As the blazing sun sets in Lahore, the city comes to life. The smell of roasting chickpeas mingles with the heady scent of burning incense, competing against the stench of rubbish and car fumes. Henna artists trace intricate designs on eager palms, in front of rows of kaleidoscopic bangles gleaming in the gaudy shop lights, while the latest Bollywood tunes blare out from crackling speakers. The music is hastily switched off as the melodious call to prayer echoes from the mosque, interrupted by car horns conveying the impatience of the drivers.
Domestic workers pull their veils over their faces as they scurry past, while groups of young men loiter around their motorbikes, as glamorous women wearing oversized sunglasses pull up outside the boutiques in European cars before zooming away. Despite the chocolate box temptations of the shops, the streets are no place for women.
Women in skinny jeans stood side by side with women in niqabs, holding placards with eye-catching statements such as “keep your dick pics to yourself.”
For one day in March, thousands of female protestors, from pop stars to domestic help, minority faiths and transgender women, streamed onto those very streets to take part in the Aurat March, the largest protest of its kind in Pakistan. The march encapsulated their anger over a range of injustices, from honor killings and sexual abuse to the absence of equality in the workplace.
Women in skinny jeans stood side by side with women in niqabs, holding placards with eye- catching statements such as “keep your dick pics to yourself” and “My body is not your battleground.” “It was the one day women could claim back the public space to express themselves and feel a part of something, the one day women didn’t care what society thought,” says Leena Ghani, one of the march’s organizers.
Tensions were already running high in the run-up to the march following a number of high profile cases. At the time, Pakistan was having its own #MeToo moment: model Meesha Shafi had accused a pop star, Ali Zafar, of sexual harassment; and social media starlet Qandeel Baloch had been murdered after she exposed a religious cleric and the dangers women faced who challenged the patriarchy. There was also fury about the rape and murder of 7-year-old school girl Zanaib Ansari; CCTV footage of the pretty green-eyed schoolgirl showed her skipping hand in hand with a neighbor, who it later emerged was a child serial killer who had raped and murdered at least six other children. “The Zanaib case was a tinderbox,” says Ghani. “There was a lot of anger, particularly as there were many cases after that went unnoticed. There was a feeling that we have to make Pakistan safer for our daughters.”
For the women at the march, they were protesting not so much for each story that made the headlines but for the many hundreds that had gone unheard. Stories like those captured by the viral hashtag #WhyIMarch, where women shared their stories of sexual harassment, domestic violence, and forced marriage. For many, this was the first time the statistics — that there are an estimated 1,000 honor killings per year, that 21% of girls in Pakistan are married off before the age of 18, and that the current gender pay gap stands at 39% — had been brought to light.
Pakistan is a place in transition, not really sure which way to go as it remains torn between the powerful religious right that is desperate to cling to power, and an increasingly vocal youth population which is fiercely patriotic but equally frustrated by the lack of change. Within that framework is a burgeoning middle class, in which women, in particular, have more access to education and employment opportunities.
However, as the aftermath of the march shows, it is not a battle that is going to be easily won. The atmosphere which had emboldened the women on the day of the march has given way to fear, as many of the protesters face rape and death threats online and the organizers have been threatened with criminal charges. A police complaint was launched against the organizers, claiming that protestors had displayed “immoral” slogans. The complaint was later rejected by the court.
People accused us of being hired by the west to destroy family culture. All we want to do is stop men from raping and killing us.
The online ruckus soon spilled over to TV as bearded religious pundits waved their hands in extravagant hand gestures while accusing protestors of copying the Kardashians instead of the Koran, and accused them of destroying the moral values of the country. “The backlash has been horrific,” says Ghani. “I’ve had rape threats and death threats. Other women have had their images photoshopped, which have gone viral, and have received threats of acid attacks. People accused us of being hired by the west to destroy family culture. All we want to do is stop men from raping and killing us.”
Angbeen Abbas, a 19-year-old student, was body-shamed and ridiculed after she was pictured holding a placard highlighting the lack of access to affordable sanitary protection. “I attended out of a desire to reclaim public spaces where I would usually feel unsafe,” she says. “I wasn’t entirely surprised by the backlash because I was talking about an issue that’s taboo and I expected a lot of people to get very mad, considering this is a country where we still use brown paper bags to cover packets of sanitary napkins while buying them. However, I was definitely surprised by the magnitude of attention that I received. It was surreal to find myself all over social media, mocked through memes, body-shamed, even finding my personal profiles and harassing me. But I also have a lot of great people sticking up for me.”
Another student, Samina Shah, 19, adds that her cousin was going through the arranged marriage process and had a really good family interested in her, “but when they heard about us going to the march they called things off,” Shah states. “Everyone goes to these marches to be a Malala Yousafzai, but they are more likely to end up like [murdered social media star] Qandeel Baloch.”
Humera Alvi, a graphic artist whose placard calling out men who send dick pics attracted worldwide attention, remains defiant. “Women get sent dick pics all the time but because the word dick was on a placard, the men couldn’t handle it,” she explains. “They said using vulgar words was un-Islamic. So it’s okay to send the pics, but they can’t be called out on it? Why should I feel shame? Surely the men who send them should feel shame.”
Just days after the march, a woman was brutally stripped, beaten and had her hair shaved off by her husband for refusing to dance to entertain his friends (dancing is synonymous with Pakistan’s infamous red light districts). A mother of four who was infected with an HIV- contaminated needle was murdered by her husband who accused her of being promiscuous. Hers was one of 12 honor killings reported in just a fortnight. And in the same streets where the women protested, a 22-year-old woman was gang-raped by three policemen after going out for a pre-Ramadan breakfast. Her case highlights once again how dangerous the streets can be. Says Ghani, “If we don’t speak out, things will never change. The women may be harassed about protesting, but the difference is now we have a network of women we can turn to for support.”