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Pakistan's International Women's Day rallies: Democracy in the making

By Kausar Khan - posted Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Pakistan is at a crossroads. For even though the country has been located at a crossroads since its creation in 1947, this is something new.

There have been more years of military rule than civilian rule in Pakistan. Civilian rule has not been without its flaws. Government is elected by a voting process that, more often than not, is rigged. In many places the poor rural population is told who to vote for, and parties have come together to declare that women may not vote. Civilian rule also tends to be chaotic, as its top leadership does not seem to have a sense of the 'common good' – their own good is what motivates the leadership's domination of institution and processes. There is an old traditional Pakistani saying – 'badsha torai aik phail, awam bagh ujarai' –'the king plucks one fruit, and the public ravages the entire garden'. When the top gets busy amassing wealth, that same spirit trickles down to every level below, and individuals are left to battle through on their own - if they have enough courage and independence to do so.

It is difficult to say how many countries behave in a similar fashion, but it must be acknowledged that when chaotic behavior is witnessed outside Pakistan, many Pakistanis are surprised – 'oops… I thought we were the worst!' But despite the chaos and near-anarchy that prevails, we can also witness a new turn. For the last three years the women of Pakistan, especially the younger women, have been mobilising in their thousands to celebrate the 8th of March – International Women's Day. This year too, thousands assembled in the four major cities of Pakistan, and to these city centers came women from rural districts – peasants, workers, mothers and single women, and women of all ages, to name only some categories. The 8th of March has become a symbol of change.


In 2018 the assemblies featured radical posters (posters about sexual rights and expressing agitation against the control of women by men) that led to a massive backlash – to the surprise of many women. In 2018, a poster that led to much male protest said only 'apna khana khud garam karo': 'heat your own food'. In 2019 a poster that attracted a phenomenal counter-protest said: Main aisai baith gai–'I am sitting this way' … protesting against women being required to sit sideways on motorbikes. This year, 2020, the poster that drew the most ire was: 'maira jism mairi marzi' – 'my body my will/decision'. The backlash this this poster was also seen on TV. On one channel, a well-known scriptwriter exploded in rage at a woman activist, using most abusive language. This led to a stream of reactions which included cancellation of his contract with another TV channel that had asked him to write some plays. Some actors condemned him, too, and human rights activists quickly booed or pooh-poohed him in no uncertain terms.

Not unlike many religious extremists, this man linked his anti-woman position to religion and tradition. The misogynist religious extremists had become more organised in their oppositional stance by 2020. The leader of a religious political party (JUI – Jamiat ul Islam) openly called upon his workers in Karachi to stop the women marching, but his goons were missing in all cities city except Islamabad, where they did indeed attack the marchers. They shouted and screamed and threw stones – small and large. All this hallo bolo was captured by a TV camera and promptly shared on Pakistan's very active social media. The next morning women activists had collected pictures and reports of the physical injuries caused by the projectiles and filed a report against the aggressive men. The progress of this report, of course, will now be closely monitored by women's groups across the country.

A well-known folk song from Sindh (a province of Pakistan) has been turned into a woman's protest song by the women of Sindh and they sang it on the streets during the nighttime torch rally. In Karachi, youthful feminists proudly performed a Chilean protest song translated into Urdu. 'History has taken a turn…' said another activist from Sindh, and this is true. The discerning eye can see the change: women singing protest songs, calling for reforms based on the aspirations of women, peasants, and workers.

The Women's Democratic Front, part of a larger party focused on class inequalities, has created a song that they sing with great fervor, and this is circulating with gusto on social media. A poster graphically showing oppression as represented through the 3 Ms – men, mullah (religious extremists) and military – went the rounds, capturing the current tussle between the men in power, the military elite that dictates the structure of society and wants to control the civil society, and civil society itself. The contending factions are crystal clear – the military, the political power elite knowing well its fragility in light of the military, and the many civil society groups, prominent among them the old and new women's rights groups. The 8th of March celebrations exuded an energy that challenged the social norms that sanction oppression. This is democratisation on the move, speaking out to hold the State responsible for ensuring justice for all, especially the oppressed – women, men and transgender.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
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About the Author

Kausar S. Khan, MA is Associate Professor, Community Health Services at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Karachi, Pakistan. She has educational background in humanities and social sciencesand has worked as an educator for over 20 years.

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