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Pakistani women march across country seeking safe public space

Islamabad, Pakistan – Tens of thousands of Pakistani women have gathered in major cities across the country as part of the sixth Aurat March (Women’s March) to mark International Women’s Day.

This year’s march was held simultaneously in the capital Islamabad, Lahore and Multan in the northern province of Punjab, and Hyderabad in the southern province of Sindh.

The Aurat March, held since 2018, has drawn backlash from a segment of the population due to its provocative slogans, banners and placards challenging patriarchy and highlighting issues women face, such as divorce and sexual harassment.

Karachi, the country’s largest city, will hold the march on March 12.

Organizers had to approach the Lahore High Court after the city government denied permission for the march over security concerns. The court gave the green light to the march in the eastern city.

Afghan refugee women carry placards as they take part in the ‘Aurat March’ or ‘Women’s March’ on the occasion of International Women’s Day in Islamabad. (Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

As women and members of the transgender community marched in Islamabad to break a police blockade, they were batoned at by police. Several members of the transgender community were injured.

Imaan Zainab Mazari-Hazir, one of the organizers in Islamabad, called the state “anti-women”, adding that what the participants encountered today was nothing new.

“We’ve been saying that for decades. Be it the time of previous dictators or today. Nothing has changed,” she told Al Jazeera.

“We speak of socialist feminism. We speak of democracy. We speak of anti-enforced disappearances. We speak of equality and access to public spaces for women. These are the reasons why the state will always have a problem with us.”

‘Unsafe and unsafe’

Although it was a weekday, many people gathered on the ground outside Islamabad’s National Press Club to join the march, carrying placards and banners.

Maryam Fatima, a lawyer from Islamabad, carried such a banner with a caption in Urdu that read, “My shirt is colorful, but don’t take it as my consent.”

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Fatima, who is originally from Karachi, said she has attended all the previous marches and the event is a place for her to express her views on her personal experiences.

“For me, the Aurat March is a day of the year when I can talk about what I feel,” she said.

However, Fatima said she felt things weren’t necessarily improving or getting better for women.

Women's Day events highlight gaps in gender equality
An Afghan refugee participates in a gathering on the occasion of International Women’s Day in Islamabad. (Anjum Naveed/AP Photo)

“I moved to Islamabad two years ago and despite being the capital, I feel more insecure and unsafe here. We can’t just go to a public park for fear of harassment and assault,” she said, adding that even at the court where she is a lawyer, men treated women with condescension.

Another participant, Khushbakht Sohail, said in her experience that while the Aurat marches have given people a platform to come out and raise their voices, the state’s response has only become harsher.

“There is a constant backlash every year that you see before the march,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to photoshopped banners and slogans used to coordinately harass Aurat March organizers and participants on social media.

“We have seen to this day how the police have abused us, but we will stand our ground.”

The participants were due to make a short journey of about three kilometers (1.9 mi) from National Press Club to D-Chowk, a town square for the presidency, after the speeches ended, but police initially refused to remove the containers and barriers. preventing the participants from starting their march.

But after more than an hour of chanting, the authorities finally removed the barricades.

With popular songs like singer Hasan Raheem’s, Peechay Hatt, (Move Back) blaring from the speakers, and powerful crowd chants saying “Let’s go to D-Chowk, or else leave your seat of power” , and “We are out against oppression, walk with us,” there was a huge roar as police removed the barricades.

Aurat March in Islamabad.
The organizers of the Aurat march in several cities have presented their charter with demands, including greater representation of women in decision-making on climate-related matters (Syed Abid Hussain/Al Jazeera)

Sohail, who worked in the development sector, said it was clear from the perseverance of the crowd and sticking to their demand to march that the anger of the people was rising and it would not stop.

“This land is also ours. We will take it back if we don’t get our rights,” she said.

The organizers of the Aurat March presented their charter in several cities with demands including an end to patriarchal violence, greater representation of women in decision-making on climate-related matters, safe access for women to economic opportunities, and others.

Gender-based violence is still a significant problem in Pakistan. World rights organization Human Rights Watch said in its 2022 report that violence against women and girls, including rape, murder, acid attacks, domestic violence and forced marriage, is “endemic” across the country.

“Human rights defenders estimate that about 1,000 women are killed each year,” the report said.

Momal Malik, who attended the march with her friends, said the Aurat March and International Women’s Day were a reminder to her that change was possible.

“Powerful women have always been opposed everywhere, not just in Pakistan,” Malik said.