Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2023 > Pakistan: Aurat March 2023 keeps going despite fierce social, religious and (...)

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 15, April 8, 2023

Pakistan: Aurat March 2023 keeps going despite fierce social, religious and political opposition | Abdullah Zahid

Saturday 8 April 2023


by Abdullah Zahid / Sapan News

04 April 2023

Through Aurat March and other forms of activism, Pakistani women are calling for gender equality, climate action and economic policies that benefit all. But their battle is up against fierce social, religious and political opposition.

“We are constantly sold the narrative that our country is impoverished and that the system is broken,” says cultural activist Sheema Kermani.

The longtime feminist activist and trained classical dancer, whose appearance in Ali Sethi’s hit music video ‘Pasoori’ [1] landed her in the global spotlight, is also one of the main organisers of the annual Aurat March held in Karachi since 2018 on International Women’s Day [2].

Aurat (women’s) March has since been replicated annually in cities across Pakistan. This year’s theme was ‘climate change’, mirroring growing global awareness [3] and activism about gender equality being the key to effective climate action.

Fittingly, the same day in Islamabad, three Pakistani women were awarded [4] the Gender and Climate Award by the International Union for Conservation of Nature for adopting gender-sensitive and climate-responsive policies.

While women are the worst [5] affected in the case of natural calamities and climate change, such as during the devastating floods [6] in Pakistan last year, the Aurat March organisers’ efforts to engage Pakistan’s policymakers have fallen on deaf ears, and Kermani, like other participants of this cross-cutting, intersectional movement, feels frustrated.

“We are well aware of the big bucks the state spends on bureaucracy, non-combat, foreign tours, and expensive vehicles,” she tells Sapan News, adding that women’s rights are hardly the primary concern of the country’s leaders “given how embroiled in power politics and sundry the state and governments have been over the last few years.”


With inflation at a record 35.37% in March and food, beverage and transport prices surging up to 50% year-on-year, the country has seen stampedes [7] for food at distribution centres. As many as 16 people, including five women and three children, have died in such incidents over the past weeks.

Fear of default

Pakistan is teetering on the verge of collapse. Two catastrophic events exacerbated by climate change last year – a spring heat wave that dried up harvests followed by summer floods that drowned them – affected about 4.8 million acres of agricultural land [8] , and killed about half a million heads of cattle [9].

The floods also claimed over 800 human lives [10] in Sindh, the most affected province. Many internally displaced people are still camped along roadsides, in squalid tents made with rotting twigs and clothing remnants.

Even before the floods, nearly a third of Pakistan’s population lived below the poverty line. Now, an additional 9 million risk joining them if rehabilitation and recovery efforts are delayed, warns the UN [11]. The economic crisis and sky-high inflation [12] point to a recipe for disaster that particularly impacts [13] the most vulnerable members of society – women, children and nonbinary populations.

Under the banner of the Aurat March on a bright Sunday following International Women’s Day, hundreds from these communities, joined by cis-male supporters, came out at Karachi’s historic Burns Garden [14]. They included youth, fisherfolk and members of forcibly evicted urban communities.

Flanked by full security, for over three hours, participants registered their protests on a range of issues from economic injustices and climate change, to child marriage and forced conversions, enforced disappearances and killings of Baloch activists including women. They also called to uphold the Transgender Protection Act (2018) [15].

Clad in all-white, victims of forced conversions and child marriages from Living Hope Foundation [16] shelter house enacted a tableau [17] on the impact of these trends on minor Hindu, Christian, and Dalit girls. Holding placards in front of the stage, affected parents urged authorities to criminalise forced conversions [18]. Speakers blamed the casual and careless handling of such issues by the government and law enforcement agencies for the rise in such activities.


Participants also celebrated the Hindu spring festival of Holi, flinging colours at each other in solidarity with students at Karachi University, who were allegedly attacked [19] by the student wing of a religious party while celebrating the festival. The party has denied involvement.

The attack was less about religion and more about solidifying dominance and control, said speakers at the Aurat March.

In a sign of increased efforts at inclusivity, a translator interpreted the chants and speeches into sign language.

Hurdles and negativity

For organisers at most Aurat March venues, obtaining permission to hold this public rally is like moving mountains.

“The state is worried about the whole issue of women’s power,” says Sheema Kermani. Women encounter resistance when they assert their rights because the state “is built on patriarchy,” she asserts.


Pakistan currently ranks as the ‘second-worst’ among all 146 countries on the Gender Parity Index 2022 [20], trailing only Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, which took the top spot. With over 5,200 women reportedly raped in 2021, the country has one of the lowest rape conviction rates [21] in Southasia – less than 3%.

