Aurat March, Slogans and Posters

Now that the Aurat March has taken place successfully, many are striking back against what they see as women’s obscenity, vulgarity, need for attention, and even therapy in public. The Internet has been awash with comments from men and women attacking the marchers, and focusing on the placards they carried rather than for the reasons they marched.

Here is a very well-reported news article on why the Aurat March took place. Organizer of the Karachi march Sheema Kirmani stated the objectives: “Our issues remain the same today. We have organized the march to raise voice against gender violence, sexual harassment, social norms and gender roles that oppress women from getting access to educational, health, employment opportunities and rights. We are contending to create a just society that does not discriminate against women and exploit them.”

But it’s easier to ignore the truth when you don’t want to face the reality that we all participate in such a vastly unfair system. And what better way than to distract from the march’s real aims than by focusing on some posters and placards, rather than the demands of the women who marched, in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Quetta, Faisalabad, Hyderabad, Peshawar, and Gilgit?

Last year’s most controversial placard told men to “go and warm your own food.” That one inspired meme after meme of men telling women to go out and work (they do) and change their own tires (they do). This year’s controversy-starter was a placard that portrayed a (fully-dressed) young woman sitting down with her legs splayed. “Here, I’m sitting properly,” read the caption on the poster, a wry take on the injunction every Pakistani girl has heard from the beginning of time: to sit “decently” with legs together.

poster

Another poster which disturbed people was this one, which made many male detractors question whether they too could draw a picture of their genitals and march around with it. Which only goes to show you that most people in Pakistan really need to learn the difference between female genitals and the female reproductive system. 

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Understanding of biology aside, I interpret these slogans and placards as a strong statement for women’s freedom of expression, their rage, their anger. These placards signal to society that women have had enough of inferior and unfair treatment.  They don’t want to be policed, to be threatened, to be harassed or punished for the same behaviors that men and boys enact without even a second thought.

The slogans may appear crude to some but many were witty, funny, clever, sarcastic, and some were very touching and straightforward. The woman holding the “Now I’m sitting properly” poster was in full hijab and it is doubtful that she has ever or would ever want to sit like that in public. Her point was easy to understand, though: it criticizes the vast and almost insurmountable double standards we have with regards to what’s allowed for men and for women. Men can sit like that or even lie down in public, relieve themselves, scratch their crotches, and nobody will say anything to them. But should a woman or girl sit like that and she will be reprimanded by anyone and everyone, called a slut, indecent, and so on and so forth. And should she dare to challenge that by drawing a picture of a woman siting freely…

Most of those posters were pointing out the sexist double standards that we have fully accepted in our society. I found them full of energy and intelligent observations about the hypocrisy of our misogynist and patriarchal society. It is truly ironic that few in our society feel the need to challenge violence against women, honor killings, domestic violence, sexual harassment (and they attack those who do) but a poster and a women’s march is what has gotten them up in arms.

There are those who think that the woman and girls who marched were spoiled, privileged, liberal “aunties” who have no clue of what is really going on in society with women and their “real” problems. This is only an attempt to divide women, to roll back the power of women and men uniting across ethnicities, social classes, genders, and demanding change.

It is very therapeutic to reclaim public space, to be loud, crude, and angry after years of repression and intimidation. To be badly-behaved when one has been told how to behave all one’s life. The collective gathering together of women and their allies to express themselves is how political change occurs — when a people’s movement galvanizes attention and focus on a pressing issue. Perhaps this is new for Pakistanis to see women gathering like this in such strength and such numbers, but it is refreshing and inspiring to many. And the fact that it has upset so many means that it is working.

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Photo credit Nuzhat Siddiqui

As Pulitzer Prize winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Pakistani women are tired of being told to behave properly, discriminated against in every sphere regardless of their behavior, and punished societally, professionally, and physically for even an imagined infraction of that behavior code.

Pakistani women are standing up for themselves, demanding justice. They want to rewrite the rules so that they are fair and equitable for all genders. If you understand this, then a few placards, written with the enthusiasm and fierceness of young women excited by the possibility of change, should not blind you to why they really marched — unless you truly don’t want to get the message.

For once, Pakistani women, instead of behaving “properly”, trolled men as hard as they could – and it was awesome.