cases of child abuse in mosques come to light. Where are their Islamic values then? Evidently, the problem is not that the Aurat March is “un-Islamic”, but rather that it challenges traditional patriarchal power structures in Pakistan and scares those who wish to keep benefiting from the subjugation of women. This is the reason why the March should continue with full force.
None of that is to say that the Aurat March does not have a long way to go before it can push for meaningful, lasting change. Still, the movement continues to grow from strength to strength each year, adapting in new ways as it confronts the violence it faces. After the controversies of the first two marches, the organizers have carefully guarded what the March stands for in order for it to keep thriving. For instance, after the first two marches, some Pakistanis claimed that the March was exclusive to the urban elite. However, the third March in 2020 saw inclusivity being part of the agenda, as more cities were added to the list of places where the March was to be held.
Moreover, in an attempt to keep the slogans culturally appropriate in 2020, they were first passed through the High Court for approval. The organizers are also actively making sure to educate others on their manifestos and have dedicated their media team to make sure the content of the March is religiously and culturally sensitive.
This year, the manifesto for Karachi was marching against patriarchal violence, in Lahore, it was fighting for the safety of female healthcare workers at the front line of the pandemic and in Islamabad, it was focused on economic justice for women and minorities. By now, the march has also garnered the support of several political parties such as the Pakistan People’s Party, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz and the ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek – e – Insaaf.
During this year’s Aurat March, the only issue was that false claims of blasphemous content being presented at the March were circulated on social media. Clearly, the patriarchy is grasping for straws at this point, given that the Aurat March has now solidified and strengthened its position in the country.
Eyza Irene Hamdani Hussain is Deputy Opinion Editor. Email her at
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