Lessons from Aurat March


Khalid Ranjha
MERA jism meri marzi has not only to do with marital rape, autonomy to dress oneself as one desires, genital mutilation and doing what one feels like doing. It is also about expressing ones sexuality as one chooses to do. It is a warning to a brother, uncle, father and a neighbourhood elder not to police the women’s bodies. And if truth is to be told, this is a more significant connotation of the aforementioned slogan. Women and LGBT people in the West and even in the neighbouring India have sexual autonomy as one of their major demands. Women desire to wrest control of their sexuality away from men because men’s control of their bodies restricts their social, economic and political opportunities. And contrary to what a large number of Pakistanis seem to believe, recognising women’s control over their own bodies neither necessarily disturb the traditional family system nor does it lead to sexual anarchy. Women, for instance, enjoy a relative autonomy in the United States of America but Michelle Obama’s (former first lady of the US) admission that she always kept an eye on whom her daughters met and travelled with brings home the fact that people may choose to take socially acceptable choices even in the absence of a moral brigade to monitor their behaviour. However, if their right to control their own bodies is accepted it may go a long way in ensuring that a suitor is not tempted to throw acid on a girl who refuses to marry him, a brother does not get away with killing a sister for choosing a spouse of her own will, and a guy does not abuse a transgender for how he looks like. As Pakistan ranks sixth in the list of the most dangerous countries for women, more than one third of all criminal cases relate to domestic violence, around one thousand women are killed for honour every year, more than sixty women were subjected to acid attacks during 2018 and 2019, thirty two percent of primary school age girls compared to twenty one percent of boys are out of school, participants of the Aurat March are within their rights to demand a little more control over their lives.
However, the public reaction against the Aurat March, particularly after a verbal fight between Marvi Sarmad (a renowned feminist) and Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar (a playwright) has thrown the divide between the conservative majority and the liberal minority in Pakistan into sharp relief. Having been brought up in completely different environments, they seem hardly able to find any common grounds to agree on. It is, as a matter of fact, a reason enough to believe that Pakistan is not yet ready for a sexual revolution of the kind some other societies have gone through. And given the fact that some of the slogans of the last year’s Aurat March drew a negative feedback from a large number of women who are yet unable to understand what feminist movement stands for, those spearheading the movement would perhaps be well advised if they do not give a cultural shock to a society which is not ready to absorb it.
Women in the West began their battle for bodily autonomy from the demand for abortion rights and were able to ask for full control over their own bodies only when their societies had been evolved to the extent that the multitude was supportive to their cause. We, however, by asking for mera jism meri marzi, if it is understood as a demand for sexual autonomy, are perhaps putting the cart before the horse. Those spearheading the feminist movement in Pakistan need to appreciate the fact that Pakistani women are not a monolithic force. Most of the girls in backward areas, say Mardan, Jhang, Multan and Muzaffargarh, in contrast to those who have freed themselves from the most suffocating constraints of the men dominated society are just coming out of the hold of the rigid patriarchy. Some of them have just taken their elders into confidence to let them go into girls exclusive colleges. Others have only recently been able to get their brothers bring newspaper in home. While still others have just managed to get a cable connection by promising their fathers that they would listen only to the news channels. Hence, there is a wide gap of understanding of issues pertaining to bodily autonomy between the conservative majority and the liberal minority. This gap prevails owing to the different literature read by both the sides. Those exposed to non-indigenous literature demand freedom from all sorts of limitations while those having obtained only indigenous knowledge are unable to make sense of the same. And this state of affairs may continue until state tries to bridge this intellectual gap by ensuring a uniform education to every male and female child.
As bridging this deficit of understanding will be a long haul, a careless approach to doing feminism may make matters worse. Such an approach may have a real life impact on real people: a vast majority of women who are cautiously trolling on their path to freedom. Withdrawal of Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act, 2016 in the wake of brutalisation of some women who dared to hold their abusers accountable under the same act serves as a reminder that a provocative approach at this stage may yield results opposite to the intended ones. Women rights activists have thrown in their two cents by fearlessly and vociferously saying what they believe in. And the debate their demands have generated must continue in the best scheme of things. However, there is also a need to tread cautiously. In fact, the very women whose issues need to be taken up in the feminist debates seemed to be amongst the most vocal critics of the ‘my body my choice’ slogan. Feminists, therefore, need to make an effort to explain the new themes they take up in Pakistani context lest they be alienated from the people they are fighting for.
—The writer is a Lahore based Lawyer.