March 9th, 2021
By Asra Haque
For the fourth year in a row, on March 8, women’s rights organizations took to the streets to chant explosive slogans and hold thought-provoking performances in the major metropolitans of Pakistan, to celebrate International Women’s Day. Aurat March rallies were organized in Karachi, Lahore, and Multan, while Islamabad, Quetta, and Hyderabad saw demonstrations under the banner of the Aurat Azadi March.
Since 2018, Aurat March, a feminist collective, has been vehemently opposed publically and vocally by right-wing organizations and conservatives in the country. In 2020’s Aurat Azadi March in Islamabad, the protest was disrupted when participants were pelted by bricks and stones by a parallel ‘Haya March’ – a counter-protest organized by students of radical Jamia Hafsa, and workers of the JUI-F advocating for women’s rights within the fold of Islam’.
Organizers and supporters had also decried the harassment they had faced by the media last year, in particular in Lahore. They claimed that the media reporters – who were mostly men – had heckled and hounded women protesters by asking provocative questions. Following the march, the media then proceeded to highlight some of the women who had attended the rallies, effectively turning them into targets of cyber harassment.
This year, right-wing religious groups had again attempted to scatter marchers in Lahore but were dissuaded by an alert and vigilant security detail. Aurat March was able to conduct the rally peacefully. However, at around five in the evening when the event had concluded and participants began to disperse, a small group of supporters of right-wing activist Shaheer Sialvi attempted to enter the sit-in area. But, they were kept at bay by the police and resorted to chanting anti-Aurat March slogans on the sidelines.
Having taken some lessons from last year’s media coverage, Aurat March in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi issued passes only to those media outlets that applied to cover the event via an online form, and requested the presence of females and trans-reporters. Rally-goers also actively avoided the cameras to the best of their abilities.
In Lahore, organizers and press representatives exchanged heated words after the former began imposing restrictions on coverage after marchers complained of harassment by reporters from some Urdu-language digital media outlets. Following criticism by journalists at the scene, Aurat March organizers later made peace and assured of better circumstances next year.