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Personal is political for feminism in Pakistan



‘Oh, so you are the feminist type’, declared my editor while I made a point about not wanting to cover an event that objectified women in 2015. It felt like an accusation. Was being a feminist wrong? I didn’t understand what was so negative about being a feminist in a country where womxn's rights, a vastly discussed topic, was hardly implemented. Where atrocities towards womxn have never decreased and where even social media has become an unsafe place for us.    

Muslim woman raising fist in the air (Getty images)

Indeed, feminism is a foreign theory for Pakistanis. A theory most believe is anti-state and against Pakistan’s norms and culture. It is unfortunately normalised for Pakistani womxn to suffer.

But, in 2018, feminists of Pakistan were hit with a ray of hope. While still not very well understood the concept, feminism has now become a household topic. People are asking questions, and the youth were ready with some answers. 

All it took was the courage of some womxn to gather like minded womxn and claim the streets of Pakistan's largest metropolis, Karachi. At 'Aurat March', womxn chanted slogans, raised posters against patriarchy and spoke for the rights of the suppressed. 

Aurat March is an annual mobilization arranged by independent organizations, mostly in the urban centers of the country like Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. It is done to mark International Women's Day.

This year will be the third consecutive gathering in large cities, with support from small cities, somewhere the march will be held for the first time. 


'This and many other posters from the march did what has not been possible for the longest time, which was to get everyone to talk about feminism in Pakistan’s context. How do we perceive feminism? What are our issues and how will we be dealing with them?'


While I was not in attendance during the first march, I vividly remember my social media feed being flooded with analysis of a poster which read in Urdu, ‘warm up your food yourself’ the very next day.

The poster, seemingly not harmful, sparked an unprecedented debate on social media and within households. ‘These women are running away from their tasks and want to sit and eat off men,’ said one of the many comments I read. 

On the other hand, womxn felt heard for the first time in years in Pakistan. A household chore, never given a second thought, was indeed an inculcation of the patriarchal mindset. 

Pakistani men largely do not help in household chores, the womxn of the house, however young, tired or annoyed they are, have to handle the kitchen and the chores. Their life revolves around pleasing the men in their house. Making tea is chore given to girls as young as ten. Would it harm anyone if men could carry their weight around the house? 

The poster, to date, sparks a debate in various forums. This and many other posters from the march did what has not been possible for the longest time, which was to get everyone to talk about feminism in Pakistan’s context. How do we perceive feminism? What are our issues and how will we be dealing with them? 

The mobilisation is growing every year, but the hate for it, and for women supporting it, is also growing. In November 2019, a call for volunteers for the march was raided by young men, whom I like to call the ‘incels of Pakistan’. The post on Facebook received over 10,000 comments, most graphic in nature, calling for the murder and physical assault of womxn organising and attending the event.

More recently, to promote the Aurat March 2020, raise awareness and pay ode to the women of Pakistan, organizers, and volunteers were installing murals across the country. One such mural was being painted in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.

 The 'Do Akeli Larkian' (two lone girls) mural was being made on the outer wall of private property, it depicted two women, one is a hijab the other without it, standing under a sky with eyes like stars and would have had an Urdu poetry couplet when complete. “….mural envisions a Pakistani society where women are explorers, wanderers, and creators of a just and beautiful world,” said the Facebook post about the mural.  

Three days into the painting, when the mural was almost complete, it was halted by 10 to 15 men from Lal Masjid (a nearby controversial mosque). The men were accompanied by the senior superintendent of the Islamabad police. The artists were threatened, the mural vandalized with slogans and the faces of the women on the walls were also blackened. They claimed that such a mural would spread obscenity in the city.

Since February, a minimum of three petitions have been heard in Pakistan's high courts against the Aurat March congregations and calling for a ban on the march across the country. 

One such petition was dismissed by the Lahore High Court on 3 March. The petitioner claimed that 'various anti-state parties are funding the march with the sole purpose of spreading anarchy in public' and also termed the march 'against the norms of Islam' with a 'hidden agenda' to spread 'vulgarity and hatred'.

The court stated that marching was the right of every citizen of Pakistan and the march cannot be stopped.  

To discuss the topic, a cleric, a senior journalist Marvi Sirmed, and a known writer and director Khalil-Ur-Rehman Qamar were called on a talk show. Qamar is known for his chauvinism. Qamar was agitated because of the viral slogan ‘Mera Jism Meri Marzi’ (My Body, My Choice) which was held at the Aurat March in 2019. Qamar was seen abusing Sirmed for chanting the slogan, body shaming and name calling her.

The snippet of the show went viral in minutes on social platforms and the hashtag #MeraJismMeriMarzi was seen trending. Celebrities, activists, and others came in support of Sirmed and against the vile comments from Qamar. Following the backlash, Pakistan’s biggest media group, GEO announced the suspension of Qamar’s contract until he apologizes to Sirmed.

Organisers of the march insist that the country's mindset will change, slowly but surely. As feminist scholar Dr Rubina Saigol wrote, ‘feminism in Pakistan has come of age as it unabashedly asserts that the personal is political and that the patriarchal divide between the public and the private is ultimately false.’ 



