Six and a half hours after the Aurat March kicked off in Islamabad on International Women’s Day, protesters and the organisers found themselves between a container and a hard place (patriarchy), so to speak. Cordoned off from proceeding forward to D-Chowk as planned, we all waited patiently and with staunch commitment. “March tu ho ga [The march will go on].”
Despite a baton charge by the police, the media’s aggression and infighting at the onset of this year’s Aurat March in the capital, the procession’s resolve was unfaltering. Children clung to their mother’s chests, the elderly and injured all stood along the tightly packed road leading from the Press Club to the Blue Area. The close quarters and spring sun stifled our breath and brought sweat to our brows. Yet, we chanted slogans in anger, frustration and power.
When the formidable unmoving container finally gave way to the soundtrack of the mega popular Coke Studio hit ‘Peechay Hutt,’ unveiling the lush Margalla Hills and setting us all free, our collective jubilation was palpable and, dare I say, intoxicating. We won.
In that moment, ‘Peechay Hutt’ become the unlikely anthem of the Aurat March 2023 in Islamabad, as demonstrators chanted, cheered and danced. “Make way, we have arrived.”
While not a protest song, the space the song took and provided during the march was more than as an audio landscape — it spoke to the feminist movement and the particularities of this march.
‘Peechay Hutt’, patriarchy
The Coke Studio smash hit was first released in February 2022, a few weeks before that year’s Aurat March but it did not reach the critical mass for anthem-level status it achieved during this year’s march.
Why this year, then? Organisers of the Aurat March Islamabad told Images that due to the police and state’s attempts to stultify the march, the song was a natural fit with its chorus converting into chant: “Peechay Hutt”.
“For six hours, we were stuck between containers, concrete and barbed wire, and women were trying to remove these things with their own hands. When they were finally removed, the sense of relief and victory was so strong, really I don’t think there could be a better song. It really captured the sentiment and the jubilation, anyone who was there would testify how that song was echoing within us,” lawyer and march organiser Imaan Mazari told Images. She added that with or without an NOC, citizens are entitled to their constitutional right to protest.
Another organiser, Huda Bhurgri, said that the inclusion of the song in the playlist was a deliberate choice because after 2022’s Aurat March, many social media users had synced their posts and videos to ‘Peechay Hutt’. However, the song was claimed by the collective this year due to the resistance faced and the response of the marchers.
“We had many songs on our playlist but we noticed that the crowd responded to this song in a very different way. There was a lot of stress and uncertainty that there might be a baton charge or resistance, but whenever we played this song, there was a lot of hope and it helped us mobilise the youth. The song became politicised and the women who came to the Aurat March claimed it,” said Bhurgri.
“It is not a song that the organisers decided on but it is a song that the marchers claimed and made their anthem,” she explained.
Even one of the song’s singers, Hasan Raheem, has acknowledged and claimed the song as a feminist anthem. Though Raheem admittedly did not intend for the song to be political when he wrote it, he was pleased to learn from Images that the song has been embraced by the country’s feminist community and has been elevated.
“‘Peechay Hutt’ is an evergreen song for this movement. I’m in awe with the way this song is going to be timeless because of this new meaning as its creation was so honest and pure. Two years ago, when I wrote this song on my bed, I never thought of it to become the voice of the women of Pakistan. The oppression has to end! Our women need to be loved, respected and kept with utmost care,” he told Images.
He later shared the same sentiment on Twitter.
He added that he hopes that women are viewed as human beings and citizens of Pakistan first, and mothers and daughters as parts of their identity but not as the sum of their being.
Dance as resistance
“A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having” — political activist Emma Goldman.
The Aurat March routinely comes under various fire and polarises the country, as evidenced during the inevitable Twitter wars every International Women’s Day. From accusations of the march being funded by nebulous and nefarious foreign aid and organisers being “NGO aunties” to more sinister skepticism maligning feminists as being against Islamic ideology and promoting vulgarity, we’ve heard it all. And dance or the criticism of dance can be tied to most criticisms of the Aurat March.
Many skeptics cannot justify the call for women’s rights with the act of dancing in public spaces, such as streets and roads. It is seen as un-Islamic, non-traditional and un-Pakistani. However, dance is and always has been an integral part of our cultural and historical identity.
“Women have been dancing for men for many centuries now. The Dancing Girl statue was found [as a relic] from the Indus Civilisation and Sufi music references dance and devotion. Dance has existed for many years in South Asia in many forms and cultures. Due to religious radicalisation, it is only a few years ago that dance [was] equated to immorality that disrupts the honour of women or men,” explained Bhurgri.
Watching women dancing is an entertainment form that is still widely consumed by men in Pakistan, be it during clandestine mujras or the ruckus night shows for men’s eyes only. The problem seems to reach a fever pitch when women dance for themselves as a form of expression and liberation, especially in public spaces, as usually, women are conspicuously absent from the streets.
Lawyer Mazari calls this the “shock factor” of women’s expression in the public arena.
The harrowing part is that women dancing is considered less acceptable than the too often honour killings of women in the country. Just a few weeks following Women’s Day, a man shot his 18-year-old daughter dead in the Vano Ghari village of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Sardaryab after a video of her dancing went viral on social media.
With the ubiquity of the internet and social media, public and private arenas are conflated and what is offline seldom stays that way when women are involved. Once seen as the spatiality of threat and violence, public spaces are no longer the most dangerous place for women in Pakistan. The internet is.
Women marchers who sidestep violence and abuse dancing in the collective comfort and security of the Aurat March are still subject to ridicule and threats online. Many marchers attend these protests without the knowledge or consent of their families because they need the consent of their families. Every year, they risk going viral and yet, they march, they dance, they sing, they express.
‘Peechay Hutt’ garnered more value and meaning during the protest because it is a contemporary song that many were able to relate to, place interpretative and symbolic protest meaning to and, most importantly, dance to. It is not only a song, sentiment and slogan for the Aurat March — it encapsulates women’s struggle for space, in all mediums, times and places, where women push boundaries to express themselves.
One of Pakistan’s most renowned dancers, Indu Mitha, born in 1929, danced during the dictatorial regime of General Zia Ul Haq, when all forms of art were banned, and is a proponent of dance as resistance. To resist, one need only dance — even if they are not a dancer, they are a revolutionary.
“Dance is a feeling and a beautiful sensation that springs from the soul. Can you stop it? We danced our way under the shadows of so many threats. We danced with curtains pulled and lights switched off” — Indu Mitha