Trying to Make Sense of Anti-Aurat March Sentiments

Trying to Make Sense of Anti-Aurat March Sentiments

Aurat Marches in Pakistan have had their rather generous share of critics—for instance, the state, religious institutions, and conservatives. In 2018 and 2019, those who organized and participated in them had been aggressively buffeted by all manner of condemnation. The 2020 Aurat March faced the same. As an example, consider how, in late February, a petition was lodged in the Lahore High Court seeking to proscribe the 2020 Aurat March.[1]

Disapproval of the Marches is not surprising. Feminist movements, by design, are intended to be harbingers of social change; change of any form is characteristically subject to resistance from those that seek to preserve the existing parameters of society. But this reasoning does not help us understand why the Marches receive the severity of criticism that they do. Those who support the Marches aren’t just criticized, they’re vilified. They’re pilloried on social media. Chastised on television. Lambasted in public. Why? Is it because of what the Marches represent? Perhaps a look at the manifesto of the Aurat March would aid our understanding.

Let’s use the manifesto for the 2019 Aurat March as a base for discussion (many of the contentions set out in it also seem to carry over to 2020). Unsurprisingly, it fervently advocates for the rights of women.[2] Broad themes touch upon addressing the wage gap, developing safe working environments, addressing gender-based violence concerns, and recognizing and reinforcing reproductive rights. That, however, is half the story. The manifesto talks about environmental rights—asking for steps be taken to combat climate change, animals to be protected, and air quality to be regulated. In relation to enforced disappearances, and with an eye on the fact that men seem to be the primary target group, it asks that the practice be brought to an end. It goes on to demand the inculcation of a social climate based on inclusivity—for the physically disabled and the psychologically vulnerable, for the transgender community, for women, and for students. The manifesto concludes on an anti-war posture, denouncing militarism, and calling for an end to the perpetuation of needless violence.

The Aurat March, as an etymological construction, may imply that it exclusively concerns itself with the rights of women, but the manifesto proves that that isn’t true. The Aurat March isn’t just for women. The rights that the March seeks to protect are so vast in their scope, that they essentially place everyone in the country under their umbrella. Some, such as those pertaining to climate change and war, go so far as to be of universal benefit. Everyone in Pakistan stands to benefit. Men, women, children, minorities – all people. And at this point, the critic might think that with an agenda this broad, the Aurat March is unlikely to force direct concessions on every ground, so what’s the point? That’s a valid concern. Concentrated, sustained endeavours would be more effective than mass mobilizations at producing narrow, targeted change. But the Aurat March, like many other global feminist movements, does not aim at achieving the latter. What the Aurat March does is far more complex. It sets a broad agenda, rallies people to pursue its general realization, and then leaves them to do just that in their professional quarters. Essentially, the Aurat March sets the stage for its participants. It galvanizes them towards the fulfilment of a mutual cause, and then, post-March, entrusts them to continue endeavouring towards something meaningful. Arguably, the real work starts after the March.

So, what have we covered so far? First, we can’t attribute the harsh criticism that’s levied against the participants of Aurat March to the purposes that undergird the movement. A sensible reading of the March’s manifesto makes clear that most people, if not everyone, stand to benefit. Second, the Aurat March can’t be criticized on its overly broad mandate. It’s a viable strategy that has historically proven itself to yield dividends.[3] Well then, why does animosity against the movement persist? At this juncture, we are forced to take into account the identity of the majority of those involved in the Aurat March – women.

The fact that women head the Aurat March may be a reason for igniting negative public sentiments. Essentially, there is a possibility that the problem isn’t with the political mandate that women are espousing, but the simple fact that they, i.e. women, are the ones espousing something political, period. This proposition may seem specious, but it can’t be dismissed. Sexism remains prolific in contemporary times. A recent report released by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) found that 90 percent of all people, i.e. men as well as women, harbour some bias against women,[4] be it in the realm of politics, economics, education, or physical autonomy. And yes, statistics from Pakistan do indeed contribute to the foregoing calculation. In fact, as a broad illustration of where the country stands, only 0.19 percent of the population holds no bias against women; the rest of the population, in some form or manner, does.[5] According to researchers, these very biases, in large part, negatively impact prospects for furthering women’s rights.[6]

The Aurat March is a grand political statement and it will certainly have its share of backlash. Moreover, we must anticipate the possibility that some segments of the society may have legitimate concerns that tilt them against the movement. Such apprehensions merit engagement in an objective, rational manner—that is the essence of progression. But fiercely opposing the Aurat March just because it is spearheaded by women is not rational. It’s unjustifiable prejudice. It’s a depiction of just how far we are from gender equality.

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References

[1] Reuters, Pakistan Court Gives Green Light to Women’s March – With Conditions, The New York Times (March 3, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2020/03/03/world/asia/03reuters-womens-day-pakistan-march.html. The petition was ultimately unsuccessful. See Id.
[2] See Courting the Law, #AuratMarch2019: Manifesto [Complete Text] (March 7, 2019) http://courtingthelaw.com/2019/03/07/news-events/auratmarch2019-manifesto-complete-text/?fbclid=IwAR0Vq2W7LSEAsl1tMCtQ68GDunSE1rjObv5_Rh_HgPdtzsM5rDqYSD89O9c.
[3] UC Press Blog, The Women’s Marches Have Changed Everything, (Jan 19, 2019), https://www.ucpress.edu/blog/41186/the-womens-marches-have-changed-everything/.
[4] The report draw data from 75 countries that collectively constituted 80 percent of the global population. See Alaa Alassar, Nearly 90 percent of men – and women – are biased against women, UN study finds, CNN (March 6, 2020, 3:56 PM), https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/06/us/study-90-percent-bias-against-women-trnd/index.html.
[5] See UNDP, 2020 Human Development Perspectives. Tackling Social Norms—A game changer for gender inequality, 2020, at 20.
[6] See id.

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any other organization with which he might be associated.

Ahmed Farooq

The writer is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University Law Center.