Why do women march? A look at the Aurat March 2021 manifestos

They take on patriarchal violence, healthcare and the crisis of care.
Updated 15 Mar, 2021 10:52am

Every year come March, people begin wondering why women choose take to the streets on March 8. And every year, there are readily available manifestos up for anyone who wants to read them.

This year, we’re breaking down the manifestos city by city so that you can get a better idea of the whats and whys of this year’s Aurat Marches around Pakistan.

Karachi takes on patriarchal violence

The Aurat March’s Karachi chapter essentially pioneered the event and their manifesto is an evolving document where additions are made each year. This year’s theme will look at how existing harmful structures are perpetuated by the State and institutions as well as our social fabric itself.

Two organisers explained that, like every year, the core objectives are put together after conversations and consultations with the many communities that the organisation works with.

“Our manifesto, for example, demands incremental institutional changes, such as the addition of women and transwomen medico legal officers, criminalising the two-finger test and questions related to sexual history conducted during rape investigations," they explained.

"Our social media campaign, ‘A-Z of Patriarchal Violence’, highlights some specific tools that are used to perpetuate patriarchal violence, for example, acid attacks, enforced disappearances, discriminatory legislation against women and trans people, surveillance etc,” the duo told Images.

Art: Romaisa Fawad
Art: Romaisa Fawad

Inclusion is an important aspect of all manifestos, but Karachi has placed a special emphasis on sexual minorities.

“There is so much more that we wish to talk about and can improve on. We recognise that the feminist movement in Pakistan has by and large completely ignored the struggles of the trans community and non-binary persons. In our language and in our organising, we are working to be inclusive of them and bring their issues to the mainstream but we still have a very long way to go,” she said.

Lahore addresses the healthcare crisis

The Lahore chapter has always had a theme for their manifestos and charters of demands. This year's 35-page manifesto looks at healthcare with an emphasis on gender and sexual minorities.

Healthcare was an obvious choice, given that we’re living through a pandemic. “It brought health into a sharp global focus. During the lockdown, we had time to self reflect and observe how women’s health is continuously sidelined. Health issues are understood in a very politicised and boxed manner,” said a volunteer with the Lahore chapter.

As is the case with other chapters, the seven sections were carefully prepared after extensive consultations with the groups they cover, including groups representing people with disabilities, transgender people, and lady health workers. The exhaustive manifesto was created after a month’s work.

“It touches on a host of issues, including the lack of provision of adequate healthcare to women, gender and sexual minorities, the discrimination between urban and rural areas in provision of healthcare infrastructure, the lack of sensitivity of healthcare providers to womxn patients, sexual and reproductive health, the male bias in medical research, and the abuse, harassment and discrimination faced by women healthcare workers,” she said.

The manifesto speaks on the issues while taking into account class, geography, and gender.

Art: Romaisa Fawad
Art: Romaisa Fawad

“This is the first ever feminist vision of the Pakistani healthcare system. One of the most beautiful parts about it is that it is a working document, open to making it more inclusive,” she added.

This year’s manifesto doesn’t begin and end with the March itself. Volunteers have been out in the field organising health camps and have thus far treated more than 150 patients in the south of Lahore.

These camps will continue after March 8 since a single day isn’t enough to address the cracks in the system.

“We wanted to co-opt the pandemic and the urgency created by it, to make everyone realise that the patriarchy is also a pandemic, and that it has been an ever-present and painful part of our lives,” the volunteer explained.

You can read the complete manifesto here.

Islamabad focuses on the crisis of care

A large part of the capital’s manifesto is also heavily motivated by the pandemic. The 2021 theme is “feminist care in the time of the coronavirus crisis”.

Called the Aurat Azadi March, the Islamabad version revolves around economic justice and the manifesto demands different actions that can help alleviate financial burden and pressure from the public at a time when the pandemic has left most battered.

For instance, it asks for a reallocation of the non-combative defence budget toward social programmes, a reduction in taxes that can help with basic household needs and help people avoid falling into poverty, ensuring food security, support for essential agri-inputs, fiscal stimuli and more.

An organiser from the Aurat Azadi March explained how the current situation in the country, and the world in general, informed the manifesto. “The pandemic has disproportionately affected women, minorities, and at risk communities. It essentially exacerbated a lot of the problems that already existed in our society,” she said.

The March's demands also take up patriarchal violence through the pandemic lens. For instance, they acknowledge that Covid-19 disproportionately added to women’s workload in terms of the care economy. Violence against women also increased leaps and bounds due to lockdowns and isolation. The manifesto outlined the many demands-cum-solutions that could help address these issues, including anti-harassment campaigns, the provision of shelters and acknowledgement of care work at home as labour.

“The manifesto focuses on the economy because it isn't really talked about a lot within our movement. The pandemic has had a deep impact on the economy, and as a result the marginalised have taken a huge hit as well. We made our current demands specific to the situation because there was so much to say and so much to address. There is a need to prepare for the worst, and we are currently living it,” she said.

Marching in a pandemic

While Karachi will not be going forward with a full march this year, Lahore and Islamabad are moving ahead with precautions.

Karachi will instead be looking at a dharna (sit-in), where the crowd and Covid-19 safety can be managed in an easier fashion.

Speaking about the preparations in Lahore, the volunteer from the March said volunteers will be handing out masks and bottles of sanitiser during the event.

“We have reinforced the SOPs through our online content. We also plan to arrange the banners in a way that it creates more distance between different sections of the march,” she explained.

The Islamabad chapter raised funds specifically to source masks and sanitiser. They are also focusing on developing formations and SOPs so that safety is not an issue.

However, last year’s event proved that there is more at stake than just the virus, and the organisers are also looking into security arrangements. The 2020 march saw attendees getting pelted with stones and attacked by right-wing hardliners.

“There is a self-defence team in place that is working tirelessly to ensure that this year’s march is a safe space," said the organiser.

Measuring the impact, four years in

This is the fourth year that the March is being organised around the country. In this time, one unquestionable outcome has been the push for more conversations. Ahmed feels that topics such as consent and bodily and sexual autonomy have been brought to the forefront.

Change is coming, albeit slowly. “Effecting legislation will take time but we believe that providing a platform for these issues will effect the consciousness of the public,” a Karachi organiser explained. One example is the two-finger test, where awareness of the issue allowed Aurat March organisers and other feminists to petition the court to push for a ban.

The marches have served to amplify the voices of women.

“It is hard to imagine the #MeToo cases brought forward by educational institutions in 2020 happening 10 years ago. The Aurat March makes us believe in our ability to resist. The Anti-Rape Ordinance, despite its many flaws, had a lot to do with the increasing pressure created by women online and on ground — we organised a protest around that,” said the volunteer from Islamabad.

One organiser feels that the aim is to start conversations, irrespective of whether they are positive or negative. “Our work at the end of the day is to agitate and to protest and we’re going to do that every year,” she asserted, noting that feminism has definitely become a part of mainstream discourse. People have the means to learn, read or say more about feminism and how it affects them personally.

Her sentiment was echoed by her fellow organiser from Karachi. “The change we are seeking is not just institutional. We want to cultivate change in society and build a political platform that all women, trans people, and non-binary persons can feel a part of. Pakistan needs an intersectional feminist movement and we are here to make it happen.”