March 16, 2020
By Xari Jalil & Haider Kaleem
With the Corona virus (COVID-19) making the headlines this week, Aurat March that took place only last week, seems to have faded away into the background, almost erased from the minds of the public.
And despite Corona becoming top news, women who have been part of the march are still being targeted for coming out with their demands.
For these women the abuse and sexual harassment are real: these are the repercussions of demanding their rights, and the abuse they are facing, it seems is here to stay.
The main issue that seems to have come out of this march is not the need for girls’ education or healthcare for women, or the need to eliminate gender based violence – but that the women participants owned the slogan of ‘Mera Jism Meri Marzi’. This slogan in particular – which calls for basic bodily rights, has been twisted the most out of context and completely misinterpreted.
It has received too much vitriol from the religious right, and even those men who call themselves ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’, who have termed it ‘vulgar’, and who have been preaching that this slogan is not relevant to what women actually need.
Even with news of the Corona virus making headlines, harassment in relation to this slogan is continuing. For example, in a recent post on Facebook, someone has uploaded a photo of the much debated Aurat Azadi March slogan, ‘Mera Jism, Meri Marzi’ and has written underneath, “Yeh wala mutalba Corona se bhi tou kar ke dekho!” (Why don’t you also make this demand this from Corona?”
Then there are those pictures and videos that have been edited so blatantly that it seems that the Aurat March was only about baring the skin.
Images of women wearing jeans and sleeveless shirts, or even those whose dupattas are not entirely covering them are being floated around online with ‘Mera Jism Meri Marzi’ written underneath in irony, to show that this was ‘all’ that the Aurat March was about.
Some of the pictures have been placed in a certain way, to change their meaning; others have been edited outright.
Even well-known names have been attacked.
The wife of a well-known TV anchor Mansoor Ali Khan, was shown to be carrying a placard that said this slogan, along with one other very vulgar sentence. In reality she was just carrying a blank piece of paper.
THE ‘JISM’ CONTROVERSY
As Aurat March approached in 2020, it was met with a buzz of opposition centered around the slogans from last year. Mera Jism Meri Marzi was one of them.
This particular slogan came under the spotlight even more after well-known TV writer Khalilur Rehman Qamar openly swore at journalist and human rights defender Marvi Sirmid especially after she uttered the slogan during the program. As a response, Qamar went on to abuse and demean her physically. Qamar’s diatribe left many shocked and disgusted but many continued to side with him.
The only meaning of this slogan became sexual in meaning, and in general the use of the word ‘jism’ by a woman, was not digested well. The effects are apparent even today, as cyber harassment against women has probably increased since after the march.
Jannat Fazal, Program manager of the Cyber Harassment Helpline at Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), says that they have received countless complaints from women since after the march.
“We are receiving complaints of slander, and against misconstrued messages, videos that have been purposely taken out of context, and of course a lot of hate speech,” she told Voicepk.net. “These complaints are still coming in, even a week later.”
Jannat says that there is a little issue with the reporting though, as some of the images appear to be harmless, and so do not in theory violate the community guidelines. “But they can have the potential to become dangerous if a caption is added for example,” she says.
Until now around 20 videos have been taken down from Facebook. Till the post is mass reported, it becomes difficult to say whether it will be taken down or not.
It is the same with You Tube. But other than how many posts have been reported and taken down, the fact is that even more pop up.
“Those who want to cause trouble have downloaded pictures and videos and even if the online posts are removed after complaints, they upload the images and videos once again,” says Jannat. “This is a never ending process.”
MERA JISM, KIS KI MARZI?
Ayesha* was one of those who was present at the march. For her placard she listed down some serious crimes against women, from rape to honour killing.
She is disappointed at how the issue has been distorted when the reality out there is even harsher.
Recounting incidents that have taken place all over the country Ayesha says that since Aurat March, it was fairly obvious what had prompted the women to make this demand.
“Almost every day we are coming across happenings where children are been found sexually abused and later murdered, mercilessly dumped in fields or holes, where women are being assaulted, murdered, tortured,” she says. “There was the case of a young woman who along with her one month old baby who were killed ruthlessly by her own brothers because she married of her own choice,” she says. “And the little girl in Rahimyar Khan found two days ago raped and murdered in a field. Whose fault was that? Who had dominion over their bodies?”
It is because of crimes like these and men like Khalilur Rehman Qamar that have ended up in justifying the whole slogan.
Bushra Khaliq, Executive Director of Women In Struggle for Empowerment (WISE) agrees to a large extent although she points out a social issue where women from the lower socioeconomic classes who were at the march may not be able to fully digest the slogan and the adverse reactions that followed. They may have felt like outsiders, simply because of a cultural and social difference. But that was also to be expected.
On the other hand though, Bushra says that the publicity that the slogan has received – even the bad publicity – has led to people repeating it including children. “It’s not a slogan, it’s a demand, a reaction, and a tool for education, that is how we see it,” she said. “This can prove to be more beneficial for those who have never given it a thought. A new debate has begun.”
She says that those who have not been able to deal with this slogan, may do so in stages. “in societies like ours, we deal with new ideas in phases,” she says. “We have a long way to go but as this debate has been sparked and the conversation has begun, people will inevitably start to think.”