Understanding hatred against #Aurat March in Pakistan

The setting was legitimate enough – it was the International Women’s Day 2019 and just like many countries across the world, various demonstrations for women rights were planned in Pakistan. However, the main demonstration, Aurat March, brought with it, a slightly complicated ‘history’ – for even though the march was just initiated last year in 2018, it remained in the minds of people due to one simple poster that had attracted endless backlash. The poster reading ‘کھانا خود گرم کر لو’ in reference to the unfair distribution of domestic and household responsibilities had struck a raw nerve. It became the focus of various memes. In public imagination became synonymous with rebellion – of course the rebellion was seen as a good thing by feminist and a cause for alarm by anti feminist forces.

In 2019, charged from the experiences of 2018, and confident in the show of solidarity, the Aurat March expanded from a couple of cities to at least seven cities including Lahore, Faisalabad, Islamabad, Peshawar, Karachi, Hyderabad and Larkana.  More women marched for their rights. A more detailed manifesto was distributed. And as happens in public demonstrations, more frustration and rage, found a way to spill over in the form of posters and placards that some found controversial.

Unfortunately, as the scale of Aurat March grew, so did the opposition and the hate.

Different social media users have been hurling different accusations against the organizers and participants. Some posts have accused the marchers of “disrespecting women.”

According to the organizers, the march was aimed at expressing solidarity with women from across Pakistan and push for accountability and restorative justice against violence, standing with women who experience violence and harassment at the workplace, at home, in public spaces and at the hands of security forces. A copy of their charter of demands is also available online.

However, looking at the hate being spewed online, one would get the impression that the March’s intent was much more sinister.  A whole week after the march, abuse, hate and resentment against the women who marched continues, Some have even questioned the religious credentials of feminists participating in the march.

Some posts have also been accompanied with abuses.

Interestingly, the social media users critical of Aurat March are not all men. Some women have even jumped to criticize the organizers and participants for “humiliating” women.

What went wrong?

To deconstruct and understand the online hatred against Aurat March, Digital Rights Monitor reached out to some of the women participants of  the march.

They were of the view that the whole purpose of the Aurat March was to start a broader conversation around women’s rights.

Aleena Alavi, Head of Legal department at Careem,  said in her personal capacity: “we are this point in the society where people are asking, “why do women have to march” and “why do you have to come out”. The whole idea of this march is to start this discourse.  “

Dr. Nida Kirmani, associate professor at LUMS, also did not seem perturbed about the hatred and called it part of the discussion. “I think mostly men and some women are reacting negatively because some of the messages on the posters actually disturb the very foundations of the patriarchal order. Any threat to the status quo is seen as a threat, especially to those in power, but even to those women who can’t imagine a way out.”

Sadaf Khan, Co-founder Media Matters for Democracy, added that the march challenged taboos. “I think the march breaks so many taboos and raises so many questions that kind of break the status quo a bit. Most of the women aren’t comfortable with it possibly because of internalized misogyny and also because their belief system that is threatened. “

However, they expressed disappointment at the fact that they were getting all the hate for what was written on the placards.

Farieha Aziz, Co-Founder Bolo Bhi, wrote on her twitter timeline: “Hard to understand how what’s written on posters, how people are dressed or what they look like garners more outrage than everday injustices. People should be able to express themselves. You can like, dislike, agree, disagree. But be civil. Not full of hate.”

Sadaf was of the opinion that people were unable to process the deep rooted messages behind the taglines written on the placards. “All this discussion seems to be so literal.  There is supposed to be a discussion on the whole issue behind each poster. The tagline “Mera jism meri marzi” could be about so many rights. It could be about not being forced into a marriage or about acid crime victims.”

Aleena noted that outrage around a few placards was shifting the focus away from the core issues. “..the negativity is focused on a very limited portion of the posts. Obviously, within the Aurat March group, there is a lot of diversity and we obviously need to respect that. At the same time I think that the main focus of the march that was basically taken away because of these very limited posts.”

More troubling is the fact that those criticizing the Aurat March online do not seem aware about the charter of demands presented by the organizers of Aurat March.

Sadaf said: “I don’t think most of the people know that there was a charter of demands. It was circulated in English and Urdu. To be fair it was not very simple to understand. Obviously people are looking to bash the march any way so I am not sure how much of a difference a simplified version would have made.” She added that a simplified version of charter would have been helpful to defend the Aurat March. “Yes it would have given tool to other people who are trying to defend other feminists who are getting all the hate-speech.”

Shmyla Khan, one of the organizers of Lahore Azadi March noted that they made some efforts to publicize the charter of demands even before the march. “Given criticism last year, we made an effort to publicise the manifesto through printing and videos on social media. We made the manifesto formative a collaborative effort, so that a diverse set of voices could be included. We also held a press conference leading up to the march to present our demands. The backlash has less to do with the lack of work on the manifesto but more of a reflection of the deep hatred of women occupying public space, defying gender roles and claiming their sexuality.”  She further added the demands were also reiterated during the speeches at the march.  “The March is deeply political and those who attended will know that the demands were represented through speeches from a diverse set of speakers.”

Noting that the march was not only an effort to propagate demands, but also a chance for women to occupy public spaces and be themselves, Shmyla said: “A strong focus on the manifesto should go hand in hand with other tools women use to call our sexist and rape culture–humour is both political and important.”

Shmyla was also of the opinion that those unwilling to engage would keep finding new faults within the march. “We will continue our outreach efforts to publicise the manifesto next year as well, but honestly those not willing to engage will find new faults.”

However, It would take some time before people would be more receptive towards women marching on the streets.  Dr. Nida said: “Change does not happen overnight. It is gradual. This is all part of the struggle.” She added that as more people were involved in this process, “the more we can work to spread the message before and after the march through different forums.”

Aleena noted that people were still coming to terms with the fact an event like “Aurat March” happened “This is something very new for the public to see women come out and march as well as male feminists and other allies.  So I think people are still trying to understand what is happening and I think this is a great way of starting that debate,” said Aleena.

Mindful of the fact that the reaction of the people towards Aurat March would not change overnight, efforts should be made to broaden the network of allies around the next Aurat March. Maleeha Mengal, Media Officer of Asma Jehangar Legal Aid Center,  said: “What we need to do is we have to join hands with all women rights organisations, civil society members etc and organise even larger marches so that there are more people to send out a loud message saying we stand together to show we are here and we will stay here until we get our rights.”

Sadaf added: “The whole discussion around March needs to happen throughout the year so that before the next Aurat march, you have a bigger group of allies with you.”


Talal Raza is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. He has worked with renowned media organizations and NGOs including Geo News, The Nation, United States Institute of Peace and Privacy International.

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