This grassroots feminist movement won’t stop despite death threats

KARACHI, Pakistan – It’s a rare sight. Hundreds of Pakistani feminists across ethnic and class lines celebrate and mourn together in the Pakistani megacity of Karachi. Behind them, the sun sets over the iconic Quaid Mazar, the mausoleum built for Pakistan’s founding patriarch, who dreamed of a country where minorities could be safe and free. They are all captivated by a woman in a purple blouse speaking on a stage.

“Look at my face, because I’m not asking for anything bad. I’m only asking for wages, security and peace,” says Sarah Gill, Pakistan’s first transgender doctor, removing her surgical mask.

Transgender women face the most systemic violence in Pakistan. Twenty trans women were murdered in the country last year, and all of those cases remain unsolved.

A packed crowd responds by chanting Gill’s words in unison and rhythm. It is a sea of ​​women and allies from day laborers, Christian organizations, trans rights groups, climate activists and women who have dropped out of school, work or their house and jumped on a rickshaw to be here for the Aurat walk. Gill’s words resonated with each of them.

The Aurat or Women’s March is a rights movement that concentrates women and the most marginalized and marginalized groups in Pakistan. It all started organically five years ago, on March 8, International Women’s Day. Every year since, in the nation’s largest cities, women come together and sing, sing and dance to build communities that challenge patriarchal violence and oppression across gender, ethnicity, religion, profession and the class.

This year, hundreds of women and allies gathered across the country, with marches held in Multan, Lahore, Karachi, Hyderabad and Islamabad.

In a country where crippling violence against women and minorities makes daily headlines, dozens of feminists danced and shamelessly chanted slogans for freedom, equality and justice.

Just two days before the march, a man from Pakistan’s Mianwali district shot dead his one-week-old daughter four times in cold blood – because he wanted a son, not a daughter. In February, the brother of Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch was acquitted of his 2016 murder in the name of “honor”. In July 2021, wealthy socialite Zahir Jaffer beheaded artist Noor Mukadam after he refused to marry her; he was sentenced to death last month.

Posters with Noor’s name were on all the steps. The violence she suffered from a despised and empowered man is something all Pakistani women can relate to.

Especially the organizers of the march. Every year, they receive rape and death threats from online accounts, some anonymous and some not, and brazen fake propaganda from YouTubers portraying them as “vulgar” women to spread sexuality and sexuality. immorality in the Islamic republic of 200 million people.

Despite this barrage of negativity, march organizers strive to make the movement an inclusive and celebratory sisterhood that shares joy, healing and resistance, and centers the nation’s most oppressed women.

“Living in fear is our daily life, it’s the norm for us. This is the only day when we can really come and not be afraid and feel like something is going to happen to us, because we have our sisters by our side,” said Sana Jafri, volunteer at Aurat March in Lahore , to VICE World News.

In the city of Karachi, Shaheen Gull, who grew up in a small village and now studies performing arts in the city, rapped on stage: “I’m a biker. I am a fighter girl. The crowd went wild as the student sang about the struggles women like her face when commuting between home and school. Then she read a poem about child victims of sexual abuse in their homes. And everyone listened darkly. A rural folk singer then sang a centuries-old Sufi song, and the women stood up and performed the ritual Sufi dance of dhamaal.

In Islamabad, women wrote their hopes for a feminist future on strips of fabric they hung on trees. In Lahore, a living art memorial honored the lives of the 20 murdered transgender women. A procession of trans activists covered in fake blood held a sheet over their heads and chanted, “She woke up, the trans woman woke up,” as the crowd showered them with rose petals.

“Aurat March offers us a break of relief where we can finally release our collective anxieties. It allows us to reclaim our stories, our spaces and the happiness that so many bruised male egos have violently robbed us of,” Karachi resident Khaula Shahid, 21, told VICE World News.

