I went to the Aurat March for the very first time and here's what I saw

My perception of the Aurat March was formed entirely by social media and it couldn't have been more further from the truth.
Updated 09 Mar, 2022

Due to privacy concerns, the author wishes to remain anonymous

I don't have permission to go to Aurat March but I still went yesterday.

I and many women across this country sneaked out of our homes, schools and workplaces on March 8, all in a bid to attend our very first Aurat March on Women's Day. If you've lived in Pakistan long enough, you'll know just how controversial Aurat Marches are. They're the seedbeds of all that is behaya and fahash, many argue, a soapbox that promotes looking down upon family values. WhatsApp messages urge family elders to keep their daughters, wives and mothers away from the Aurat March, and our elders solemnly listen and restrict permission.

I could have sneaked out to attend the Aurat March in previous years as well but it wasn't just the lack of permission that held me back. The vilification on social media left an impression on me. My perception of the Aurat March was formed entirely on what I saw on social media, and a lot of what you see on social media is not a kind and authentic take on what the march stands for. From my vantage point, which was my phone screen, it felt like the Aurat March was held for only a few, a privileged section of society, Men and women who are the beneficiaries of socio-economic privileges that the majority don't have. Privilege that shields them from many forms of oppression and discrimination.

I did not see myself represented in the pictures that flooded social media. A part of me wanted to see whether this was the reality on-ground as well. I decided to attend this year's march, making it a point to look beyond social media and read the manifesto to know what the Aurat March in Karachi was really about.

Ek hi nara, ek junoon, Ujrat Tahafuz aur Sukoon

This year's Aurat March really focused on women's labour, and the theme didn't restrict the meaning of "labour" to work done as an economic activity. "We believe that human labour is at the rooh [soul] and heart of creating and producing for society as a whole," the manifesto read. "We labour in factories, on farms, labour as home-based workers, on the streets as sanitation workers, in homes as domestic workers, and as artisans. The labour we also undertake is our activities, our behaviours, our emotions, our responsibilities which maintain society. Our work is mental, physical, emotional, whether it is in the production and provision of food, taking care of the elderly, raising and socialising children, or taking care of the environment and nurturing our communities. We sustain life as it is–with our hearts, our minds, and our bodies."

It rejected "the dominant economic model" which exploits a woman's labour and demanded better pay, working conditions, social security, protection and the implementation for not just women but also "transmen, khwajasira, and nonbinary people". The manifesto demanded better policies and systems across socio-economic levels for "differently-abled bodies, people suffering from mental health, gender minorities and older peoples". It asked for rights across "gender, race, ethnicity, and religion".

Reading the Aurat March Karachi's manifesto was a game-changer for me. On paper, the march's ethos was inclusive, it reflected the needs of a diverse community, way beyond the needs of a select few. Reading the manifesto was a much better way of extrapolating what the march was all about. I was reminded of a picture of a poster I saw on Aurat Azadi March's Instagram from the march held in Islamabad on Sunday (March 6). "Since you don't want 'reactionary slogans', here's feminist theory. Will you read it though?" the posted read.

Getting to Bagh-e-Jinnah

This year, the Aurat March in Karachi was held at Bagh-e-Jinnah instead of Frere Hall where it was organised since its inception. Getting to the designated ground zero was tough though, especially if you aren't coming in your own car. For the uninitiated who's never been to Bagh-e-Jinnah (and hasn't seen the jalsas that usually happen there on television), if you come via a rickshaw or Careem, the driver might ask you whether you want to go to the park besides the Quaid's mazaar or to the "empty ground in front of the mazaar" like he asked me, and you, like me, might not have the answer to that. Google Maps wasn't helpful in finding my way to the location either. I saw other lost and equally confused marchers trying to find Bagh-e-Jinnah as well. Perhaps the Aurat March could have provided better information on the location and how to get there a good number of days beforehand. Reposting a detailed map on Instagram really would have helped.

