“Video banana mana hai! Phone neechay karein! Poochhay baghair video nahi bana saktay! Neechay karein!” yelled an Aurat March organiser at men outside the Frere Hall.
I turned to see a man making a video of the women standing in line at the entrance. I felt the organiser’s fury; it brought back memories of times when men in public spaces had taken non-consensual photos of me.
I quickly made my way inside to avoid a repeat of the past.
As I entered, the mood changed. The energy was festive, joyous and charged; #behenchara in full swing. An apt representation of placard ‘Aaj waqai maa behen aik ho rahay hain.’
Relief. This was familiar. This was safe.
Men also stepped up and came to support the movement. Unlike in the previous years, more men showed up -- a sign, I hoped, meant we were moving in the right direction.
Soon the crowd burgeoned and with it the number of men. In less than an hour, the park swarmed with more men than I was comfortable around; many of them marginalised, some allies – but a lot who had come to satisfy their lust.
Having learnt from experience, I knew clusters of men near women was usually not a good sign. My panic got the better of me and I cautiously restricted my movement to the periphery of the main crowd, sticking closer to my group of friends -- better to maintain distance than elbow and brush past men, regardless of their intent.
People stopped by for pictures and my friend promptly raised her poster. I stood at a distance, not wanting to be captured.
Seconds later I noticed a man, his arm outstretched, casually making our video. I shielded my face and firmly told him, “Video mat banaein,” naive enough to believe that he would respect consent and put his phone away.
He didn’t flinch. He didn’t even look up. He continued making the video, unstirred. His face covered behind his phone while I stood violated, my body for him to consume without my consent.
It was unnerving. I was back to my everyday reality and once again a permanent memory in a stranger's phone.
In another part of Frere Hall, Shahzadi Feriha, a trans woman and her friends were also trying to protect themselves from harassment.
When the organisers signalled the crowd to gather for the march, a man approached Shahzadi and started making conversation. A few moments later, he inched closer.
“Dur hato,” warned Shahzadi and walked away.
She made her way towards the policemen on duty. She and her friends felt safer around them. As the crowd thinned, the trans women called their car to leave.
The man followed Shahzadi and said something to her. She signalled the policemen to grab him but he ran away.
The man then started following her friends as they moved around the park and verbally abused them, forcing them to go back and stand with the police.
When their car arrived, the women got ready to leave but before Shahzadi could sit inside, the man walked up to her and said, “What is your problem? Who do you think you are? You’re not a woman. Stop doing this march for the trans community.”
Shahzadi grabbed his hand to take him to the police, he responded with a punch to her hand and a kick to her leg. Shahzadi and her friends retaliated and hit him back. It ended up with both parties getting injured.
In Islamabad’s Aurat March, Elia Rathore and her sister watched Ismat Shahjahan give her speech on stage when a man came and stood next to her and another, behind her 11-year-old sister.
Elia placed her leg behind her sister to prevent the man from coming closer but the man kept moving forward. She told the man to move back, he only stared in return. She repeated herself, “Ap hat jaein, please!”, he pretended to have not heard.
Elia turned to the man next to her for assistance who then forced the man to move but that didn’t stop him from attempting to come close again. Elia then stood in front of the man as a wall between him and her sister to keep him away.
In another instance, she noticed two men ogling young girls while laughing and rubbing their bellies. One of them tried to get close to one of the girls.
“Ap kya dekh rahay hain?” Elia said to him annoyed, to which the man laughed and moved away. She took out her phone and started taking his pictures; at first he laughed, then fearing the consequences he covered his face and turned away.
It was now time for the march. The organisers moved the women to the front, next to the tent that separated JUI-F’s March. The men were asked to move to the back but many refused, some making videos of the women in the front without their consent.
Within seconds the JUI-F tore down the barrier and attacked the Aurat March, pelting the crowd with bricks and stones. Elia, her sister and her friends who were standing next to the barrier, panicked and ran as fast as possible to save themselves from the attack.
In the commotion a man came up behind one of Elia’s friends, groped her entire body and said, “Ap pareshan mat huwein, mein ap ka khayal rakhoon ga.”
As soon as the people around noticed what was happening, he ran away.
In another part of the Islamabad march, a woman and her sister attended the event for the first time.
They felt unsafe. There were too many men around, especially in the main crowd without any inclination to move, not allowing women ease of mobility.
When they walked to the side for some air, her sister noticed a man leering at the woman, his eyes moving down to her ass. Fixated. She called him out, “Kya dekh rahay ho?”. The woman turned around and realised the man was standing uncomfortably close behind her staring at her ass. He replied, “Kuch nahi,” and turned his face away.
“Kya baat hai? Aurat March pey aa key aurton ko taro gay?” her sister retorted. He laughed and looked away.
As a woman who attended the Aurat March, I did not leave feeling 'Mera Jism Meri Marzi'. Unfortunately, neither did the multiple women I spoke to.
It's distressing that our experience was tainted by lecherous men; men who view womxn's bodies as public property, the very men from whom we seek azaadi.
The Aurat March is a significant demonstration of public resistance and mobility; it gives us a platform to express ourselves and be heard. It allows womxn, trans and non-binary people to lower their guard without fear of judgement or hate. It brings us together publicly in our struggle for rights. It creates a sense of security where we can reclaim public spaces without the threat of sexual harassment. It gives us ownership of narrative, body and space.
It is meant to be safe. It is meant to liberate the marginalised, yet in some major cities the march was hijacked by men who claim to be our 'protectors'. Men who came to forcefully take back our access to a public space because protesting for our rights on the roads was 'asking for it'; much like when we step out to go to festivals, concerts, cafes and the streets. Rest assured, they'll even 'put us in our place' in our homes.
They have dictated womxn's place in society, while asserting their own access and freedom to all domains of society.
And the Aurat March challenges that.
So when the crowd at this year's march was majority men (at least where I was standing), I felt my anxiety rising and immediately wished my male friends had accompanied me to the event.
It's ironic that I responded with needing men to protect me from men at an event that was meant to liberate me.
I'm then left to question the role of men in a place like Aurat March and to what extent their participation in a space for the marginalised damages and/or champions the movement.