The Eternal Battle for Women’s Rights in Pakistan

Photo by Mashal Baloch

By Shah Meer Baloch

Despite threats and intimidations, Pakistani feminist women observed Aurat March –– Urdu for Women’s March –– on International Women’s Day, in the capital and other major cities across the conservative country. Protesters, holding placards, yelled slogans demanding gender equality and decrying sexual harassment and gender-based violence.

But major conservative religious political parties, including Jamaat e Islami (JI) and Jamaat e Ulama Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), decried the march as vulgar and an affront to traditional Muslim values and Islam.

Conservative groups have through the courts tried and failed to ban the march, which is usually observed by leftists, progressives, liberals, and secular people. Many right-wing groups, however, organized an alternative ‘Haya Day’: “Modesty Day.” Female students from Jamia Hafsa, an Islamic seminary in Islamabad, claimed responsibility for defacing a feminist mural painted before the march. Along with conservative male activists, they showed up in double the numbers of the participants of the women march.

Thirty-five-year-old Irfana Yasser, along with her five-year and two-and-half-year-old kids, took part in the march to ensure her children remain aware of women’s issues. A right-winger sprinkled chili powder on her face. Other conservative activists attacked marchers in Islamabad with a stick, stones, and chili powder, injuring –– but not stopping –– many participants.

Their commitment displayed the march’s symbolic power, but the event and larger movement are evidently lacking intersectionality and inclusivity.

Photo by Mashal Baloch

Women make 48.76% of 207 million country’s population. Pakistan is the sixth-most dangerous in the world for women. It’s the fourth-worst country in terms of women’s economic resources and the discrimination they face, including so-called honor killings. The World Economic Forum in 2020 ranked Pakistan the 151st country of 153 for gender parity. 

An NGO based on women rights, White Ribbon Pakistan, claimed that 4,734 women faced sexual violence, more than 15,000 cases of honor crimes, 18,00 cases of domestic violence and 5,500 cases of women kidnappings were reported between 2004 and 2016.  

On the other hand, media reports revealed that over 51,241 incidents of violence against women were reported between January 2011 and June 2017. However, only 2.5% ended up being convicted by the courts among all the registered cases. Recently, the Chief Justice of Pakistan, seemingly in response, announced set up 1,000 courts to tackle violence against women. 

This year’s women’s march was more popular than those in previous years. Activists came with banners and placards demanding an end to violence against women, honor killings, patriarchy, sexual harassment, and more. Social media helped galvanize activists, spreading the news of rapes, acid attacks, and sexual harassment. In May 2019, 10-year-old Farishta Mohammed was raped and murdered, her dumped body discarded. The murder sparked public outrage.

“This march for many Pakistani feminists, including myself, is a sign of hope in dark times,” says Mahvish Ahmed, an associate professor at LSE, “A younger generation of women across the country have come forward to protest long-running sexual harassment and assault in several spaces. Secondly, we are in a political moment, where feminist issues are back on the agenda after years in the doldrums.”

It also had some little presence of transgenders. In Pakistan, trans community often face violence. They are harassed and killed too.

While holding a placard and asking for its rights, a trans activist requesting anonymity, told me, “I feel safe among women, but they are as vulnerable as I am in Pakistan. The difference is that transgender kids are disowned by parents and women are deprived of their fundamental rights by birth.”

Aurat March, definitely, was very significant for the conservative and patriarchal country. But it seems that such outrage is limited to Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi –– the urban areas in which these marches took place –– even though some 63 percent of Pakistanis live in rural areas. Most of those women in rural areas even can’t leave home without getting permission from their male family members. 

 “The march is restricted in its scope as the participants come from [the] urban upper-middle class,”  Zagum Abbas, a lecturer and political worker who attended the Lahore march told the author, “ but at the same time, I don’t differ with the symbolic power of Aurat March.”

Photo by Mashal Baloch

Indeed, marchers seemed to comprise only a small subset of Pakistani women: the upper-middle class and urban. Organizers did not make an effort to include the various ethnicities, classes, sects, and women working groups who comprise Pakistan.

“The event wasn’t inclusive as it should have been,” said Sommaiyah Hafeez, a student who attended the Islamabad march.

Thousands took part in Karachi’s Women’s March, which coincided with another rally held by the Home Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF), gathering around 3,000 working women holding red flags and chanting slogans demanding rights for working women.

