Why is the Aurat March so controversial?

Basil Dogra puts in context the conservative uproar over Aurat March

Why is the Aurat March so controversial?
Aurat March has recently gained much public attention, especially after the slogans of its 2019 edition, which caused a severe backlash from the conservative elements of society.

But just what is Aurat March? Organizers of the March say that it is an awareness campaign similar to May 1, which intends to highlight the plight and subjugation of women in Pakistan, and call for their emancipation.

Despite the apparent noble intentions of the cause, it is still a controversial subject that is hotly debated on media and in public spaces. To understand the reasons for this, we need to look at the sociological and political context of the movement.

Pakistan was founded by liberal Muslim elite, nurtured in the Enlightenment-influenced Modernist traditions of the Aligarh Movement. Since the day the country was founded, a number of political groups have attempted to tweak the social fabric of Pakistan. Although the term social fabric has different meanings in different contexts, in the discussion that shall follow, the term is intended to mean the ‘culture and values of a society’ - more specifically the extent to which a society is religious versus secular.

Historically, the social fabric of the region has been characterized as ‘multicultural’ and ‘tolerant’ to difference of belief, opinion and culture. The quest to actively shape Pakistan’s fabric is likely to have begun with the early Muslim League rule from 1947-1958 when, in an attempt to build national cohesion, the project to Islamize the society was first started with the passage of the Objectives Resolution of 1949. Then in 1958, the project went the other way when Ayub Khan, another member of the Aligarh elite, took power and began his project, this time to secularize the fabric. When Khan’s rule ended in 1969, his political protege Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto somewhat continued his trajectory until 1977.

Although these regimes attempted to alter the fabric, their efforts were mostly superficial and paled in comparison to what was to come during General Zia-ul-Haq’s rule from 1977 to 1988. Besides, both Ayub Khan and Bhutto always faced fierce resistance from conservative groups, and often caved in to their pressure.

For instance, Ayub Khan eventually had to rename Pakistan as the ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan’ and Bhutto ended up declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims. Moreover, these individuals cannot be held ‘completely’ responsible for these happenings, as a large number of other actors must have been in play in the settings of those times.

From 1977 to 1988, however, the project to Islamize society went ahead unabated. While the effects of earlier projects were limited, General Zia’s endeavors knew no bounds and ended up profoundly transforming society. Zia’s project was again rooted in the strong urge of the ruling establishment to ensure national unity, especially after the trauma caused by the separation of East Pakistan.

Zia’s rule ended with a much-distorted social fabric, and the regimes that followed continued with mild attempts to tweak the fabric, but the effects of these efforts were not too profound. In 1999, however, a socially liberal general took over, and tried to undo the harm that was done by Zia. On the whole, General Pervez Musharraf’s regime saw the country’s social fabric move towards a more secular direction. Interestingly enough, the regimes that succeeded Musharraf in the post-2007 period have now apparently lost interest in reshaping the social fabric.

But when and why does a society’s social fabric become secular or religious?

Social scientists might have some answers for us. Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan in the USA and Christian Welzel of Leuphana University in Germany have done seminal work to build our understanding of why and based on what determinants societies form and change their social fabric.

Inglehart and Welzel explain that the values of societies around the world can be placed on two continuums. The values can range from being either traditional to secular-rational, or survival to self-expression.

As lower income countries have populations that are vulnerable, they tend to develop values that are focused on survival. People in these populations are worried about shelter, food and making ends meet, and so they are likely to cultivate values that emphasize ‘physical and economic security’. As a result, the lower income countries tend to be traditional, that is, they place high stress on family, parent-child ties, religious beliefs, celebration of the past, and deference to authority – a hallmark of Islamist groups that vociferously oppose Aurat March.

Because of the values and traditions of underdeveloped societies, the collective i.e. the family or kin, becomes more important than an individual. Each individual works to ensure that the collective survives, and in the process, the individual loses his/her personal freedom. For example, parents place more importance on rearing children over their personal happiness. Women, especially, have to give up their careers and freedom to serve their families.

Additionally, these societies are generally patriarchal in nature because females have to rely on males for physical and economic security. The practices that emphasize individual freedom – such as divorce, independence/equality of women – are strongly discouraged, and the abuse, harassment and mistreatment of women who ‘do not conform’ becomes ‘justified’ in these settings. Since men are perceived to possess authority over women, and any authority is intrinsically abusive, the women who ‘do conform’ also end up experiencing similar treatment. In addition, eve-teasing of women can also be explained by the practice of rigorous gender segregation, but that will be beyond the scope of this article.

Higher income countries, on the other hand, have populations that are not so vulnerable; consequently, survival is taken for granted. These societies as a result have values that are generally secular and rational, and emphasize self-expression and individualism. Hence, the people in Western societies, for example, place a lot of attention on ‘lifestyle’ and ‘pursuit of happiness’. An individual becomes more important than the collective, and there is less emphasis on family, religion, authority and traditions. Moreover, women are less likely to sacrifice their freedom, independence and career for the service of their families because care for children and the elderly can now be outsourced.

A few words of caution are in order, though. Readers must keep in mind that the philosophical, religious and cultural heritage of a nation has some role to play determining its values, as pointed out by Inglehart and Welzel. For example, the impact of Zia’s regime can be helpful in explaining the conservative character of Pakistani society. Moreover, the values of a nation can also determine its income level, and not the other way around (as is described above). Finally, I have explained Ingleart-Welzel’s theory in a superficial manner and interested readers are encouraged to explore the original work.

Now to apply this theory in the context of Pakistan. With a modest increase in wealth over the years, an upper/upper-middle class, educated and brought up in the culture of affluent Western societies (including myself obviously) has increased in size. This class strongly values and promotes individual freedom, agency and equality of women. The conservative elements, on the other hand, feel that their identity, traditions and way of life are threatened, and thus react strongly to any effort at promoting ‘liberal’ values.

Religious and conservative groups, such as Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) and Jamaat-e-Islami, have accordingly threatened to use violence to stop Aurat March, and have organized their own ‘Haya March’ (literally meaning ‘modesty march’).

While the cultural values of Pakistani society are oppressive, especially towards women, they are the norm among most sections of the society – predominantly excluding, of course, the largely educated and well-off classes that are more likely to read this article.

Sadly and ironically, as the liberal elite clashes with the religious elite over the rights of women in general, the working class women of Pakistan remain largely indifferent to this controversy, even when they have been most victimized by traditional patriarchal values.

This is likely to be the case for two reasons that I can think of. Firstly, a significant proportion of them might have never heard of the ideas of feminism, or may be unable to relate to them. Secondly, a large part of their attention is usually focused on making ends meet. This can be especially the case when 90% women in Pakistan’s labour force never clear high school and 80% earn a monthly wage of less than 15,000 rupees, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics’ 2017-18 Labour Force Survey.

Besides, it is an established fact that all human beings attach great importance to their culture and values, and since many women in Pakistan are brought up in a deeply conservative and patriarchal culture, they are also attached to it – and may take an active part in enforcing it. This probably explains why some women choose to vocally oppose Aurat March rather than support it.

The writer is a student of Social Sciences at Forman Christian College in Lahore. He tweets at @BasilDogra and can be reached by email at basildogra@live.com