When the Aurat marched


What turned the women abusive?

The Aurat marched and created havoc. Men are seething with anger and women are preaching morals. Far from acknowledging the depth of issues addressed and questions asked, the ever-strong patriarchal society has started a debate over the expressions used in the rally. Courage seems to be at odds in Pakistan, which is still having a tough time to wake from the slumber of a deep rooted conservative system.

When the country witnessed undoubtedly the boldest expressions and the most vociferous demands made by women– a minority as suffering as the others, men and women both gawked at the audacity. The messages hit hard. With sarcasm, puns and utter lack of euphemisms, the campaigns were carefully worked out. From questioning the right posture always directed to girls and not boys, to inappropriate messages, from demands to end gender roles to a unanimous declaration to thwart patriarchy, the issues raised were diverse. But largely, they focused on sexual violence against women and trampling their consent even over matters personal to them. However, it was the use of street language on the placards which raised many eyebrows and cupped even more mouths. How wrong was the choice of words?

Ideally, it makes perfect sense that the medium of expression matches the location: after all, this was not a discussion in a conference hall, it was a street march. But practically, Pakistani streets and other public spaces deny freedom to expressions which threaten the cloak of cultural conservatism knit with the thread of religion. This especially happens when it comes to women.

So it is actually a norm to find shady, secluded ‘dating’ spots outside, where couples attempt to ease their frustrations, but it is a taboo for them to hold hands or hug publicly. It is a taboo for a woman (please note, not a man) to swear or smoke a cigarette, at least publicly, but it may not be a surprise to find a practising male politician, or even a religious-based-right-winged-male activist, sprinkling curses liberally over his loyal followers.

The point is not to chastise bad morals or loose language. The troubling aspect is, why are men not shunned for these acts? Why is there a difference in moral standards for men and women?

This is exactly what the Aurat March of this year challenged: a double standard and a practising patriarchal society. Beyond the allegations of marketing gimmicks and fun and frolics, there were condemnations of unjust denials and suffocating suppressions. The bitter truths came out equally bitter in words. And the language was loose. Critics allege that the focus was on the vocabulary and the real issues were buried beneath. It was actually the very opposite. When these issues, which are still buried beneath the layers of morality and decency in the society, were scraped from underneath, they oozed out from all seams. Like a volcano spitting lava, the pent-up frustration which was simmering and boiling under the lid, gushed outside. The expressions were fierce and bold precisely because they expressed the thoughts which are not allowed to be spoken aloud.

The language was bad because the issues are not addressed despite being prevalent and even raised for years. The stance was bold because most women of today who are aware and educated, cannot fathom the reason why medieval, antiquated and pre-Islamic era customs still prevail. And the cherry comes on top when these very customs are said to be backed by Islam by unaware Muslims, although their religion was the first to grant fully rights to women, including freedom of speech.

The abusive language does not suit the composure a woman carries. So does it suit the men? Why are occasional objections to a man’s inappropriate use of words, body language and gestures often ignored? Why aren’t these men reminded of the appropriate character personification and public display as taught and practised in Islam? Women are being chided with messages reminding them that they are carrying the legacy of Hazrat Khadija (RA), Hazrat Aisha (RA), Hazrat Fatima (RA), Hazrat Zainab (RA)– the pioneering women who have indeed set examples of excellence, not only in Islam but also the world. May I remind that along with these iconic females were the exemplary standards of Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH), Hazrat Ali (RA) and Hazrat Hussain (RA). May I ask, are men of today following the footsteps of these great personalities?

The reactions were bound to be harsh, after all the foundations of a crumbling society were hit by a tsunami. The very foundations whose burdens have forever lain on the shoulders of women, who have been carrying honour, grace, respect of the family.

I have an example of a woman from an unprivileged background, who while protecting her young daughter from forcibly being married to a man aged, already married and father of several, gets thrashed by her own husband and tsked-tsked at by society. I have another example from the presumably privileged class, belonging to which a well-educated and professionally experienced woman born to affluent parents, is newly married to an impotent man with in laws isolating her in a room, and the woman is still seeking advice on what step to take next. Both examples from the extreme ends of society reveal the indecisive and submissive minds of Pakistani women, which are forced not to develop.

So the reactions to the rallies were huge, because among women, they came from those who live a cocooned, respectable life and cannot imagine the disrespect a woman feels when brushed against by a strange man in public, the fall from grace which tumbles upon her when she receives highly inappropriate images, the pain she feels when she is abused– verbally and physically by those who are said to be the guardians of her life, and the horror she faces as a child, when the touches of a person known to her go beyond limits. The reactions may also come from those women, who may have an idea about these pains, but who are living a life under the decisions of their patriarchal family, and are afraid that if they voice an opinion in favour of the so-called blasphemous, vulgar and outrageous women on the street, their own position or status may come to be at stake.

Inappropriate or abusive language cannot be truly justified, but then there is no justification as to why sexual harassment, sexual violence, gender bias and preference for males in families is still practised. In future, if we wish to read better composed placards, we should first acknowledge the horrendous issues and work on fixing them. If we are to remind women that Islam gives equal status to both men and women and it is disrespectful for women to abuse men or engage in men hating campaigns, we should in the very next step, remind the men of the same.

Critiques on use of language will be accepted if the issues raised are acknowledged. The voice was harsh because it hasn’t been heard. The tone would soften on its own when listened to sympathetically and acted upon as well.