Signals from the top are loud and clear. Speaking to journalist Munizae Jahangir, Pakistan President Arif Alv [22]i said he didn’t see why a day should be set aside for women. Besides, he said he learnt all about women’s rights without attending any protests.

The Lahore administration, under pressure from right-wing religious groups, denied a no-objection certificate [23] to March organisers for a public gathering, while allowing a rival group of protestors to go ahead.

The rival group has for the past two years conducted what they call ‘Haya (modesty) March’ in various cities. Comprising women of religious parties – Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), and Jamia Hafza – the veiled, stick-wielding participants at these marches led by men [24] use threatening language against the Aurat March.

Sabahat Rizvi, the first woman in Pakistan to serve as Secretary for the Lahore High Court Bar Association, went to court against the Lahore administration’s decision and won [25].

A similar story played out in Islamabad, where the administration first ignored the Aurat March application, then tried to convince organisers to contain themselves to a less public venue to avoid clashing with the Haya March demonstrators. Both groups were converging at the National Press Club.

After waiting months for the requisite permission, the Aurat March organisers went ahead with their plans only to find shipping containers and barbed wire blocking their planned route. An armed police contingent attacked them with batons [26] and tear gas to prevent them reaching the Press Club.

There was some relief in the province of Sindh, where the High Court dismissed a petition [27] seeking to get the March banned on the grounds that the participants might raise slogans contrary to the country’s socio-cultural norms.

Tamarind and spice

It is also this province that has been worst hit by the floods, with the entire coastal region and its fisherfolk community particularly vulnerable to malnutrition, as Fatima Majeed of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) points out.

“Women who earlier ate two meals a day now only eat one,” she said, addressing the March.

Najma Meshwari from Lyari’s Hindu community spoke about the hazardous and exploitative working conditions faced by women in the tamarind and spice manufacturing industries.

Handling the tamarind with their bare hands causes the workers’ nails to fall off, said Meshwari. “Even if you avoid touching the red chillies, it will still burn you, but these women scrub it with their bare hands.” -

At the heart of the Aurat March are the slogans coined by participants in this de-centralised movement. This year, as always, they were unapologetically catchy, meaningful, and touched upon every issue. Attendees sounded a “red salute” to rights advocates like Asma Jahangir, Mukhtara Mai, and Sabeen Mahmud. They remembered victims of brutal violence like Noor Mukaddam and Sarah Inam besides presenting broader demands like freedom from the state and land-grabbing capitalism.

Violence in the name of religion remained a major theme. Participants expressed solidarity with the women of Iran and Afghanistan resisting policies based on draconian interpretations of Islamic laws. The assault on one woman is an assault on all of us, they said.

Trans activists like Shehzadi Rai and Mehrub Moiz Awan enacted a skit on gender sensitisation training when dealing with those who don’t conform to typical stereotypes. The broad takeaway was that trans women don’t need cis women to define their gender roles. They just want to be allowed to live with dignity.

Nisha Rao, the first transgender lawyer in Pakistan, talked to Sapan News about the discriminatory treatment of her community by the Gulf states. She wants them to lift the ban on travel by X-identity card holders [28], and allow them to perform the Hajj.

The grimness of issues was offset by an infusion of hope, with the popular poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s inspirational Hum Dekhenge (We will see) sung by folk artiste Shamo Bai. The catchy beat had participants dancing and clapping along.

At Kabootar Chowk (Pigeon Square) near the Sindh High Court, the girls in all-white performed the popular Chilean feminist anthem [29] A Rapist in Your Path, which underscores that rape is a crime of power and slams victim blaming.

Singing feminist tappay (folk songs), the demonstrators circled back to Burns Garden past the Sindh Assembly and High Court, energy and adrenaline with stories of despair mixed with joy. Women looked for belonging, for freedom, for healing from trauma and relief from pain. They danced to the beat of the dhol (drum), free of the suffocating male gaze.

In a powerful activity performed throughout the event, women smeared their palms with red paint and stamped handprints on a long, white sheet bearing the slogan “Tumhara Zulm Yaad Rakha Jayega” (your oppression will be remembered). They also wrote messages for their abusers.

At the end of the event, participants set ablaze [30] the sheet, signifying that they had indeed been burnt, but would rise like a phoenix from the ashes.


(Author: Abdullah Zahid is an aspiring journalist studying mass communication at the University of Karachi. Follow him on Twitter @AbdullahZahid)

[This is a Sapan News syndicated feature]

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.