My body, my choice — a woman's war cry

Despite opposition from Islamist groups, Pakistani women will again march for female equality
My body, my choice — a woman's war cry

Placards demanding equal rights for Pakistani women on display at the 2019 Aurat March. (Photo courtesy of Amnesty International)

At the famously crowded Hussain Chowk in Lahore, a vandalized mural of a veiled woman stands out.

“I am what I am. What do you know? No more despair,” states a new poster emblazoned on the wall by organizers of the Aurat March (Women’s March), an annual rally calling for female equality in Pakistan. Students of Jamia Hafsa, a female madrassa in Islamabad, confessed to defacing a similar mural last week.

Aurat March organizers shared their manifesto and a charter of demands at a press conference on March 5 at Lahore Press Club.

“Abuses are hurled at women at religious rallies. Most of the abuses in society target sisters or mothers,” said Tanveer Jahan, one of the panelists.  

“This is the first time that women are speaking publicly about their bodies. Now men are worried and society is disturbed. In our society, a diseased woman tries to hide herself even from the doctor. Our slogan is a warning that others cannot trespass us.”

The conference concluded abruptly when the speakers, including transgenders, started clapping and chanting the slogan “My body, my choice.”

The slogan has sparked controversy and debate, with social media users uploading photos of some of the offensive placards used in last year’s march. “I can warm the food, warm the bed yourself,” read one.

The opposition

On March 3, Lahore High Court dismissed a petition seeking a permanent ban on holding the Aurat March. The complainant accused organizers of having an agenda to "spread anarchy, vulgarity, blasphemy and hatred" against Islam.

Chief Justice Mamoon Rashid Sheikh observed that placards should be allowed that could hurt the sentiments of any segment of society but the marchers should refrain from hate speech, slogans and immorality.

Several religio-political parties have called on their followers to forcibly stop the third annual Aurat March in Lahore on March 8, International Women’s Day. Police claim the march faces a threat from radical groups including Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan militants.

“Trampling the Quran, Sunnah and our culture in the name of human rights will not be allowed. If anyone thinks they can come on roads under different banners and threaten our culture and Islamic values in the name of obscenity and vulgarity, they should know that we will also come out to stop them,” Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, told a gathering last month.

“Wherever you see such elements, ask the law [enforcement authorities] to stop them, but if the authorities provide protection to such protests, then get ready for any sacrifice. We cannot let Islam and our cultural values be bad-named.”

The women’s wing of Jamaat-i-Islami will launch a 20-day campaign on International Women’s Day. The group will observe the event as a day of Muslim women’s dignity.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leader of the hardline Tehreek-Labaik Pakistan group, claims the Aurat March aims to mislead “pious and veiled” women.

“Can a daughter of a Muslim say that her body is her choice. Prophet Muhammad has already narrated women’s rights. Today the women in our country have become so arrogant. These people want to make our society dirty,” he said.

“When you utter the Kalima [Muslims' declaration of faith], the choice will be made by Allah and his prophet. Your choice ends there.”

Taimur Rahman a professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences, suggests that “My body, my right” is the right slogan. 

“The UN and all human rights organizations accept it as a basic human right. There is a huge intellectual dishonesty in the slogan going viral. It is intentionally or ignorantly misinterpreted as total freedom,” he said.  

Church reaction

Meanwhile, church women’s groups have supported the annual march.

“Looking forward to having an exciting Aurat March. We will keep raising our voice against patriarchy that hinders women to have a life of their own choice. In solidarity with all my feminist friends. Long live Aurat March,” said Arya Inderias Patras, the women’s desk secretary in the Church of Pakistan’s Lahore Diocese, in a Facebook post.

Sister Genevieve Ram Lal, national director of the Catholic Women’s Organization, condemned the ongoing threat to feminists.

“The woman inside me is crying after seeing a drama writer abusing a female activist in a live show. Nobody uses such language for his daughter or sister,” she told UCA News.

“The controversial slogan can be reworked considering the cultural sensitivities. The difference of opinion is crucial for a healthy debate. If I was in Lahore, I would have been at the forefront of the march.”

The annual Human Rights Monitor of the National Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan recorded 12 crimes against minority women in 2018. Most were rape cases and abductions of Christian and Hindu girls, including a forced conversion of a 12-year-old Christian girl.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported 845 incidences of sexual violence against women in 2018, plus 316 crimes in the name of “honor” perpetrated against both men and women. Pakistan ranks third from last, at number 151, on the 2020 Global Gender Gap Index.

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