 “Our main focus is on the class issue or struggle and economic exploitations of workers,” Zehra Khan, the General Secretary of HBWWF, said in an interview with the author. “But this is not very important for them, the ones who hold Aurat March. That’s why we did not celebrate it together.”

Women’s issues differ across Pakistan, from Balochistan to Sindh.

Photo by Mashal Baloch

Women in the latter regularly campaign for the release of their missing family members. From Quetta, some 10 women along with a few men and kids in late Oct 2013  walked months on foot –– more than 2,000 kilometres and reached  Islamabad in February 2014–– to demand the release of their missing male family members. 

This recent women’s march has evidently not reached all of Pakistan’s women. 

“They, organisers of women march, did not agree for giving the sole focus on enforced disappearances and institutionalized sexual harassment and blackmailing at the universities in Balochistan,” Dr. Sabiha Baloch, vice-chairperson of the Baloch Students Action Committee (BSAC), told mefrom the missing persons’ camp in Quetta. “So, we decided to observe the day and raise the voice against the issues which matter the most to us.”

Photo by Mashal Baloch

Balochistan is generally ignored by Pakistani media, leaving activists, including feminists, unaware of the province and women’s issues there. Last year, the resignation of the University of Balochistan’s vice-chancellor following the launch of an investigation by federal investigation agency into allegations of harassment and blackmail on campus prompted only a handful of protests by the left-leaning students in Islamabad. The scandal permeated a sense of fear among parents in Balochistan, where female literacy rate is 33.5%, and many asked their daughters to leave the university and hostels. 

Most women’s rights activists, along with the media, ignored the issue. Balochistan, as renowned Pakistani novelist Mohammed Hanif has written, is remote “not just geographically but in our imagination as well.”

The population in Pakistan is largely conservative; its mainstream political parties, accordingly, did not support the women’s march due to fear of losing support. Still, right-wing politicians, anchor-persons and conservative leaders threatened to disrupt the women’s march, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)’s chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, whose party runs Sindh province, proclaimed that nobody could stop the event. While Bhutto’s words are commendable, they evidently ring hollow.

Photo by Mashal Baloch

And yet, many feminists, who also supported the march, welcomed Bhutto’s remarks ––without criticizing the PPP’s policies that hurt working class women and minorities. In July 2019, when female nurses marched to the Chief Minister’s House in Karachi, Sindh, demanding basic rights including an increase in allowance, police used water cannons and batons against and arrested many of them.

The march also did not succeed in raising the issue of the forced conversion: Hindu women in Sindh face forced conversions on a daily basis backed by feudal lords.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, at least 1,000 girls are abducted, married off, and forcibly converted to Islam annually, the majority of them belonging to the minority Hindu community who comprise some 8 million overall Pakistan’s population. Due to pressure from Islamist parties and groups, PPP withdrew the proposed bill against forced conversion in 2019. Islamists in Sindh often term forced conversion as a choice. The reality is stark, as poor hindu girls are threatened, abducted and married off. They are often younger than 18-year and Islamists believe a girl can get married after her menstrual cycle starts. Their families are allegedly asked to remain silent if they wish to live. And many poor families can’t stand against feudal lords and Islamists.

However, another factor which confined women march to a particular day and restricted its transformation into a complete political movement, is the NGO-ization of women’s questions and rights. It goes without saying that NGOs in Pakistan have done some great work while offering social programs across the country, as the state does not have potential to offer social programs. Take the example of battle against polio, NGOs have played a vital role in helping the country for eradicating the polio but it was the current government which politicised and damaged the entire polio program

But when it comes to the resistance and social movements NGOs have played a role of a countering force in this regard. This is what neoliberal framework introduced NGOs for, in late 1980s and 1990s, that were brought ahead as a counterforce to the resistance movements. It is an increasing NGO-ized culture in Pakistan that such movements have been confined to a day or to seminar halls. NGOs don’t support resistance movements and they are very confined in their scope. 

Photo by Mashal Baloch

“For dismantling the structure of neoliberalism, they need to organize a mass movement and remain part of the process. Top-down approaches which come from NGOs should be disregarded. More inclusivity and intersectionality are needed to address women’s questions,” says Zagum.

Renowned novelist Arundhati Roy in an essay, titled ‘The NGO-ization of Resistance’ says, “NGO-ization of politics threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job. With a few perks thrown in. Real resistance has real consequences. And no salary.”

