A happy woman… is a lucky woman: State of the feminist movement in Pakistan

Declarations of freedom and liberation ring hollow when women in some parts around the world helplessly wait for their luck to run out; for them to become the next victims of the discriminatory social order they’re unwillingly subjected to. We live in a distorted reality where some segments of the global village have made strides in fighting the war against gender inequality, and others remain fixated on ancient prejudices and anti-feminist predispositions. 

Time passes, but the plight of the silenced living in patriarchal cultures doesn’t seem to. Unless we want our news headlines to continue looking like this: “Women and girls continue to be killed base on gender alone”  (UN News, October 2023), and “A child was sexually abused every two hours in Pakistan this year, NGO says”  (Al Jazeera, August 2023), it is about time that we shift focus towards reflecting upon how much more still needs to be done in the context of the conditions of girls, women, and marginalized communities across the globe.

Today, Pakistan ranks 142 out of 146 countries on the Global Gender Gap Report Index 2023. Various forms of abuse and harassment, including rape, domestic violence, limited or no access to education, and the inability to practice financial freedom, exhibit the life of an average woman in the country. The situation is further aggravated by statistics such as the following: according to the United Nations Development Programme’s 2023 Gender Social Norms Index (GSNI), 99.89% of the population in Pakistan holds at least one sexist bias against women. A host of structural and socio-cultural barriers continue to curtail the mobility of women and girls in the country1. Amidst the stark situation, revolutionary movements like the Aurat March (Women’s March)2 became a beacon of light for those in despair.

The Aurat Azadi March is an annual socio-political demonstration held across the major metropolitan cities of Pakistan, including Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar, and Quetta. Every year, thousands of women rally across these cities on 8 March, challenging patriarchy and highlighting issues such as sexual harassment, girls’ access to education, women’s financial independence, and the persecution of gender and religious minorities in the country. As expected, the movement, which so radically questions the morals and values of a society, has been met by constant backlash.

The movement builds upon the work of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) Pakistan which formalized as a result of the blatant disregard of women’ autonomy as well as the discriminatory suppression of their rights during the 1979-1988 period of ‘Islamization’ imposed by the military dictator Zia Ul Haq. From organizing sit-ins in front of the high court to challenge misogynistic laws to being subjected to police brutality in their fight for justice, these women set the stage for the feminist movement in Pakistan.

Today, a new generation of Pakistani feminists and rights activists have joined the field. Like WAF, the young activists have similarly taken up political fights at a time when civil liberties are curtailed, the media’s freedom muzzled, and threats loom over the democratic structure of Pakistan. The Aurat March—in less than five years—has assumed an iconic status. It reverberates with the spirit of WAF’s activism on the streets of Pakistan.

Criticism of the movement: 

For a closer look at the on-the-ground situation, I interviewed Anbreen Ajaib, executive director of the Islamabad-based NGO ‘Bedari’ and a leading organizer of the Aurat March’s processions in the capital city. On being asked what the Aurat March means to her, Anbreen replied: “To me, it is more than a one-day event; it is a movement that continues throughout the year where activists and feminists reflect upon the emerging situations in Pakistan, record resistance against violations of their rights, and it is also a platform to highlight the strength of women’s collectives within the country.”

First organized in Karachi and Lahore on 8th March 2018 by the ‘Hum Aurtein,’ a women’s collective, and in other metropolitan cities by the Women’s Democratic Forum and WAF Pakistan, the protest instantly became the focus of the Pakistani media’s attention. This surge of attention came in response to the bold messages embodied by the placards the protestors raised, and by the magnitude of the demonstration. For the first time in the country’s history, it had gathered a substantially noticeable breadth. However, disgruntled journalists subscribing to the male-oriented mindset, painted the processions of the March in a way that blew its agenda out of proportion. 

Fatima Atif, a member of the WAF and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), as well as a prominent activist belonging to the Hazara community, graciously shared her insight on the movement. Upon being asked why the movement faced criticisms from all strata of society, she responded: “The media highlighted the posters held up by protestors in a negative light. Although it was a positive step forward that a large part of the procession comprised the youth of the country, the youngsters were unable to understand the malicious intent of amateur journalists when responding to questions about the March, thus being unable to convey their message properly.”

Posters calling for women’s right to autonomy over their bodies through slogans such as “Mera jism, meri marzi” (My body my choice) quickly got labeled “Un-Islamic,” and the demonstrators’ use of music and dancing as an expression of freedom and liberation became immensely unpopular with the moral police of the state. 

The movement subsequently faced allegations of vulgarity and trolled for being anti-state, and originating from a place of privilege, as the march consisted mainly of women coming from an economic minority of the country who not only had unimpeded access to education, but could also afford to raise their voices in a morally and financially corrupt state.

The current state of affairs: NGOs as a catalyst for change in light of judicial and political backlash

Unfortunately, the problems faced by the organizers of the March are not limited to the virtual medium. Since the culmination of the first March, the obstacles not only amplified in their current disposition, but took on other forms, including protective, legal, and political hurdles. 