In 2021, the Pakistani Ministry of Human Rights reported 16,153 cases of sexual violence against women, including workplace harassment, in the previous four years. According to Human Rights Watch, an average of 1,000 women are murdered in Pakistan each year. However, most crimes against women and sexual minorities go largely unreported.

That is why for many, walking equals survival. “There were a lot of security threats this time around and we knew a lot could happen, but honestly it makes us want to walk more because every day is a threat to our security,” Jafri said.

And the threats are serious. When the marchers gather, right-wing religious groups and misogynistic media mislabel the march as a movement to spread immorality, instead of a freedom movement for women to exist and thrive, endangering lives organizers and participants.

In 2020, protesters in Islamabad were physically assaulted by religious conservatives armed with batons and rocks. Last year, doctored videos and images appeared online that attempted to portray participants as shouting blasphemous slogans.

In Pakistan, blasphemy charges carry the death penalty, and even simple blasphemy charges can lead to deadly mob violence. The disinformation campaign has led to numerous death threats against organizers, including an ominous warning from the Pakistani Taliban to “fix their ways”. As a result, many organizers were forced into hiding. The police too sued for blasphemy against the organizers of the march in Islamabad. A court later dismissed the charges.

This year was no different. In February, hardliners from the political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) tried to stop the march by threatening mob violence.

“We reported the threats to the district administration, but received no response in this regard. In fact, they repeatedly stressed that they were powerless against right-wing groups,” an Islamabad-based organizer from a local chapter of the Aurat march told VICE World News on condition of anonymity for their safety.

March 8, March Day, Aurat March Islamabad Twitter alleged that the police and district administration continued to disrupt the event by turning off speakers’ microphones, threatening their driver and preventing attendees from reaching the venue. The Islamabad march ended early.

Meanwhile, religious and conservative groups staged an opposing rally called ‘Haya’ or modesty march at the Islamabad Press Club. Director of the Jamia Hafsa religious seminary, Umme Hassan, reportedly said the Aurat walkers deserved the same fate as Noor Mukadam.

In Lahore, marchers from religious groups organizing a modesty march positioned themselves 200 meters from the Aurat rally and became increasingly aggressive, chanting hateful slogans aimed at the Aurat marchers. Hostile male reporters were seen harassing marchers, and at least one railed against trans women at the rally. The Lahore march also ended early due to disruption from those opposing it. Some were annoyed by an art installation that featured cardboard cutouts of YouTube journalists calling them out for sensationalizing, misrepresenting and harassing Aurat walkers in the past.

In one incident, a reporter repeatedly harassed trans women and march organizers by using derogatory slurs and questioning the presence of trans people at the event. The Lahore march also ended early under the combined pressure of police, media and unruly counter-protesters.

In Karachi, the march was almost called off when the city administration challenged a rainbow graffiti that appeared near the march venue. They claimed organizers put it up to promote vulgarity during the march.

“They said we created the wall art promoting ‘obscenity.’ Neither we nor our allies had anything to do with it. It didn’t even look like a rainbow. It it was about two emoticons kissing,” a Karachi-based organizer told VICE World News, requesting anonymity for their safety. Similar reactions from authorities harassed organizers in the city of Multan.

Despite all the opposition and backlash, the marches continued and the spirit of intersectional sisterhood and female solidarity prevailed.

“We are organizing because we don’t want to remain reactionary and constantly fighting fires,” an Islamabad march organizer told VICE World News, also requesting anonymity for their safety. “We want to see our own feminist utopia. In fact, we want to move forward. We want to build something creative, sustainable and hopeful.

From the eve of the Aurat March until sunset on the day itself, Pakistani women find safety and bravery in each other. The march has become a space where women can freely express their feminist politics. They shamelessly organize and celebrate, with their most oppressed sisters at the center every year, to challenge the system that tries to suffocate and diminish them all.

“We cried all year. This is the day we leave and celebrate with each other because we are still alive,” Jafri said. “And we will celebrate as long as we live.”

To follow Rimal Farroukh and Sahar Habib Ghazi on Twitter.