During Jalwat Ali’s school days in Lahore, Pakistan, there were limited spaces to gather with other women, never mind flood the streets with punchy placards.
Public spaces often feel constricted in Pakistan, as though under critical male scrutiny, but over the past few days, Ali has been recruiting dozens of women, from garment workers to domestic helpers who barely get a day off.
“To solve any problem, we need to make a collective effort,” she said.
A series of International Women’s Day marches were to be held yesterday in several Pakistani cities, calling for women’s place in society to be rewritten.
Organizers hoped the aurat marches, or women’s marches, and aurat azadi marches, or women’s liberation marches, would bring a cross-section of society on to the streets to draw attention to the struggle for reproductive, economic and social justice across Pakistan.
The marchers were protesting against sexual harassment in the workplace, child marriage, honor killings, wage inequalities and limited political representation.
The aim was to reach ordinary women in factories, homes and offices, said Nighat Dad, an aurat march organizer in Lahore.
“We want an organic movement by women demanding equal access to justice and ending discrimination of all kinds,” she said.
Her fellow activist, Leena Ghani, said that Pakistani women have a history of taking to the streets, famously during Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq’s martial law in the 1980s.
“Many women before us have paved the way for us. There is a tradition of women being politically progressive in Pakistan,” Ghani said.
While Pakistan has made major strides toward gender equality — achieving greater workforce participation, reserved seats in parliament and anti-discrimination laws for women — poorer, marginalized women and transgender citizens continue to struggle, Ghani said.
Designer Shehzil Malik has created a series of striking posters for the aurat marches that counter typical representations of Pakistani women as docile and subservient.
“These women mean business,” Malik said.
Speakers at the Lahore march ranged from a woman fighting to reform marriage laws to the women who worked on the landmark Punjab Domestic Workers’ Act — legislation that outlaws child labor in homes and provides maternity benefits to workers.
“The aurat march allows us to display unity with other workers and women,” said Arooma Shahzad, a key campaigner on the domestic workers’ act.
Others, like Laaleen Sukhera, a writer with three young daughters in Lahore, were marching to protest against Pakistan’s regressive family laws. After years of failing to receive adequate child support and alimony, Sukhera’s acrimonious divorce was an unpleasant awakening.
“The time for change is now,” she said. “The Pakistani mindset tends to be Victorian. The system frequently grants mothers custody, but makes life a living hell for them, with little or no support for raising kids.”
Women are also protesting against discriminatory policies in universities, where male and female students are afforded different levels of freedom.
“Most university hostels have a relationship of mistrust and constant surveillance of women,” said Wafa Asher, 21, a university student in Lahore participating in the aurat march. “There is overpolicing of dress and behavior, and early curfews for women.”
A Pakistani university caused a furore on social media by banning women from wearing skinny jeans and sleeveless shirts.
“Given the issues the average Pakistani woman faces — sometimes with nowhere to go — creating a space that recognizes a woman’s right to be there is integral,” said Kanwal Ahmed, the founder of the women-only Facebook group Soul Sisters, which has attracted nearly 150,000 users.
With more than half of Pakistan’s informal sector consisting of women, the plight of female workers is also a central theme.
For months, the government has not paid the all-female staff at Pakistan’s first and only Violence Against Women Centre, founder Salman Sufi said.
The center in Multan has handled almost 3,000 cases of abuse, rape and domestic violence, and has been a key instrument in combating gender-based violence that other government departments neglect.
For Ali, these women on the economic margins are the unsung heroes of Pakistan’s burgeoning feminist movement. They face conflicting pressures between their work and family lives.
While Pakistani women are increasingly participating in the labor force, their husbands often refuse to take on household chores, she said.
“There’s a double, triple burden on these women,” Ali said.”When they go home after a full day’s work, they face the same problem in their domestic lives — work.”
The aurat marches are a step forward, she said.
“We can’t work in silos or as members of different groups. Our demands are for all women — these injustices affect us all,” she said.
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