Despite Pressure from Social Media Mobs, Women Reclaim Their Space in Society

On March 8, 2021, as women took to the streets to celebrate International Women’s Day, they challenged the patriarchal structures that dictate the norms of Pakistani society. Thousands of women across the country sought to fight back against sexual violence, child abuse, honor killing, domestic violence and the myriad of other human rights violations rooted in patriarchy inflicted on the underprivileged of the country.

The Aurat March, an yearly national protest and rally, has been a nation-wide event that has attracted attacks and controversies since its inception in 2018. It especially did not sit right with certain segments of society, who believe in tradition and cultural preservation above all, even if the prevailing culture is harmful to women, trans people and minorities. One needs to look no further than Twitter, where #SayNoToFeminism, #OurStrengthIsOurFamily, #Hijab4Body_Haya4Soul and  #آوارہ_بدنسل_عورت_مارچ were trending.

Right after the march on March 8 and 9, another hashtag #DharnaAgainstAuratMarch also began trending, advocating for opposers of Aurat March to take to the streets to protest the march. A group of women that protests against the march on International Women’s Day has already been organising their own rally simultaneously and equate the Aurat March with immorality. The rally called Haya March is composed of members from religious groups including Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) (JUI-F), Jamia Hafsa and Sunni Ittehad. Last year, as Haya March was organised at the same location as Aurat March in Islamabad, the members of this rally allegedly attacked the Aurat March and threw stones, shoes and batons at participants of the Aurat March. While there was no action against this attack on a peaceful protest, the support for the Haya March, which claims that the Aurat March spreads immorality and ruins the family system, has only increased with impunity.

Aurat March challenging patriarchal societal norms

Despite the constant challenges, criticism and attacks, the years-long struggle of women to demand and acquire equal rights for themselves and others in the country continues to advance at the expense of the safety of its participants and organisers. Faryal, a member of Awami Workers Party (AWP) and participant of the march, said the biggest criticism the march faces is that it is against Pakistani moral values. “Is it against our moral values to speak about economic justice, or about harassment, rape and housing? If you think these demands are against our moral values, then maybe we should re-evaluate our moral values,” she said.

Another trend in the aforementioned hashtags criticising Aurat March popular on Twitter is that of a woman’s role as a protector of her modesty and virtue. Despite this, the sexualisation of women at the Aurat March ran rampant on the microblogging website where the hashtag campaigns are run, with many objectifying the dances performed by women, including trans women, at the march. Rameeza, an activist and writer from Lahore, called this expression of freedom at the march a historic moment that was a “celebration of joy,” but one which was sexualised at the event and on social media by some people, which largely included men. Rameeza is of the opinion that the Aurat March presents a safe space for women to express themselves in ways they otherwise can’t. According to her, “If we’re dancing, it’s because we feel safe enough to do so.”

Rameeza also cited a video of an event at Quaid-e-Azam University in which a group of men did the Atan dance, which was celebrated on social media. She called out the hypocrisy of the reaction to the march, saying, “Women doing the same thing is behaya, not to be respected… We’re sexualised in any shape and form so I don’t know how women are supposed to protect their modesty.”

Similarly, Faryal said the rhetoric surrounding modesty promotes the idea that it is women’s primary role to safeguard it. “Can men not control themselves? You won’t train them or hold them accountable, but you’ll focus only on one gender (like you’ve done) for decades. How will society progress?”

Digital violence against women during the march

Faryal said that last year, there was a definite increase in the amount of gendered insults and attacks against women on social media. Doxxing and stalking of participants and organisers are commonplace during and after the march. Women who attend the march are personally targeted, with their pictures and videos seeing an influx of rape and death threats. Faryal shares, “These were not illiterate or uneducated people. These were well educated people who were giving rape threats to organisers. This is a self-explanatory reason for why we march.”

