R Umaima Ahmed

International Women’s Day has been celebrated on March 8 every year since 1977 to mark the cultural, political, and socioeconomic achievements of women.

While the day is observed in Pakistan as well, for the past four years another event, “Aurat March” (Women’s march), is also taking place the same day, where the marchers speak against patriarchy and demand the rights of women. Women, transgender persons, persons with disabilities and non-binary people take to the road to reclaim their space, show solidarity with victims of patriarchy, raise slogans against the male-controlled norms of society, and present demands to the government to improve living standards of the marginalised.

Aurat March is a feminist movement organised by the Hum Aurtein (We Women) Feminist Collective and uses the march, public art displays and performances to highlight the challenges faced by women in society. Aurat March is held in the country’s main cities and they formulate a manifesto focusing on improving healthcare standards, providing education and job opportunities, implementing and protecting women, transgender persons, disabled and non-binary people from all kinds of violence, harassment and body autonomy. This year the art display in Lahore depicted the “patriarchal stains” on women’s clothes, calling it “dirty laundry.” Messages from women and girls, mentioning the age at which they first encountered violence, harassment, emotional abuse or denial of freedoms, were also displayed.

This year Aurat March Lahore Chapter’s manifesto focused on women’s health as there was significant increase in domestic violence and child abuse as people were confined to their homes during the coronavirus pandemic this year, depriving them of proper healthcare or immediate help. Noor, a volunteer at Aurat March, shared with Sabaat, “Women, transgender persons and those with disabilities, working women, domestic workers and healthcare workers were already suffering from many issues but with the pandemic things became more complex and their healthcare was greatly impacted. In the manifesto, we looked at the economic divisions in society, physical, reproductive, mental and menstrual health and also talked about the impact of climate change and how it is damaging the environment. We also demanded improvement in the healthcare system and increase in the health budget by 5% of GDP in the coming year.”

Article 38 of the Constitution says that the state shall provide medical relief to all citizens irrespective of their sex, caste or creed, but it is not being followed.

Asma Amir, an activist, told Sabaat, “Over the years the health budget has decreased impacting the wellbeing of women. The government needs to provide basic health facilities in rural areas as the people are completely deprived of healthcare. It has been ten years since the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2010 was passed but to date it has not been implemented fully while women are still being harassed in work places.” She also spoke about monetary issues faced by women due to which they lack nutrition which effects their health and especially during pregnancy, “A women should have the right over their bodies to decide when they are ready for a baby.”

Similarly, Aurat March Karachi’s Manifesto revolved around gender-based violence, acid attacks, enforced disappearances, discriminatory legislation, surveillance and forced conversions. It also demanded addition of women and transwomen medico-legal officers, criminalising of the two-finger test and questions related to sexual history conducted during rape investigations. Naheed, a mother of three children, shared how difficult it was to go through divorce because of her husband. “I’ve lived one of the most terrible years of my life with that man. He used to live off my earning and when I did not have any money left he would resort to domestic violence and no one would come to my help.”

The Islamabad chapter’s manifesto was not very different, focusing on issues ranging from healthcare, economic justice and patriarchal violence to disability justice, climate change and economic justice.

Zanaya Chaudhry, a transgender person, spoke about the issues faced by the transgender community. “Family and friends are the first ones to disown us and then the system does not facilitate us. To-date the Transgender Protection Act 2018 has not been implemented due to which we are unable to get proper health treatment. Doctors are not sensitised on how to deal with transgender persons, they cannot even decide on which ward should we can be shifted to. We can’t get proper jobs or even education because of the stigma and how society treats us. All this takes a toll on our mental health, but thanks to Aurat March someone is paying attention to our issues.”

Women who make Aurat March a success also face mental health issues in offline and online spaces. Research, meeting people, seeing their conditions and how the state has ignored its citizens impacts their psychological health severely.

Noor, a volunteer from Aurat March, said “it is depressing to see people deprived of basic health facilities, how women are bound to follow the patriarchal norms of society and her body is also ruled by the men around her. It’s heartbreaking to see such people in such a state.”

She also condemned the backlash Aurat March faces every year and how the state plays no role in curbing it.

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