Security at the premises

There was ample police at the site in efforts to protect Aurat March participants. It was a relieving sight, especially since there's no forgetting what happened at the Aurat March in Islamabad in 2020. Participants of the march were attacked by some men who shouted slogans and pelted stones at them. At Bagh-e-Jinnah, there were many police officers guarding the entrance as well as the boundaries of the ground. There was a good number of female police officers about as well, a sight that was even more elating.

The life of the Aurat March

The most defining feature of the Aurat March are the people who come to take part in it. In the first few minutes I was at Bagh-e-Jinnah, I realised just how little of this diversity is captured on social media. The pictures that eventually end up on our Instagram feeds are cherry picked out of hundreds, and purposely misrepresented to show the march in a negative light. Given that it took me this long to actually attend an Aurat March — me, a staunch feminist with socialist leanings — the maligning campaign is pretty effective at deterring people from participating .

Aurat March Lahore recently did an eye opening art instalment to show just how much the coverage of Aurat March, particularly on YouTube, twists the truth

I saw men and women from all walks of life at Bagh-e-Jinnah, holding up their hand-drawn placards with so much passion. I saw Baloch women protesting against missing family and friends. I saw non-binary people with flags. I saw the Women Workers Alliance Force mark their presence at the march. I, along with hundreds of other marchers, saw transgender folks participate in the event with pride and a discernible sense of ease and comfort. Many came to the foot of the stage to perform the dhamaal as onlookers cheered them on. I saw men and women in wheelchairs at the march, folks who were able to come because the organisers had made the ground wheelchair accessible.

The Aurat March has a strong upper-class presence, it's true. There was no mistaking men and women from well-to-do neighbourhoods at the march. But is that so wrong, I asked myself. While class privilege does shield individuals from a number of disadvantages, especially in Pakistan where the divide between the haves and have-nots is the difference between life and death, multitudes of women experience abuse, harassment and discrimination despite their class privilege. Money and status is yet to shield a woman from rape and discrimination in the DHAs of Pakistan, and we don't have to look far to see proof of this — no one can forget what happened to Noor Mukadam. She belonged to the upper echelons of society and yet she was still a victim of a gruesome murder, just like many other women in Pakistan.

The speeches and performances on stage

The focal point of everyone's attention at Bagh-e-Jinnah were the speeches and performances held on stage. The organisers shouted chants from the stage every now and then to rouse an already electrified crowd. "Sab ko yakza tahafuz do [Give everyone equal security]," they roared from the stage and the crowd echoed it back. Sara Gill, who says she is Pakistan's first transgender doctor, made a provoking speech on stage about how the slogan "mera jism meri marzi" has been usurped to reflect "vulgar" connotations that it never intended in the first place. "What is the problem with this line? This line was brought forward by women but it isn't just for women, it is for men, children and the khwajasira. Please stop linking our line with sex and vulgarity." A group of women graced the stage to sing Faiz Ahmed Faiz's 'Hum Dekhein Gey' as well, further fuelling the emotions of the crowd.

The speeches and performances on stage were invigorating, but for me, the people up on that stage and the things they said didn't entirely reflect the vast diversity of the crowd. It isn't realistically possible to do so either; a few individuals on stage cannot voice the interests and concerns of each and every marcher in attendance and the Aurat March would become a week-long event if they were to attempt to do so.

Perhaps the focal point of the event shouldn't be a stage amplifying the voices of only a few, rather it should be the protesters themselves. That thriving crowd of people from all walks of life is the life of Aurat March. It negates all slander and criticism of the march promoting the 'vested' (and 'fahash') interests of just a few. It would be invigorating to see activities related to the Aurat March from within the crowd, and perhaps, even by the crowd itself. Does this idea pose logistic challenges for the organisers? I imagine it does. But it is time we think of an alternate structure that veers away from the traditional political jalsas, events that only seem to be about 'the big man' on the podium rather than the people themselves.