Karachi, Pakistan – Thousands of women from a cross-section of society are rallying in cities across Pakistan as part of the “aurat march” (women’s march) to mark the International Women’s Day.
“I am here to march for the person I used to be, the person who was victimised by patriarchy,” said Ghousia Ahmed who attended the Karachi march, along with nearly 1,000 women.
“I’m here for all the women who didn’t survive. I hope this is something we can keep doing, if there was a time we needed to march, it’s right now.”
The “aurat march” was first launched in the southern port city of Karachi last year when a group of women decided to expand the feminist movement beyond the upper-class of the society.
The decision led to a growing number of working-class women joining the initiative to help facilitate political action on women’s rights and gender justice.
Lady Health Workers Association (LHWA) with a membership of about 90,000 women from across the country was one of the first to have endorsed the initiative.
“When we formed our association in 2008, we were intimidated by family members, male colleagues, neighbours, and many others to not make a collective,” said Bushra Arain, the head of the LHWA, the largest collective of women in Pakistan’s recent history.
“Last year when the aurat march organisers asked us to speak on the stage, we felt validated.”
The march is organised by a women’s collective called “Hum Auratein” (We the Women), who conduct community outreach programmes for women.
“The impact of collective forums is that it creates awareness and makes them political and unites them as one,” said Moneeza Ahmed, one of the organisers for Karachi’s “aurat march” and member of Hum Auratein.
“Upper-class women can speak for fisherwomen but the intent is for every woman to speak for herself and women can speak more if they are given support,” she told Al Jazeera.
In 2018, nearly 5,000 women, children and men took part in the women’s march in Karachi.
But this year, the march has expanded to other cities such as Lahore, Islamabad, Hyderabad, Quetta, Peshawar and Faisalabad, as people from the younger generation joined the movement for gender justice.
“This younger feminist movement is enabled by the older feminist movement of the 1980s, but this has a different energy, a different face,” Moneeza explained.
“The issues facing women today are about equality in public spaces, right to work, safety in the workplace, and most importantly, infrastructure support, while the previous generation fought for political rights,” she said.
Nighat Dad, organiser of the Lahore “aurat march”, said the older generation laid the foundation stones for the new feminist movement.
“We are demanding economic justice, equal labour, acknowledgement of work in the home, equality at work, sexual harassment and access to equal justice as men,” said Dad, an activist and lawyer who heads the Digital Rights Foundation.
But she lamented lack of implementation of law regarding the protection of women.
“Afzal Kohistani was just killed days ago for speaking up against honour killing, and Qandeel’s father is left penniless and an outcast of society for supporting his daughter’s investigation,” Dad said referring to the honour killing of Qandeel Baloch, a widely popular social media influencer.
Social media conversations have generated a narrative regarding the rights of women and their space in the patriarchal society, with artists using creative ways to bring awareness.
Shehzil Malik, an award-winning illustrator based in Lahore, created the artworks for the march, and many other illustrators came together to make their own versions of the “self-expression” of women.
“The posters are meant to show Pakistani women as strong, opinionated and loud,” Shehzill said.
“Aurat march is to unite women across Pakistan to demand their social and economic rights and demand an end to gender violence and discrimination. It’s about women taking charge of their own destiny and paving the way for their daughters,” she said.
“I want viewers to see the women on the poster to be unlike the representation of women we usually see – pretty, docile, subservient, sweet. These women mean business and that should be celebrated. I wanted the artwork to reflect this resolve, reflect this bold stand.”
Wajeeha Abbassi, an illustrator from Karachi, began her own set of illustrations, which she made open source downloadable for people to print and carry into the march.
Women across social media have come forward to share their stories under the hashtag #WhyIMarch to support the aurat march on International Women’s Day.
Regarding enforced disappearances across Pakistan over the years, women who have had husbands, brothers, and fathers held without trial or locations are unknown:
The organisers of “aurat march” say that they wanted to make sure every woman was represented, from women who work in domestic labour laws to student rappers, and celebrated musicians.
“We (my family) have been working on the roadside for over 70 years in this location. We sell on commission and the city officials kick us and throw away our goods whenever they feel like it,” said Laxmi who attended the Karachi march.
“We’ve been driven away from our livelihood and all because some man decided we couldn’t be there any more,” she said.