Why Pakistani Women Have Marched Despite the Backlash

Why Pakistani Women Have Marched Despite the Backlash
“She is like a son to us,” said the proud parents of a daughter independently supporting her family. In Pakistan, daughters are often seen as a burden or a debt to be paid off whereas sons are commonly perceived as a support system for the family. Daughters are often expected to remain confined to the domestic sphere of life, where all their attention is towards the needs of the husband and children. In the aspect of caretaking and support, a daughter cannot look after her parents like a son would.

If, by any chance, a daughter ends up breaking the shackles of domestication through seeking autonomy, her identity ends up being morphed into that of a son’s. The very narrative of an independent daughter being a ‘beta’ and not a ‘beti’ to her parents has strong underlying patriarchal roots. Girls are robbed of their identity when they strive to be anything more that the cookie-cutter version of a woman constructed by society.

Fortunately, these concepts are being gradually left behind due to the feminist movement in Pakistan. The Pakistani feminist movement goes as far back as 1927 when the All India Women's Conference was founded initially to broaden the educational scope for women. Later, it started working on other facets of women's rights issues and gender equality. Since the independence of Pakistan in 1947, multiple organiations have worked for the cause day and night.

A significant historical moment for feminist occurred in the 1980s during Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation. Women protested against the unsubstantiated restrictions, and consequently, faced a lot of resistance and backlash from the state. However, despite such aggression, women gallantly fought back and made themselves heard and seen. These efforts resulted in the foundation of the first women's bank and police station in Pakistan.

In the present day, the Aurat March has dominated the feminist discourse by garnering immense support from not only women and gender minorities but also a substantial number of male allies. Though there has been harsh criticism of the movement, the March has normalised feminism over the past years by sparking engaging debates and conversations around patriarchy.

Due to these historical and present-day feminist contributions, several life-altering changes have occurred to improve the quality of life of women. These changes can be as grand as state-level policies or as small as day-to-day experiences.

Previously male-dominated public spaces and facilities are now opening their doors to women. For instance, in Lahore, several girls reported that their Uber driver refused to give them a ride because of their gender. Now, due to the prevalent feminist discourse, such cases are becoming a rare occurrence. The same goes for mobile shop arcades: often packed with men, they are now offering space to girls.

When I bought my first smartphone, the salesperson was not willing to talk about the technical specifications of the phone. Instead, he was focused on telling me that the camera works perfectly, implying that my interests as a girl are limited to clicking selfies on my phone. Recently, when I went to the same shop after a decade, the attitude had changed. The salesperson was using all the technical terms that he once assumed I would not understand.

Unfortunately, not all the changes are proving to be favourable for Pakistani women. The idea of women being independent and equal is difficult to grasp for many in a patriarchal setting, since it contradicts a lot of cultural, social, and religious values that the people of this country have been following for hundreds of years. Hence, people have developed different interpretations of various feminist slogans to accommodate their own dissonance.

Let us take the #MeToo movement as an example. On one hand, it completely changed the narrative surrounding rape culture and sexual harassment by encouraging women to speak up for themselves. On the other hand, it symbolises false rape and harassment allegations. Consequently, women who have shared their stories under this hashtag are viewed as attention-seeking liars and become social pariahs, as the men would say, “Be careful with her, she is going to put #MeToo on us."

Similarly, the infamous “my body, my choice” slogan is deeply misunderstood. At its root, the slogan is about bodily autonomy and the right to choose. It captures a spectrum of issues plaguing women’s bodies. For example, a girl suffering from a medical condition was not allowed to undergo surgery by her parents due to the fear of stigma which may result in adverse marriage prospects. Similarly, this slogan is about abortion rights, healthcare, female genital mutilation and even implicit forms of policing such as taking away women’s power to make any life decision. Unfortunately, at the time of Aurat March, this slogan was seen as a threat to the cultural and religious values of the country, as it was perceived as a ruse for somehow “increasing sexual promiscuity.”

In conclusion, the feminist movement in Pakistan is relatively new and immature to make the kind of impact that it did in Western countries. The class divisions and socioeconomic differences amongst Pakistani women determine the rights that they need to fight for. Hence, feminism is not a one-size-fits-all perspective. The resistance against this movement is quite high in Pakistan, but it is hoped that one day women are considered valid enough as a beti or daughter of their proud parents.