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How a handful of posters from the Aurat March drove a wedge between women fighting for their rights

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How a handful of posters from the Aurat March drove a wedge between women fighting for their rights

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The rights of women, especially of girls born to more conservative brown households, are often debated, argued and sometimes even repressed. The struggle to attain these rights however, is often outright rejected, deemed radical and even considered an insult to long-standing religious and cultural ideologies.

Police brutality on a demonstration against the ‘Law of Evidence’ in Lahore on February 12, 1983 [File: Rahat Ali Dar/Courtesy of Shirkatgah Women’s Resource Centre]

Backlash against feminist movements in Pakistan has always existed, with so-called religious political parties often helming the opposition, but the Aurat March is probably one of the most widely criticised feminist movements in the country. What’s odd about the criticism this time is that much of it is coming from other women – who also claim to be feminists in their own right.

The first year of the women’s march in Pakistan, called the ‘Aurat March’ went almost unnoticed except for a poster that somehow managed to drive half of the nation into a collective fit.

The culprit was an orange poster that read ‘Khud Khana Garam Karo’ (warm your food yourself).

The poster that became a movement in itself.

Critics questioned the relevance of the slogan at a march for women’s rights, talk about child marriage and rape they said, what’s feminism got to do with food? They clearly missed the point. Growing up, girls and women are reminded constantly that it is their job to warm food for their spouses and families. With the role of women evolving in society and multiple households switching to a two-income structure, is it wholly unprecedented that kitchen duties also be divided?

While this poster was critiqued, a majority of women nodded their approval, looking to their husbands and sons. Shaan Foods was so impressed that two years later, when it discovered that men posses the capability to cook, they launched an entire campaign and released a poorly directed web-series.

But it wasn’t until a year after the initial march that almost every poster from Aurat March 2019 made breaking news stories on all local news channels, with many calling the slogans ‘vulgar’ and the protestors holding them up ‘behaya’ (immodest). The media handpicked select posters that would polarise people on the edge further, making them dub the entire movement as elitist and leftist. 

Take a look inside what happened during the Aurat March 2019.

The media narrative of the Aurat March along and the one sided coverage culminated in an ever increasing divide between women themselves.

The conversation diverted from fighting for women’s rights to identifying who an ‘actual feminist’ was. This redirection was not spearheaded by the women and men who resorted to outright harassment of those who participated in the march, but by those who participated in the march themselves and those who chose not to participate – as they felt their version of feminism wasn’t being accurately portrayed.

The debates ended with posters such as ‘Mera jism meri marzi’ and ‘no more dic*tatorship’ being used as evidence to prove points.

The presence and participation of school girls from rural areas, transgender women, men and women from the lower socio-economic strata and more was overlooked again and again. The mothers who brought their daughters to show them the power of the female collective was cast into the shadows.

But the movement that seemed revolutionary might fizzle out and remain a missed opportunity.

What many fail to realise is that the Aurat March is a representation of every individual who is stepping out of their house and raising their voice. It is an opportunity to express each individuals interpretation of empowerment. If the women on the offence don’t take the opportunity to make the movement their own, they’ll be missing out the chance to be heard and shaping a movement that is supposed to stand for all women.

On the flip side, the organisers and supporters of the movement need to be more inclusive of women who stand for a less liberal form of feminism – not only on the day of the march but also in how the narrative of the march is built. Contrary to what has been witnessed in the past few decades, it is possible for liberals and conservatives to co-exist and work towards the collective aim of bettering the lives of millions of women in Pakistan.

It will be entirely unfortunate if the movement which seemed revolutionary never grows to become the multifaceted behemoth needed to exact change.

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