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Feminist revolution arrived in Pakistan!

Published : Sunday, 8 March, 2020 at 12:00 AM  Count : 407

Feminist revolution arrived in Pakistan!

Feminist revolution arrived in Pakistan!

I take you back to the New Year's day of 2019, that had brought to limelight--the crossing of a major milestone--for more than 3 million women in India. They had all joined hands together to form a 385-mile-long human wall of protest--calling for their equal rights. And this message had transcended borders to inspire all men and women across Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal!

The images we have seen belong to many extraordinary women who made their mark on the front lines for bringing about political and social change. And sometimes quite literally, had put life on the line to take a stand and create awareness. Blessed are these women of valour!

Gulalai Ismail of Pakistan had fled her country in May, in the wake of death threats for protesting the Pakistani government's extrajudicial killings and sexual violence. When she spoke with United States NPR in September, after resurfacing suddenly in New York City, she was resolute. 'I was glad to be seen as I'll as a threat to all these institutions of oppression', she remarked l. 'Why not? The system should feel threatened by a woman.' Ismail is also a close friend of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, and has also attended the young women empowerment march in the country.

'We were hundreds of women, marching on the streets of Karachi, Pakistan'
'We shouted slogans. '"Aurat aiee, aurat aiee, tharki teri shaamath aiee!" (Women are here, harassers must fear!)'

We raised our fists in the air, smiling, laughing.

'We wore what we wanted to wear: burqas, jeans and designer shades, brightly embroidered skirts, the traditional tunic and baggy trousers called shalwar kameez.'
Across the nation, men had gasped, shook their heads in disbelief, filmed the new protesters from passing cars as they continued to walk by, disrupting regular traffic.
'We did not care what the men thought of us.'

'We were free to stand, walk, dance, with nobody to tell us to sit down, be quiet, be good.'

'It was the first time in my life that I saw women gathering in public, in strength, in numbers'.

These words included the emotional responses of the participating women of Karachi. 'Aurat (Urdu for "women") March', just clicked and happened-the first of its kind in the most conservative Muslim country of Pakistan. There were actually three marches - in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad - all held on March 8, the prescribed International Women's Day.
Word had spread through Facebook and Twitter posts among the various networks of women involved in grassroots work--in education, health, microfinance, women's shelters and workers' rights.

Objectives were highly ambitious: a demand for the recognition of women's rights and gender equality, and an end to the hideous scourge of gender violence, among other aims. But the overriding intent had obviously been to raise the morale of Pakistani women. The constant drip of misogyny has been known to turn many lives into a misery, in this predominantly, Muslim society-where you are considered a lucky woman if you have a husband who doesn't beat you. Obviously, the Aurat March wanted to remind women that the bar doesn't need to be set that low.

Before the march had begun activists took to the stage and spoke of their struggles, not triumphs. Veeru Kohli, a member of the Dalit community in the Thar Desert (low-caste Hindus known by the epithet of 'untouchables' related how she escaped a life of slave labour to become a political activist.

Next, Kainat Soomro, a victim of gang rape at 13 who is definitely trying to take her rapists to court, described her as yet unsuccessful 11-year long, fight for justice. An activist from the Christian community had excoriated the government for ignoring the scourge of forced conversions, where Muslim men simply felt comfortable to kidnap minority women, force them to 'convert' to Islam and then marry them against their consent. A marriage without consent is void in this religion!

Again, that March had brought together women across class, ethnic, and religious lines. University students had cheered on older feminist icons. Placards in English and Urdu read "Patriarchy is Fitna (sedition)", 'Kebab Rolls not Gender Roles', and 'Woman is King' and "Stop Killing Women." Children waved orange and yellow flags with the Aurat March logo, and 97-year-old folk singer Mai Dhai sang and banged enthusiastically on a dhol, the traditional Pakistani drum played at weddings, stirring women and men to dance together in a spirit of festivity and celebration.

For the first time, people like me had felt as though the invisible ties had somehow held us all back. What tore free before me were those hundreds of written and unwritten rules about Pakistani women's 'behaviour' (protocol) in public. Or, was that cut through, with a surgeon's scalpel that had pierced through many hearts!

A small group of trans-gender women who had been watching from the edges, nervous and scared, soon joined in, along with the procession of nuns bearing giant crosses and then, the Dalit women from the Sindh's desert. All had marched behind the women in red, members of the working women's union, all bussed in from Hyderabad (Sindh). Women had marched, with their supporters-hair bare or covered, to the beat of the drums and the pounding of our hearts.

They were accompanied by women on motorcycles, girls on pink bikes. Tens of men and boys had joined the epoch making crowd! We had all walked next to the women wearing masks portraying the face of murdered Qandeel Baluch-the social media star, who was killed by her brother two years ago because he could not stand her bold, risqué public persona.
To top it off, they even bore a symbolic coffin containing a body shrouded in white, calling it 'patriarchy's funeral.'

It has been three decades now, since members of the Women's Action Forum were beaten up on the streets for protesting the Islamization laws of the great dictator, General Ziaul Haq in the early 1980s. Again, in the year 2018 Pakistani women still had found themselves trampled under decades of discrimination and oppression. However, the Aurat March had motivated them to demand equality and justice. And to say the least, 'The Aurat March' has uncovered an undeniable truth: The revolution has arrived in Pakistan--and it is very much the women's revolution.

Digging into the dirt, I found that the etymological roots of 'aurat' gives us meanings that range from 'vulnerability' to 'genitals', and later, to 'wife', thus reducing women to, of course, their weakness, reproductive organs and their relation to husbands.
I was not surprised at the revelation, but definitely amused, because the phenomenon is not unique to Pakistan's National language. The word 'woman' can also be traced back to the meaning 'little man'. And 'woman', too, later came to be conveniently applied to refer to the 'wife'.

I could see the smart 'catch'! Women mobilizers had been using the Urdu word 'aurat' instead of 'women', the distinction meant everything, specially to me. While the choice to label what is obviously a women's march in local parlance, may seem pedantic to a few, it also had exhibited strong bearings on how South Asian activists and feminists can and likely be able to vernacularise the fight for women's rights.

Mind you, this is no secret that feminism is often co-opted by many to be viewed as a Western construct which marginalises non-Western identities. Western hegemony over feminist movements then had fed into repulsion towards feminism that is found in countries such as Pakistan.

The writer is a former educator based in Chicago

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