March 8, 2023

By Tahira Abdullah

It seems to be déjà vu all over again. International Women’s Day (IWD), 8th March, has come round again.
In some Pakistani cities (especially in Islamabad), Aurat March (AM) organizers have yet again been struggling to overcome refusal of permission to march – a fallout of the administrative-bureaucratic-political chaos resulting from very obvious patriarchy and misogyny at the highest levels of authority. AM organizers have been facing this head-on over the past five years now.

The Aurat March commemoration of IWD 2023 by civil society rights activists, groups and platforms, is gearing up to be no different from our negative experiences of recent years – which have been exhaustively documented, e.g. in this piece.

However, contrary to the openly sexist and misogynist PTI government of ex-PM Imran Khan (2018-22) – his rape survivor/victim-blaming remarks were eerily reminiscent of military dictator General Pervez Musharraf’s public statements two decades earlier – currently we have a coalition federal government which portrays itself as progressive and pro-women’s rights. Of the almost one dozen political parties in the coalition, at least three actually label themselves thus.

Hence, the continuing impasse regarding the ICT administration’s stubborn non-issuance of the long-requested No-Objection Certificate (NOC), and continued refusal to provide police protection from far-rightists’ threats, for the AM in Islamabad is almost astonishing.

Why “almost”?
Because, irrespective of their party charter, vision, mission statement and election manifesto, in actual fact, all political parties in Pakistan – as well as two military juntas of the late unlamented generals, Zia-ul-Haq and Musharraf – remain fearful of the noisy street power and nuisance value of the religio-political parties and groups.
These groups, or their extremist militant terrorist cousins outside parliament, have never won fairly in free elections, but still manage to retain their coalition-making and breaking aces up their crafty sleeves.

The Islamabad ICT administration has firmly continued to deny written requests for an NOC and police protection for the Aurat March. Again, nothing new there.

The news regarding the Lahore Aurat March 2023 was initially not much better than Islamabad. Finally, the AM organizers and supporters applied to the Lahore High Court regarding the Punjab administration’s continued refusal to issue the requested No-Objection Certificate (NOC) or provide protection for the planned, advertised march venue and route.

This stubborn refusal was in contrast to the much-publicized political statement of support for the Aurat March from the Punjab government Information Minister at a press conference in Lahore on 5 March.

While the AM eventually obtained permission via the Lahore High Court at the eleventh hour, it was conditional however, and not without give and take on all sides.

The Hon. Judge remarked: “You cannot stop them from organizing Aurat March on 8 March” and ruled: “The DC’s notification refusing to give permission for the event is not valid”.

On the LHC’s orders, an alternate route for the march was subsequently agreed upon between the Punjab administration (Deputy Commissioner and senior police officials) and AM organizers, on 7 March.

The Hon. Judge gave considerable relief to the administration too, by imposing additional restrictions, including on AM slogans, as well as the following conditionalities: AM organizers are to take responsibility that there will be “no rioting during the march”; “no action against the Constitution during the march” (sic); and “no controversial statement” (sic) to be uploaded on social media.

A heavy price to pay for feminists and activists who have always refused to be silenced or self-censored – even during the Zia and Musharraf military regimes.

An interesting postscript: the Lahore Deputy Commissioner happens to be a woman. Patriarchy is not confined to men alone.

A ray of hope came from Karachi in a sea of doom and gloom elsewhere. On 7 March the Sindh High Court rejected a private petition challenging the 2023 Karachi Aurat March as being “un-Islamic”, and its slogans being “bay-hayaa” (obscene, immoral, vulgar).

In a refreshingly progressive decision, the Hon. Judge ruled in favour of the AM’s fundamental right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly; briefly discussed patriarchy, feminism and past AM slogans; observed that no objectionable material was found in the AM slogans cited in the petition; ruled the petition frivolous; dismissed it, and fined the petitioner for seeking publicity.

After an initial AM spark in Quetta and Peshawar, the ongoing precarious security situation and ongoing terrorist incidents in Balochistan and Pakhtunkhwa have precluded organizing IWD marches in both cities over the past few years.

So, 8 March 2023 presents a mixed picture across Pakistan.

Meanwhile, this “gift” on the occasion of IWD 2023 has just emerged for Kashmiri girls and women from Pakistan-Administered Kashmir (P.A.K. aka “government of AJK”) – which is pro-PTI. It has issued a highly offensive, retrogressive administrative order – initially confined to public sector secondary and vocational (TEVTA) educational institutions, but who knows if it will end there.

It is now mandatory for young Kashmiri girls, as well as women students and teachers in P.A.K. to wear hijab and niqaab (head and face covering). Non-compliance will be punishable, both for those found “guilty” as well as for heads of offending institutions.

The order was triumphantly advertised through officially released posters carrying the P.A.K. logo, names and photographs of the relevant government officials, an illustration of a female form depicting the now-compulsory head and face covering, a photo of the annotated official notification, along with the following captions: “another historic step by the government of free (sic) AJK”; “Hijab made mandatory”; “official notification issued”.

This retrogressive and illegal move deserves the strongest condemnation and protest, coming as it does, as a “befitting” gift on IWD 2023 for Kashmiri women from their rulers. One wonders at the federal rainbow coalition PMLN-headed government’s permitting this outrage, wherein a senior PPP minister heads the federal SAFRON Ministry, dealing with P.A.K. affairs. The PPP never tires of calling attention to its “pro-women progressive values”.

That age-old question from irate opponents of women’s rights refuses to fade away and has once again raised its irritating head: “so what do these marching women want anyway?” – (the abusive derogatory adjective “bay-hayaa” is intentionally omitted here).

Let us inform them. We are human beings too. We are half the population of Planet Earth. We give birth to the other half. We do not beg for our rights. We do not knuckle under. We are brave, courageous, proud survivors. We simply refuse to become victims – either of rapist-killers, or of any sex-determined pre-ordained “destiny”. As human beings we exercise both will and agency in our quest – our ongoing struggle for gender equality and gender justice.

Our favourite season is the Fall of Patriarchy. Watch out all patriarchs, sexists, chauvinists, misogynists, and women haters. We want men to march with us, become our equals, partners and companions, not worshipped idols.


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