Aurat March — What Now For Pakistan’s New Wave Of Feminism?

This March 8 women from all social and economic backgrounds are likely to march together for a just cause

By: News Desk
Published: 03:55 PM, 8 Mar, 2022
Marvi Sarmad-FILE PIC
Caption: Marvi Sarmad-FILE PIC
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Marvi Sarmad

It was a 110 ago that the International Women’s Day was first commemorated, following a proposal from Clara Zetkin from Germany, an iconic political leader (Social Democratic Party of Germany – SPD), a celebrated Marxist theorist, and a fierce advocate of women’s rights. She tabled the idea at the second International Conference of Working Women at Copenhagen in 1910. The following year, March 19 was marked internationally to celebrate women’s resistance and to articulate their demands. Initially, the day was called the International Working Women’s Day.

In subsequent years, although the day was marked annually, the dates kept changing. From 1918 onwards, March 8 was picked as the consensus date after the famous ‘Break and Peace’ strike by Russian women in 1917. The strike commenced on March 8, and four days later the Tsar had to abdicate. Ever since, it has been March 8.

In 1975, the United Nations adopted it as the International Women’s Day and commemorated each year thereafter with a unique theme of the year.

However, the activism around the International Women’s Day, at least during the pioneering years, remained rooted in socialist, rather than feminist, struggle — the distinction that Zetkin repeatedly made in her writings and speeches in late 19th and early 20th century. She considered contemporary feminist theory a bourgeois articulation that was exclusive of working-class women. She called it an unavoidable dichotomy of socialist and feminist ideologies — a view endorsed by Engels via an enthusiastic “hurrah” he sent to Zetkin.

A peep into the origin of and debates within the movement for women’s rights, gender equality, and feminism, gives an inkling of the inherent ideological, conceptual, and theoretical debates (or tensions) that were brewing at the turn of the century. Rosa Luxemburg, the socialist theorist icon, who challenged comrades Lenin and Trotsky (who called her an ‘unadulterated Marxist’ and a ‘purist’), rejected ‘bourgeois standards of morality’ that feminists of the time held in awe. Postmodern feminists celebrate her as a feminist role model.

Cutting a long story short, the perceived dichotomy between feminism and socialism began to gradually disappear, I’d say, after women from both worlds started conversing about each other’s agendas for the International Women’s Day at the beginning of the 20th century.

Fast forward to Pakistan, a century later, and you’d see similar tensions and debates happening — with much more inclusivity and openness to intersectionality. This Fourth Wave Feminism in Pakistan is completely different in character from the earlier waves.

Unlike the women’s rights activism during the first four decades after Independence, this new wave is neither just focused on the welfare schemes for women nor on reforming the state through the pro-women legal framework, rather it is doing all of this, and looking at the patriarchal schema and challenging the code of existence imposed on women but not made by them.

But, this is where the problem lies. This is the sin unpardonable. This is what qualifies them for all the opprobrium and calumny that the ‘righteous’ and the ‘faithful’ dutifully throw at them every year – the Aurat March marks the Fourth Wave Feminism in Pakistan.

Every year, since 2018, I have written on the International Women’s Day, and every year I’m impelled to respond to the ridiculously shallow critique – nothing more than naked and shameless muck racking – on the Aurat March participants. I have watched organisers, participants and supporters of the Aurat March relentlessly and graciously offer responses to every invective, accusation, ‘misunderstanding’ over the past four years. Still, they are abused, insulted and attacked (by Lal Masjid goons last year); their posters and artwork is vandalized; they are dragged in courts; and they are accused of blasphemy – which is akin to giving a go-ahead to a vigilante mob to lynch and kill.

This year is no different. A government minister has written a letter to prime minister to ban the Aurat March and instead mark the day as a ‘Hijab Day’. A leader of one of the opposition parties has threatened to use batons against women if they hold the Aurat March.

On the other hand, a refreshingly inclusive nature of the Aurat March (liberal feminist democrats) and the Aurat Azadi March (social democrats including radical feminists) is reaching out to women from all social and economic backgrounds. Resultantly, every year not only the number of participants is increasing, but also their diversity of participation is expanding. Every year new cities, far from major urban centres, are joining up and organising the March. I’m most interested in exploring the possibilities and way forward for this new energy that the Fourth Wave Feminists have brought to the movement.

Going back to where we started, there is a huge room to learn from how the initial tensions were resolved between bourgeois feminists of western hemisphere (white feminists) and the socialist movements of working-class women, mostly in the eastern hemisphere (predominantly the women of colour), and how was an event pioneered by hardcore communist/socialist theorists joined by liberal democrat feminist movement and none of the two groups feared ‘hijacking of the cause’ by the other. Not just that, at the substance level, white feminism (Can they be comparable to urban upper-class feminists from big urban centres of Pakistan?) was fiercely challenged by black feminism and later by brown women to make the global feminist movement more inclusive in terms of participation as well as agenda.

What I see in the Aurat March is a very welcome departure from 1980s and 1990s’ praxis that was more involved with confronting the state oppression than reaching out to subordinate classes beyond sincerely trying to articulate their problems. The new wave feminists are proactively engaging themselves with working-class women, professionals, peasant women, domestic workers, and all other shades of proletariat. This is something to celebrate.

However, the need to keep an eye on the challenges ahead and continual engagement in internal debates to resolve those challenges cannot be overemphasised. Reaching out to and including the marginalised, the working-classes, and the ‘invisibles’ (gender and sexual minorities) is one thing, creating a leadership space for them and including their issues in the central agenda points is another ball game. One of the big challenges is the inclusion of this agenda point.

I’m calling it a challenge because in specific context of Pakistan’s patriarchal credentials and celebrated conservatism coupled with the kind of attacks already launched against the Aurat March, it can further complicate the already bumpy ride for the organisers. But turning away from it is not an option.

It can be resolved, and here comes the second challenge, if this annual event becomes a movement. Easier said than done, though. With such a diverse base of organisations, groups, and individuals with such varied schools of feminist thought, it is going to be a tall order. But old timers from earlier waves are still around. If they offer a hand, together, we can do the unthinkable.

Aurat March organisers have already succeeded in achieving the impossible. Patriarchy is shrieking. It has started feeling helpless, and is seeking refuge behind the religion, culture, and patriotism. Whose last refuge is this?

Courtesy: The Friday Times