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Is it becoming more difficult to attend the Aurat March?

Is it becoming more difficult to attend the Aurat March?

This year's Karachi demonstration saw a lower attendance and fewer people willing to be interviewed or filmed.
09 Mar, 2024

The first time I covered the Aurat March back in 2020, Karachi saw hundreds of people gathered at Frere Hall with a renewed sense of urgency, reclaiming their right to a public space that opens its arms to women, minority groups and non-binary folks every year. The venue echoed with chants of “Hum Lekay Rahengay Azadi,” (we will take our freedom, come what may) as hands waved in the air to the echoes of ‘Laal Meri’.

The saying “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” gained new meaning as attendees raised placards bearing words that could make any man either furious or downright ashamed (depending on the person reading). For many, the Aurat March has almost served as an institution, welcoming anyone willing to learn about women’s rights and unlearn the patriarchal ways of our society. But there’s been a major shift in attitudes towards the march since its first iteration in 2018. And that shift was difficult to ignore at the Aurat March in Karachi on Friday.

Aurat March Karachi returned to Frere Hall this year after hosting two consecutive protests at the Bagh-e-Jinnah. The crowd began gathering around 3pm and soon, Sheema Kermani was joined by a host of other women in a graceful dance of liberation. But somehow, the fervour surrounding them wasn’t the same. Chants of “azaadi” weren’t heard as frequently in the venue, nor were many stirring placards held aloft.

An unexplained sense of fear and paranoia loomed despite tight security measures. More and more participants expressed fear of being photographed or identified while many declined interviews. There were also fewer people attending the march.

I vividly remember being unable to find a place to sit or stand at the previous marches. The venue would be overflowing with protesters, press and celebrities. Security had to be tighter, given the number of men waiting outside to get one peak at a woman’s body, ready to slander her, or worse. And if you lost your friends along the way, good luck finding them because hearing each other over the phone was a nightmare, even if you screamed your lungs out.

And while the absence of chaos contributed to a more organised Aurat March experience this year, it was also underwhelming. Having observed this decline first-hand, I decided to reach out to participants of previous Aurat March events to ask them why they were missing out on the demonstration this year. Their reasons ranged from trauma caused by online bullying following previous marches to cyber threats after being discovered online.

“I faced immense online vitriol, including trolling, slut shaming, rape threats and death threats after being falsely accused and targeted by multiple individuals, leading to significant family conflicts and a fractured sense of self,” one former protester shared with Images. Part of the Aurat March 2019 — their first and last — they recalled how their picture holding a placard bearing the slogan “Mera Jism, Meri Marzi” went viral after the protest. The online hate that followed, as well their family’s reaction to the picture, left them scarred.

“The experience resulted in a split personality between my true self and the persona I felt compelled to adopt to navigate the public sphere amidst false rumours and allegations. It’s a stark reminder of the dangers of online harassment and the toll it takes on individuals and their communities,” they said.

Another attendee recalled their harrowing experience of being bullied online after a video of them protesting with the trans community was uploaded online. “This happened in 2021. I categorically told every media person not to take our picture. I told them our lives are in danger and we are here to support the cause of women and minorities. I do not want to be photographed or identified. But no matter what you do, some vlogger decides to record you without your consent and all hell breaks loose.”

Another regular participant of the Aurat March told Images, “I’ve been attending almost every Aurat March for as long as I can remember. I do so without informing my family. But this year, it was just so hard. None of my friends were going so I couldn’t go myself. The Aurat March has helped raise so much awareness but it has also created this divide that wasn’t there before between those who march and those who don’t. Even after all these years, people don’t know or don’t want to know about the stories behind our slogans. They don’t bother reading and I guess we are tired of explaining. Last year, we made sure we don’t bring any placards to the march that could be used against us. Still, the trolling continued. This year, none of us went.”

Each year has witnessed increased misrepresentation of the Aurat March on social media. Women are dragged through the virtual mud for participating in something “vulgar”, courtesy of the way it is depicted by those who fail to understand the purpose of the march. The bias against women also shapes what parts of the Aurat March are covered by the media and how, with instances of male reporters mansplaining women’s slogans to them on the ground.

Case in point — this instance of a ‘reporter’ arguing with a girl over her decision to call out Khalilur Rehman Qamar instead of simply reporting on the matter. There was also this instance of a woman sharing her encounter with a reporter who asked a suggestive question that placed the blame of rape on women.

In 2019, film student Javaria Waseem tweeted about her sister’s experience with online harassment following the Aurat March. “I have a 16 -year-old sister who posted on her Instagram supporting the Aurat March and a random group of boys made a group just to abuse and harass her, calling her names and talking about doing sh*t with her. SHE IS JUST SIXTEEN,” she wrote in a thread on X that included screenshots of abusive messages her sister had allegedly received.

A 2019 article also discusses a spike in online threats following Aurat March events across the country, especially after pictures and videos of certain placards and attendees go viral, putting their safety at risk. In 2021, there was also an instance of a doctored video falsely showing participants raising blasphemous slogans, exacerbating the online hate directed towards marchers and organisers.

And in response to the backlash, we have also seen dialogues aimed at understanding the slogans, expressions and visuals of the Aurat March. Organisers have time and again laid emphasis on reading the manifestos before calling out the marchers but the incessant trolling continues to shape the narrative of Aurat March online.

Actor Mira Sethi, among many others, addressed the confusion at the demonstration yesterday. When approached for a comment, she told me, “The fact is that when we talk about freedom, we do not talk about obscenity, nudity, insolence or indecency. We only ask for one thing and that is autonomy.”