As a movement organized entirely by NGOs, the following list highlights some of the barriers the March and its organizers had to overcome in the past six years:

  • Since the year 2021, the Women’s Democratic Front (WDF), the largest organizer of the walk in the capital city of Islamabad, has been banned by the government of Pakistan. Unable to organize or participate in the walk, the organization has instead been holding a rally/public gathering in one of the central parks a day before or after International Women’s Day. 
  • In a notorious move by the government, 2023 was the first year the organizers were denied permission to hold processions by the high court. Previously, when the application for permission was submitted, it would remain unanswered.
  • Religious groups such as the Jamaat-e-Islami (JIP) have started organizing counter-protests to the Aurat March, popularly known as the “Haya (Modesty) March.” While such moves come as a setback for the movement, organizers of the Aurat March view it in a positive light seeing that for the first time, these groups have at least started acknowledging the plight of women, even if in a very conservatively propagandized manner.
  • Allegations of blasphemy are regularly made against the organizers by religious groups. In a country where such allegations have led to emotionally charged, uncontrolled mobs setting fires to people and property alike, this is an extremely vicious attempt to cease the Aurat March from being conducted.
  • In 2023 and 2024 protestors at the Aurat March in Islamabad were subjected to baton charges and tear gas shelling by the police. Protesters in other cities were also exposed to verbal and physical abuse by non-participating locals as the government, in a bid to stop demonstrations, had refused to provide security to the marchers. 

However, despite administrative predicaments, the Aurat March has slowly but surely established its position as a defender of the rights of women and other persecuted groups within Pakistan. While it might take years to root out misogynistic mindsets, the March has been successful in achieving acceptability and created a safe space for discourse regarding women’s struggles. Growing public participation from non-NGO-associated people, including persons with disabilities and transgender people, shows that the movement has made a significant dent in the otherwise rigid anti-feminist mentality. 

As Fatima mentions: “…while we still have a very long road ahead to reach gender equality, some people now think twice before committing any form of misconduct against women, for fear that the Aurat March will take up the issue and the perpetrator could face, if nothing else, public defamation.”  

She also adds, “In Pakistan, feminism is perceived as a concept that is inherently Western in nature. They view feminists as people contesting religion, while in reality, it is a comprehensive umbrella term that calls for inclusivity, acceptability, and opportunities for all regardless of religion or sexuality. As a group of feminists and activists, we need to make the notion of feminism easier to understand and digest according to the type of public we are addressing… This does not entail that we make our messages softer, we have already done that and to no benefit”, says Fatima.

Mobilizing feminists across the country came as another suggestion to help the movement grow, ‘We need more male feminists and people from remote areas to speak up through articles and social media and publicize the agenda of the Aurat March,’ said Anbreen.

The Aurat March is more than a liberation movement for the women of Pakistan; it is also a guiding light for other feminist movements across Asia. Over the past two years, the March has been at the receiving end of positive media coverage from all across the world, but especially from Indian newspapers and television. On the other side of Pakistan’s neighborhood, the chants of “Zan Zendegi Azadi” (Woman, Life, Freedom) have been heard and reciprocated throughout the globe following the unfortunate demise of Mahsa Amini in Iran. Both Fatima and Anbreen believe that the Aurat March will be catalytic and exemplary for other organized feminist movements to spring up across the region. 

The root of the problem lies in the historic disregard for women’s rights and well-being in the country. The overt disregard for the female voice meant that something integrally radical had to transpire to end their plight; the Aurat March became a medium for women’s voices to be heard. It came as no surprise thus, that in a country where the only acceptable state of a woman is “silent and compliant,” the first time her voice rang loud and clear, it did not only irritate her oppressor, but all efforts were made to suppress it.

Undeniably, reform demands time and struggle, and transforming mindsets requires that and more. Places like Pakistan, where gender gaps show little to no signs of improvement despite existing in an era of information and access, efforts by forces like the Aurat March continue to be the only way forward. As global citizens, our role remains to educate ourselves and voice our support for such revolutionary motions. We can no longer allow the well-being of women to depend on their collective ‘destiny’. Movements like the Aurat March stand for the oppressed anywhere and everywhere, and they will not cease to exist until the complete eradication of misogynistic and chauvinist practices. Thus, it is imperative for the well-being of women across the globe that such organizations receive the recognition and support they are rightfully entitled to.

  1.  https://pakistan.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2023/07/national-report-on-the-status-of-women-in-pakistan-a-summary ↩︎
  2.  Why We Protest: Aurat March – Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4h6QydrkBc
3 replies on “ A happy woman… is a lucky woman: State of the feminist movement in Pakistan ”
  1. Since start of this millennium, women rights movement in Pakistan has gained momentum and achieved noticeable improvement in at least at legislation levels of the state institutions. Yet, the implementation process on these legislative measures is very slow which ultimately reflects in situations like HDIs. A long way to go for women of Pakistan to bring at par on gender equality measures established in UN CHARTER for women of the GLOBE.
    An impressive effort by the writer for raising the voices of Pakistani Women demanding their rights while highlighting the socioeconomic gaps in gender roles and rewards perspective.

  2. omg hammayl, GIRL YOU NAILED IT!!! a great insight of the aurat march, why it started? what challenges do they meet? imagine even in 2024, us women need a rally to protest for our basic rights. pathetic. but girl kudos to you for raising awareness and using this platform as a voice for the aurat march

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