On March 8, a warm spring day in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city, I and hundreds of other women gathered at the grassy grounds of Frere Hall, a majestic colonial era monument in the middle of Karachi, right opposite the old American consulate and the Marriott Hotel. This electrifying event was the Aurat (Women) March, the first of its kind in Pakistan, coordinated across Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad on International Women’s Day 2018.
In January 2017, I’d watched my friends in the US posting excitedly on Facebook about their plans to take part in the Women’s March in Washington DC with a certain amount of envy. They made plans to travel together or alone in groups, by car, train and plane, a freedom that most Pakistani women will never be able to access. They talked about how their family members would care for their children while they traveled for the weekend, while Pakistani women are made to feel guilty if they go out to work and leave their children at home for even a few hours every day. They excitedly discussed their plans to knit pink hats named after a part of the body that women in Pakistan don’t even like to admit we have.
On the day of the march I thought glumly about how far behind Pakistani women are. We may boast of a burgeoning democracy, economic advances, and a rich and vibrant culture, but women in Pakistan fight daily for their basic rights: access to education, health services, nutrition, clean and safe drinking water. We struggle to be treated fairly and equally by Pakistan’s justice system. We face domestic violence, emotional abuse, child marriage, sexual harassment. We fight for access to public space, freedom of mobility, and safe transportation. Most of all we fight the societal expectation that we are and always will remain second class citizens, compared to men.
But a little over a year later, Pakistani women decided to march for the first time in a coordinated gathering, the Aurat (Women) March, in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, our biggest cities, on March 8, International Women’s Day 2018. Flyers distributed by the organizers identified themselves only Hum Auratain, or “we women” — a collective of women, not individuals, so that focus would remain on the objectives, not the organizers, of the march. The name referenced the famous poem by Pakistani resistance poet Kishwar Naheed, called “Hum Gunaghar Auratain” (We Sinful Women), written during the period of Islamization under the dictator General Zia, when discrimination and physical violence was enacted upon women with sadistic fury by the authorities: “It is we sinful women/ who come out raising the banner of truth/ up against barricades of lies on the highways…”
Read more on NPR’s Goats and Soda here.