In Pakistan: “Mera Jism, Meri Marzi” (My Body, My Choice)
Updated: Jan 5
Trigger Warning: This piece contains material about
domestic and sexual violence.
Written by: Mahnoor Ali
Edited by: Anna Mohan, Associate Editor
Women's movements in the Global South have, to a noteworthy extent, created their own distinctive identities and are working to rectify assumptions of Euro-American feminism. Balancing the conflation of gender with issues of cultural identity and colonial subjugation seems to be the basis of third world feminism.
Women in Pakistan have been struggling for the protection of their rights in their pursuit of gender equality since independence in 1947. Pakistani women have a history of taking to the streets, as was done during General Zia Ul Haq’s martial law regime in the 80s. Now we are witness to a new movement – the Aurat March.
It has inaugurated a new phase in feminism within the country. Shifting the attention of feminist politics from the public sphere to the home and family, asserting that the personal is political.
Aurat March has transcended past women’s demonstrations and has built a more inclusive environment for people who not only identify as women but people who are non-binary and do not want to confine themselves to any specific sex or gender identity. The movement has gained traction with people from wealthy suburbs and cities as well as those who live in slums and outer villages.
Background of March
Starting back in 2018, Aurat March – Urdu for Women's March – has been held in cities across Pakistan to coincide with International Women's Day on 8 March. A major feat in a country where many women often don't feel safe in public places because of the harassment they often endure.
Organised by a collective that includes the Women’s Action Forum (a women’s rights organisation), Women’s Democratic Front (a socialist-feminist organisation) and Hum Aurtein (a feminist group). The movement has grown and is no longer confined to marches on International Women’s Day. It has become an ongoing movement that allows women of Pakistan the opportunity to rewrite their place in society.
In 2019, Amnesty International documented that high levels of violence against women and girls continued in Pakistan, including abduction, physical assault, rape and murder. In June that year, the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice announced the establishment of 1,016 courts to hear domestic violence cases. In that month, a 19-year-old trans woman Maya was shot dead by her father in Naushehra, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. At least four other trans women were killed in 2019. Two trans women were also shot and seriously injured in June in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Women in Pakistan are frequently deprived of education, justice, health care, political representation and economic opportunities. They live under the constant threat of violence,” said Rimmel Mohydin, South Asia Campaigner at Amnesty International.
We are seeing an increase in activism in the country, mainly by the youth, spearheaded by women and transgender communities. Women belonging to different social classes, provinces, religions, and ethnicities have united on a common platform to protest the patriarchies that control, and constrain, their self-expression and basic rights. Reflecting a unity within diversity, seldom seen in Pakistan’s polarised and divisive social landscape.
While Aurat March and its mission have resulted in some steps towards equality, it is not without backlash. There are groups that believe this new wave of feminism is part of some western agenda to ruin the culture of Pakistan. This isn’t true; we’re challenging a status quo and regressive ideals of the country.
Why are men so afraid when we demand our basic rights?
The leader of the religious right-wing political party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), asked law enforcement bodies to take action to stop the marches but there are no signs of us stopping until the people of the nation try to learn a de-gendered system.
History of women’s rights in Pakistan, and the major problems women face
According to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (2012-13), almost 32% of women have experienced physical violence in Pakistan and 40% of ever-married women have suffered spousal abuse at some point in their life. This is likely to be lower than actual figures, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 1 in 2 Pakistani women who experience violence have neither sought help nor shared their experience with anyone out of fear of social exclusion or shame.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent watchdog, stated in its annual report that “despite legislation enacted to protect and promote women’s rights in recent years, violence against women has escalated”. There is a major need for a politics of respectability.
Every day, women in Pakistan are bullied, discriminated against, physically attacked and killed, simply for making choices about their bodies and the way they live their lives.
This year's theme was “Mera Jism, Meri Marzi” (My body, my choice). This entailed demanding a society:
Without an exploitative patriarchal structure,
Control over sexual and reproductive rights
Advocating against the sexist portrayal of women in the media, and
Freedom from physical abuse, domestic violence and rape, or being subjected to any medical procedure without informed consent.
A lot of progress needs to be done, but the women of this country will not rest till we are treated as equals and are free to live and speak with complete autonomy of our lives. The support of the movement has only grown this year and will continue to grow.
A revolutionary culture of change is imminent and young people will be at the forefront of it.
“Ask a man what his greatest fear is about serving jail time, and he will almost inevitably say he fears being raped. What can we deduce from the fact that jail is to men what life is to so many women?” -Soraya Chemaly