Now in its fourth iteration, the Aurat March continues to evoke myriad strong reactions before and after its commencement each year. This time, the top trend on Twitter the night leading to the March hurled unfounded allegations of ‘foreign funding’ at it. This was borne of the popular belief in the country that women coming out in hordes to make preposterous demands—such as for human rights—are surely working at the behest of some unnamed, foreign entity seeking to dismantle the cultural and religious values of Pakistan.
Regardless of the noise, those looking to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8 did not lose momentum.
It was, after all, what many of them have come to lovingly call the ‘chaand raat‘ before their symbolic Eid. The parallel is not unfounded, for the excited scramble to scribble colourful slogans on banners, coordinate plans, and share ideas is not far from the childish fervour of matching outfits, drawing henna designs on each other’s palms, and placing bets on Eidi collections. Both experiences involve the unabashed indulgence in the self, and the unrivalled celebration of the other; sisterhood is seldom a dismal affair, despite what television tropes would have us imagine.
Following the March this year, its organisers and participants were hit with perhaps the strongest weapon this country’s citizens can wield against anyone: accusations of blasphemy. With disinformation and doctored videos amplified as ‘proof’ by reckless personalities, there began a trend on social media calling for the marchers to be hanged—yes—while members of the religious right sought to file legal cases.
In spite of punishment as petty as mockery and as dire as death threats, the Aurat March resists.
Neither hateful trends nor tilted narratives have so far succeeded in strangling the spirit imbibing the March. The successful staging of the Aurat March across multiple major cities for four consecutive years is no mean feat, even as its loud popularity has ushered in louder opposition.
The refusal of the marchers to engage with violence or cower before it nods to a resolve driven by a force unshakeable—one that perseveres in the face of harrowing mental, physical, and emotional costs.
Footage of the March in Islamabad last year is telling: as a crowd of enraged fundamentalists hurls bricks, stones, and abuse at the marchers from beyond a security barricade, the marchers defiantly raise their fists and wave their flags in a powerful display of strength. The refusal of the marchers to engage with violence or cower before it nods to a resolve driven by a force unshakeable—one that perseveres in the face of harrowing mental, physical, and emotional costs.
This force, stripped down, is love. A prominent banner at Aurat March Lahore 2021 loudly proclaimed: “Love is Revolution.” Feminist theorist bell hooks held similar beliefs. “The moment we choose to love, we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others,” she wrote.
This love was visible at the March this year, again, when marchers lent their voices to strangers’ around them to raise slogans that would cut above the crowd. At the Aurat March in Lahore, as one woman cried “Hum le ker rahein ge” [We will take back our], she met a resounding echo of “Azaadi!” [Freedom!].
The fervour was replicated when a crowd of hundreds of women and gender minorities, men and allies, chanted “Alina! Alina!” as transgender performer Alina Khan—the lead actor in award-winning film Darling, screened at the Venice Film Festival—danced before the crowd. The organisers had announced that the performer did not receive any laurels at her home country despite winning abroad, and the marchers responded by offering her a thundering round of applause.
The March was a safe space for Alina Khan because it celebrated her and spoke for her rights. One of the demands of Aurat March Lahore this year espoused the transgender community’s right to equitable healthcare facilities.
In a display of solidarity with working-class women, performers at the March also executed a mesmerising choreography with jhaaroos [straw brooms] to Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh Shah’s “Main Churrheytri Aan“[“I am a peasant”]. Such performances were not only deeply entrenched within South Asian history and culture, contrary to the notion of the March promoting western values, but also symbolic of the Aurat March’s focus on elevating marginalised groups in Pakistan.
The manifestoes of all Aurat March chapters, every year, detail practical demands for the government to empower disadvantaged sections of the Pakistani society.
The demands of Aurat March Lahore, in line with this year’s theme of women’s health, included a rise in the dwindling healthcare budget to 5% of the GDP in the 2021-22 fiscal year, the recognition of gender-based violence as a healthcare issue, and easy access to COVID-19 vaccination across all classes, genders, religious and ethnic minorities. The charter of demands also addressed the urban-rural divide in healthcare, gendered violence at birth, the widespread phenomenon of child marriage, and the recognition of pollution and climate change as harmful to citizens’ health.
It is a common occurrence for the Aurat March each year to be reduced to an endless debate on morality. The attacks levelled at the March, online and offline, are infused with rage at the notion of ‘respectable’ Pakistani women fighting against what the Aurat March has dubbed “patriarchy ka pandemic” [the pandemic of patriarchy]. While the vitriol often intends to dilute the message, or the controversial ‘agenda,’ of the March, it ironically ends up amplifying its existence.
In one way, a lot of the power carried by the March is conferred to it by those who revile it. If the act of simply marching is deemed defiance, then defiant it shall be.
Anger and rebellion are prominent within the March, witnessed in its diverse slogans and performances. Marching, dancing, and shouting on roads that women are so often leered, catcalled, and harassed on is bound to evoke pent-up rage and roaring emotions. And so, the air at every Aurat March trembles with electric energy, as onlookers hurry to document the spectacle before them.
This year at Aurat March Lahore, the display of ‘laundry’ on cloth lines—dirtied with gendered violence and marking the ages of the survivors when it occurred—provided an awe-inspiring visual that will remain memorised by all witnesses.
From laying bare the marks of violence left on women’s bodies, to questioning the state’s lack of protection for gender and other minorities, the Aurat March is a reckoning that grows stronger every passing year. It has made its mark within Pakistan’s public conscience by occupying discussion, debate, and even controversy. In entering the national lexicon, it has made history. It has defied notions of shame and propriety by asking important questions out loud, and it has made every person within Pakistan to have suffered patriarchal violence know that someone will fight for them.
It has made its mark within Pakistan’s public conscience by occupying discussion, debate, and even controversy. In entering the national lexicon, it has made history.
The growing popularity of the Aurat March is testimony to its need. All participants or supporters of the March do not necessarily espouse the same politics, values, religion, or agenda, but they all see themselves reflected in some part of it. At the heart of the Aurat March and the rage that propels it is the hope to strive for better, and the passion to pursue it in the face of dangerous odds.
A banner carried at Aurat March Lahore this year read a verse from Ahmad Faraz’s poem “Mat Qatl Karo Aawazon Ko” [Do not murder the voices]: “Ham log mohabbat vaale haiñ/ tum ḳhanjar kyuuñ lahrāte ho” [We are the people of love/ Why do you wave your daggers?].
Revolutions die in a dearth of care. For the Aurat March to have kept pulling crowds screaming solidarity, sisterhood, and freedom, there is little doubt it is driven by pure love for the cause and the future it envisions. With the way the tides are turning, it appears to be one worth marching for.