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They plan to march for gender equality. In Pakistan, that has caused outrage.

They are calling for gender equality, but in Pakistan, that has stirred controversy — and even violence.

In the lead up to March 8, two petitions were filed in the courts of Islamabad and Lahore calling for the rallies to be banned on the grounds of being against the “norms of Islam.” Both cases were dismissed, with the Islamabad judge saying International Women’s Day should be taken as “an opportunity for society to stand up and show outrage against the inhuman traditions and mindsets which are in flagrant violation of the injunctions of Islam.”

But as International Women’s day drew closer, calls against marches became louder and more sinister.

Popular political leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who heads the Assembly of Islamic Clerics (JUIF), a hard line, right wing Islamist party, called on his supporters to stop the marches, condemning them as threatening Muslim culture and excuses for “vulgarity and obscenity ” in the name of human rights.

“Participants of the march have been ‘doxed,’ participants from minority communities have been marginalized,” says journalist and illustrator Reem Khurshid Khurshid, referring to how participants’ private information has been shared in an attempt to harass people.

“Year after year, we’ve seen a stronger pushback against the movement in the country and more participants are being specifically targeted online.”

Rimmel Mohydin, Amnesty International’s South Asia campaigner, has called on authorities in Pakistan to “immediately take action against anyone trying intimidate the women leading and participating in the protests.”

“Their security is paramount, and participants have a right to demand their human rights in an environment free from fear,” said Mohydin.

The women’s march

The Aurat March — or Women’s March — has been held across Pakistan on March 8 for the past three years, attracting thousands of attendees. Organizers are expecting the numbers to rise again this year.

Young women — and men — make placards and paint murals for the events.

In previous years, placards have demanded that men heat up their own food at home, while others have read “divorced and happy.” These slogans caused outrage on social media, with commentators calling them “anti Islamic.” They have even made it into parliamentary debates.

“There’s a lot more expression now,” says journalist and illustrator Reem Khurshid. “The march riffs on the patriarchy and challenges it in a way which feminist movements hadn’t done in the past … it’s new, it’s different and it is inevitably creating a conflict in society.”

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In 2019, in the provincial assembly of Sindh, right-wing parliamentarian Abdul Rasheed condemned the march, saying: “None of us are ready to enjoy the idea of our mothers and daughters coming out on the streets.”

But Tasneem Ahmer, an activist who has run media advocacy group Uks for more than 20 years, says that as Pakistan grapples with issues including incest, rape, child abuse and female genital mutilation, the feminist cause is important.

Pakistan ranked 151 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index Report 2020. In 2019, Pakistan Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that over 5 million primary school-age children in Pakistan were out of school, “most of them girls.” Another HRW report said that “early marriage remains a serious problem, with 21 percent of girls in Pakistan marrying before the age of 18.”

The United Nations Population Fund has reported that Pakistan has one of the highest maternal mortality ratios in South Asia.

Yet there is optimism for things to improve in the country.

“Change is here, the louder the voice the bigger the impact. We may not be able to shake the earth or shatter the sky but change is here,” Ahmer says.

My body, my choice

The broader topic of gender equality has become a lightning rod in Pakistan in recent months.

A popular feminist slogan “My Body, My Choice” has been used on social media by activists across the women’s rights movement, provoking considerable backlash in Pakistani media.

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This week, playwright Khalil Ur Rehman Qamar appeared on a Pakistani TV show claiming that his “liver shudders with disgust” when he hears the slogan. When fellow guest and feminist Marvi Sirmed repeated the slogan, he called her a “disgusting women.” While the outburst was widely condemned by a spectrum of celebrities and politicians, it was also celebrated, with many men and women in Pakistan agreeing with Qamar’s opinions in Pakistani media.

“Feminists are seen as bad women because talking about the body is so taboo. It’s a politicization of the private sphere of family life — any discussion about taking women out of the confines of the home causes a backlash,” said Tooba Syed, one of the planners of the Women’s Independence March in the capital city of Islamabad.

Syed added that in Pakistan it is still controversial to even use the word body because “bodies are controlled, reproductive rights are controlled, traditional gender roles in society are controlled” by men.

A mural vandalized

In the center of Islamabad, a massive mural painted on the side of a house has been vandalized.

The towering image of two women leaning against each other in solidarity, is now faceless — black paint has been smeared over their eyes, nose and lips.

Painted last week in the lead up to the March 8 by a collective of more than 20 men and women, it was destroyed in mere minutes.

A vandalized mural in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Organized by the Islamabad Women’s Independence March, the work was a celebration of sisterhood.

It was destroyed by students of Jamia Hafsa, a hardline women’s seminary in Islamabad. The group released a statement confirming that it had vandalized the mural on the grounds of it being “a conspiracy to promote obscenity in the country.” The group is also organizing a “respectability” rally on March 8.

Shezil Malik, an illustrator whose work revolves around the male gaze and female empowerment, has also had her feminist murals vandalized.

“As soon as you put a woman who is strong, people immediately have a problem with it … Why are we so intolerant now?” she said. “As a real-life woman, I ask, why I am considered so offensive? Should women like me be blacked out, should women like me just disappear?”

Tooba Syed, the organizer of the Islamabad march, said she is not scared of taking to the streets on March 8.

“It has taken us decades to get here, we are not going to backtrack and lose all the gains we’ve made,” she said. “I’m not scared, I don’t think there’s another way to be. We refuse to live like this anymore.”

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