Irfan YusufAnnam Lodhi is an Islamabad-based digital journalist. Her interests lay in investigating and researching the dynamics of social and women's issues and the ever-changing world of social media in Pakistan. She is currently working on a research paper describing the incel culture of Pakistan. She tweets @AnnamL0dhi

Main image: Muslim woman raising fist in the air (Getty images)

Topic tags: Annam Lodhi, Pakistan, feminism, Aurat March, International Women's Day



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Existing comments

I have been a long-time fan and supporter of Eureka Street but in recent months have found the articles of less relevance & interest. I'm sorry, but this one with women spelled as womxn throughout could well be the bridge too far. Perhaps I'm just not sufficiently PC!

Elizabeth Harrington | 06 March 2020  

Pakistan and Australia are very different societies in which the position of women is very different. Australian women have many rights which Pakistani women, especially the lower social classes, can only dream of. Some upper class Pakistani women, such as the late Benazir Bhutto, are extremely liberated by Pakistani norms. The degree of liberation a Pakistani woman enjoys depends very much on social class. The Karachi and Lahore urban elites can do things the average village woman in Sind or the Punjab cannot. One factor limiting the rights of Pakistani women is the rise of the extreme Deobandi version of Islam. These are dangerous people. In India the ulema at Deoband have issued a fatwa (religious ruling) that women should not work outside the home. This is despite the fact that Khadija, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, was a successful businesswoman, who supported him in his mission. The Prophet never banned women from working and he encouraged women's education. The extreme Deobandi/Wahhabi position is distorting what I consider is the more historically accurate broad, tolerant Islam. The implications for all human rights, including women's rights, are dire. This is not just in Pakistan but across the entire Sunni Muslim world.

Edward Fido | 07 March 2020  

Great Thanks to ES for turning its epistemic magnifying glass on youth culture and issues that oppress women in many parts of the world. I loved the word 'incel' (or involuntary celibate) which perfectly describes the predicament of many younger men, both gay and straight, trying to navigate their way through a relationship maelstrom that has at long last begun to draw attention to the exaggerated liberties, often at the expense of women, that men, especially of my older generation, once took for granted and blindly exploited at the expense of women. As a parent of daughters I am exceedingly glad that the spotlight of criticism is at last focussed on this appallingly chauvinistic global phenomenon.

Michael Furtado | 07 March 2020  

Womxn's rights: the dictionaries would be wise to add the spelling. On this International Women's Day let us celebrate womxn everywhere. It was written a while ago but still relevant - 'I am Woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore, and I know too much to go back and prete-e-end.' Sing it loud.

Pam | 08 March 2020  

One hardly needs to intervene on her behalf to emphasize Annam Lodhi's considerable courage in writing this. Whatever her status as a middle-class womxn, she employs her skills to highlight the plight of her sisters. After all, despite her family connections Benazir was assassinated, her father judicially-executed by a military thug and her brother set against her. Let us pray for Pakistan, and especially for its brave and much put-upon womxn! And what's a mere spelling difference between friends, Elizabeth, except to emphasise the immense gap between, say, a liturgical reform based on a new and deeper comprehension and hanging onto an earlier mode that stultifies, atrophies and blindly entraps the spirit? Go for it, ES!

Michael Furtado | 09 March 2020  

The concept of 'womxn' is one many readers of Eureka Street, like Elizabeth Harrington, would not subscribe to because of the philosophy underlying it. She was wise to point this out. In this way she performed very much the same function as the child in Hans Christian Andersen's tale 'The Emperor's New Clothes'. The philosophy behind 'womxn' was not what inspired that outstanding women's, children's and general human rights activist, the Nobel Prize Winner, Shirin Ebadi, who took inspiration from what she considered the real roots of her Shiite Muslim faith, not that presented by the current Iranian theocracy. There are many women like her in the Muslim World. They want to change things by tapping into the deep well springs of their own culture.

Edward Fido | 09 March 2020  

To tweak Martin Luther King, the arc of the cultural universe is long but it bends towards the West. (Where it bends after that is anybody’s guess.)

roy chen yee | 09 March 2020  

We have just celebrated International Womens Day, therefore it is time to reflect on the inequality of women in Australia as well as Pakistan.Of course there is a huge difference in the form of discrimination, as Edward has outlined . In Pakistan women are still expected to perform home duties as virtual slaves , here women are still payed much less than men, even when performing the same duties. We still have along way to go for equality of the sexes. As a subscriber to E.S. for well over a decade I believe Eureka Street performs a great service with a diversity of scenarios/ opinions which must be expressed and discussed.

Gavin O'Brien | 10 March 2020  

There is a conceptual difference between the words 'women' and 'womxn'. 'Womxn' is used by those in the women's movement who wish to include transgender women. They are violently opposed by others in the movement. The traditional stance of the three major Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam on human sexuality, including gender, is clear. I am not as competent as John RD to defend Catholic teaching on this matter in terms of Scholastic Theology, but I have a pretty good understanding of it. There is no doubt that there is a strong body of modern opinion in opposition to the Church position. The current Pope is well aware of this. His stance is, I believe, tolerance towards human beings combined with complete fidelity to the Magisterium. There are transgender males in India and Pakistan. There they are known as eunuchs and they have a special and ambiguous place in society. I would doubt most Pakistani women would wish to include eunuchs in their number. I am not in favour of anyone being persecuted for who they are. My own approach to men who wish to transition is that they need a lot of compassion, but I myself have doubts as to whether they can be considered 'women' (however spelt).

Edward Fido | 10 March 2020  

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