The women’s march appears to be little more than a one-off event that holds little influence over Pakistani politics. Patriarchy and male dominance are part of Pakistani society and strengthened by the state, in various ways. On Wednesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan pejoratively deemed the march a ‘different culture’.

The bitter truth is that countless men and women across Pakistan believe in the same ideology that has been inculcated in the public’s minds for decades: that women should submit to men.

“If maulvis, the fellow conservative protesters of Haya March, attacked the women’s march then there must be a justifiable reason for that, as it is against our Islamic values and against sharia,” said Bint-e-Azwar, a teacher and a supporter of Jamia Hafsa, the group whose members defaced the women’s march’s murals. “We had to make the vulgarity stop. It was just like putting off a fire.”

But there are also women like Irfana Yasser who does not buy the social constructed and outdate argument. They need equality and all basic rights for women and end violence against women. This outdated argument has been backed by state supported conservative. Actually, this narrative was built by the state itself. She says that if asking for women’s rights is vulgarity, “then I stand with those who are demanding women’s rights.”

Even though the women march was organised in major cities in Pakistan but in Islamabad it was termed women emancipation march or Aurat Azadi March, on the other hand, in Lahore and Karachi, it was known as women march. There were differences too. The march which was organised in Islamabad was ideologically left leaning. Even some liberals and progressive had accused leftist for hijacking women’s march in Islamabad and making it ideological. But one could argue it was the left leaning political party Awami Worker Party (AWP) that has been mobilising and campaigning for the women’s march. How would they not propagate their ideology then?

Photo by Mashal Baloch

It has to be political. NGO-ized approach does not support the idea of making women’s march a political movement. Otherwise, it would remain a cosmetic event and observed merely on 8 March.

Over a few years the march has succeeded in starting a debate on the issues confronting women and also display the patriarchy and entrenched male dominance across Pakistan. 

Days before the march, outside a shopping mall in the city, two somber men stood holding a banner that read: “Men are guardians of women.” The attack on women march and defacing the murals show women has started the battle for their rights but they have a long way to go and it needs to be more inclusive.

In last three years, posters, banners, placards and slogans, which emerge out of the march such as ‘My Body My Consent’ and ‘how do I know where your socks are’ and also a poster, which illustrate of woman sitting, fully clothed, with her legs open, just like men do, reads that ‘“Look, I am sitting properly.”

Without any doubt they have challenged manhood of many in Pakistan, social order and family system in some parts of Pakistan which is run by some myth and convictions dominate women and make it a property of men. In Pakistan, marital rape is not a crime. Women does not have a say on her body. That is treated as a property of men.

Women are tasked to be responsible for pampering their husbands and male family member,and taking care of entire family. From serving them food and finding their lost socks. Even women are told how to sit and what are proper ways of sitting, behaving and walking.

Photo by Mashal Baloch

The attack on women march and defacing the murals display the message of women march has challenged the patriarchal system but definitely, it should not be heard once in a year. The status quo has to be challenged as a norm now.

When asked about the attack on women’s march, and not getting no objection certificate for Haya March, Bint-e-Azwar told me “we don’t need any NOC for stopping this vulgarity.” 

This is a prevailing mentality in the land of pure. It exists in men and women. When renowned activist Marvi Sirmid repeated the slogan ‘My Body My Consent’ she was humiliated and harassed by a panellist, TV and film writer, by sayings ‘what is your body.’ He was declared a hero by many in conservative in Pakistan and many more anchors invited him in their talk shows.

Activists, progressive and leftist in Pakistan are challenging a mentality and system. Ismat Shajahan, president of the Women Democratic Front (WDF), was one of the women’s emancipation march organizers –– and one who was injured by this right-wing violence, said

Photo by Mashal Baloch

“The March of [the] feminist movement was attacked from all sides including [the] religious, right-wing, the state, media, and sexist sections of society,” Shajahan said in an interview with the author.”

The women’s march may have challenged some settled beliefs but to genuinely transform Pakistani politics the movement must include all women. Indeed, progressive, left, secular, nationalists, working-class and liberal women have their work cut out for them.

“Historically, patriarchal oppression and sexual barbarism have become part of [the] public psyche and common sense,” Shajahan said, quoting philosopher Antonio Gramsci. “It is important to challenge the structures of public psychology, promote critical consciousness and emancipatory ideology of socialist-feminism, and build revolutionary organizations having the capacity to undertake political action.”

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