Another attendee emphasised on the importance of marching without losing faith, especially during such polarising times. “Marching and speaking up, in whatever way, in whatever format, in whatever expression, artistic expression or just verbally and physically, however you want to communicate your story, this platform is for those people. And if you can’t relate with it, you can’t relate with it, you don’t want to empathise with it, you don’t empathise with it. But that doesn’t mean that these gatherings are not important. It’s a message and a yearly reminder that these things are happening. If these things did not happen, if women weren’t discriminated against, we wouldn’t have seen this march. This is a repercussion and a result of what women have gone through and I think it’s a really beautiful one.”

Comments

1000 Characters
Afzaal Waraich Mar 09, 2024 01:30pm
Regression, deplorable .
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Mir Thebo Mar 09, 2024 03:36pm
I support aurat and the liberty they should have it's their fundamental right
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Syed Hasni Mar 09, 2024 04:40pm
Intimidation, harassment, and violence has no place in democracy. This nation does not deserve democracy. No wonder Allama Iqbal once said, Democracy is a certain form of government in which. Men are counted but not weighed. Men are not robots!’ – PM Imran speaks about impact of women wearing ‘very few clothes’, if these votes are weighed, we will be in Caves very soon.
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Ehsan Mar 09, 2024 07:45pm
It’s a struggle against men who are scared of women
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anonymous Mar 09, 2024 08:52pm
I know people who were afraid to go due to the Ichra incident too
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Waseem Mar 10, 2024 05:56am
All rights must also be exercised within the cultural and religious boundaries. be it any gender.
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Laila Mar 10, 2024 02:43pm
The mentioned case regarding a so-called journalist arguing with s girl because she was calling out Khalil Ur Rehman for his misogynistic abuse, needs clarification. The male featured is Yasir Shami, and he is not a journalist. He along with other misogynists like himself "reports" for the sensationalist biased YouTube channel Urdu Point (again not a news outlet). Their staff commonly berates and mocks anybody they disagree with. Yasir has a Master's in bakwas, is an ardent fan of Khalil and vehemently opposes Aurat March
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Bilal Mar 10, 2024 02:57pm
People are coming back to their senses. Good to see.
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Queen Mar 11, 2024 08:26am
Has Aurat March ever said a word about the women who have been incarcerated for 10 months for exercising their political rights? Or do those women not fall in female category as per Aurat March standards? Selective feminism is not feminism.
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Laila Mar 12, 2024 06:43pm
@ Queen Yes, yes they did. I just looked it up. You could have looked it up too if you really genuinely cared. But instead you post seemingly serves to cast doubt over Aurat March. Its also fairly indigenous of you to ask and answer your own hypothetical/rhetorical question. Did you bother to protest for the incarcerated women? Nobodyis stopping you from making a poster and march outside parliament or join the AMers in your local city. You clearly also don't understand feminism. No protest purports to cover all issues as it's simply not possible. Also AM is made up by people who each join and bring their cause. Not all the posters follow the official AM charter. The organizers are not responsible to include every single cause nor can they. The police can't be bothered to file FIRs and purse cases but don't see anybody questioning that even though they are paid to keep us the citizens safe. Also AM is very present on social media. You can contact them there and ask them and even join them and add to the causes covered, IF you actually cared. Also you should ask the sitting government on their social media why they keep women incarcerated in general unless you think women were never incarcerated before 2023 or one group deserve preferential treatment In which case I welcome you to study female imprisonment of largely innocent women spanning decades. Like you said, don't be selective.
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Laila Mar 12, 2024 06:49pm
@ Waseem Cultural (Pakistani/Desi/Subcontinental/South Asian) boundaries and religious (islamic) boundaries are not synonymous or the same. In fact they are often at odds with each other and don't mix. You will need to be specific as to what rights you believe are not exercised within cultural or religious boundaries. Our culture in Pakistan is far removed from Islam. Kindly keep that in mind.
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Laila Mar 12, 2024 07:14pm
Since the start of Aurat March or International Women's Day celebration in Pakistan in 2018, majority of the ignorant and misogynist society has relentlessly utilised every way to bring down, defame, shame, intimidate, baselessly accuse AMs, including many so called decent and honorable males threatening the females organizers and participants with rape, bodily harm, mutilation and lets not forget so-called/pseudo journalists turning up to AM with their own agenda of "exposing" and mocking attendants, passing judgements and not letting them answer and twisting their words for quick likes and more views on their sensationalist YouTube videos, one can hardly blame the AMers for being cautious. People dont take offense to the reality of lack of rights, absence of safety and freedom for women but they do take offense to anybody standing up for those rights. Let's not forget how Jamaat e Islami (JI/JuI) and their female students deliberately choose the one day internationally designated for women and ther rights to turn up, throw stones, shoes and shout obscenities at AMers and generally behave like wild animals or mental patients proving just how safe it is for AM. Nobody's interested in the facts or what AM has to say, they just want them to go away so status quo can remain and misogynists and patriarchy can remain in power. The best way to do that through conspiracy theories and defamation. Nothing gets punished in Pakistan. Funny though how the same Pakistanis will not hesitate to go abroad and then use the same so-called western/vulgar/modern/feminist/liberal laws to gain footing and demand extra rights and special treatment and demand that the host country changes for their sake. Hypocrisy long live. There is a reason why circumstances for Pakistani females will not change soon, if ever. Whenever somebody tries to change this is what we do to them.
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