Similarly, Rameeza said a photo of her and her sister traveling to the march in a rickshaw prompted harassment from men in the comments when she shared it on her Twitter profile. With over 7,000 followers on Twitter, she is no stranger to gendered insults and threats. However, she said that she has to mentally prepare herself for the increase in “vile insults” that will be inevitably thrown her way when she uses hashtags promoting the march. “(Men) are also frothing at the mouths… like ‘you can march on the streets but we’ll make your life hell for it and show you your place at the end.’”

Fundraising activities for the march

In the days leading up to the protest, a more insidious form of online trolling reared its head: disinformation. What seemed like part of a pre-planned campaign, a hashtag #ForeignFundedAuratMarch was trending, with unverified allegations against the organisers of accepting money from foreign entities to fund the event.

Contrary to what many who used the hashtag say, the ways in which the organisers raise funds is transparent and public. Women Democratic Front member and Islamabad organiser Zoya Rehman said the organisers rely on individual donations and internal fundraising efforts.

“We had a Valentine’s Day sort of special event that was organised by a very young volunteer called Dil Jalay. Then we did two Auratnaak and Mystical Shayari shows, and we also did a bake sale. We also sold merchandise so a lot of the designs that we got from volunteers etcetera over the past year, we printed them into badges, stickers, posters, and we sold them at our events,” she informed.

These efforts raised a total of about PKR 4.2 lakh for the Islamabad march. Notably, Zoya said that offers to help from diplomats and ambassadors are categorically denied by the organisers of the march. “This is a very localised contextualised struggle, and we believe in being self-sufficient and not relying on any foreign entity or NGO, be it national or international, or a government entity. As far as feminist movement building work is concerned, it has to sustain itself. We believe in that very adherently.”

The threat of disinformation to women

The unverified claims that the march is funded by foreign countries intentionally promotes the idea that the Aurat March is a move to normalise “vulgarity” and “indecency.” It’s a quick way to rally backlash against the movement, inspiring self-righteous anger in a virtual space that is already unsafe for women and trans people. Not only does this result in even more misogynistic comments on social media, it also leads to gendered threats of sexual violence, often from the people whose concern surrounds women’s modesty and virtue. Worse still is how this behavior has become a routine part of the organisers’ lives, something they have neither the will nor time to address unless it poses a real threat.

A large part of the backlash also stems from the lack of research, as many people do not engage with the group’s social media campaign or its manifesto. An example of this is the claim that the French flag was hoisted at the Islamabad event, feeding into the allegation that the Aurat March is foreign funded. Despite clarification from the organisers and grassroots movement Women Democratic Front regarding what the said flag represents, the claim persists.

The fear that the yearly protest is a “western” agenda bent on polluting local culture is not founded in fact either. A doctored video with fake subtitles began circulating on Twitter recently, alleging that the chants at the Aurat March were defamatory to Islam. Despite evidence to the contrary, it has prompted online backlash, endangering the lives of participants and organisers. Although it has now been debunked by several journalists, the damage has already been done. March organisers and participants, who already face threats and backlash due to mis/disinformation against them, are now having to fight back against more allegations and misinformation.

Zoya says, “A lot of people who benefit from the patriarchy, be it men or women, can’t stomach the fact that women are coming out, they’re fighting for their rights, they’re actually being vocal about the kind of oppression they experience, not only in public spaces but also in private spaces in their homes. They’re talking about small everyday resistances.”

It makes sense that people who benefit from current patriarchal structures do not want these systems challenged. Questioning the status quo is neither easy nor safe, particularly in a country like Pakistan, where gendered violence and disinformation prevail.

Despite this, there is some hope on the horizon. Pakistan is slowly but surely seeing a rise in discourse about women and trans rights, at least on social media. Fringe right wing groups and supporters are countered by a growing movement that believes in justice and equality for all. Zoya remarks, “There are always going to be naysayers but we’re glad that in Pakistan’s urban spaces, this movement is really catching on. A lot more people volunteer every year. The march of each year is better than the last one, so we see only progress.”

Romessa Nadeem is a Project Coordinator at Media Matters for Democracy, which runs the Digital Rights Monitor.

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