Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Noor-ul-Haq Qadri had been in the news lately for writing a controversial letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan, asking him to ban the Aurat March in Pakistan, scheduled on the International Women’s Day on March 8, 2022, and observe Hijab Day instead. The minister had, however, refused to write any such thing. According to the minister, his proposal to celebrate Hijab Day on International Women’s Day was misunderstood as a strategy to ban Aurat March. However, the minister did not mince words in calling the previous Aurat March an aberration to the religious and cultural values of Pakistan society. He opposed slogans and posters used on the occasion and demanded making the entire affair favourable to women’s real issues, such as their right to inheritance, domestic violence, workplace harassment, etc. He further said that his suggestion to celebrate Hijab Day on International Women Day was premised on showing solidarity with the Indian Muslim girls who were forced to remove hijab in educational institutions.
It is not the first time that Aurat March has received condemnation. Last year some lawyers in Peshawar and Lahore had registered an FIR against the organisers of Women’s March, alleging that they had used derogatory language against Islam. Some others doctored the footage of the March to make it appear blasphemous and contravening Pakistan’s social and cultural values.
Women had been taking out processions every year; however, what Pakistan saw in the Aurat March of 2019 was a bit different, bold, and radical. It was not as much the March that took the breath out of the conservatives. Instead, it was the slogans that unsettled many. The jarring reality of women crossing all bars to bring down the barriers between them and their male counterparts was not something Pakistan had the appetite to digest. The slogan Mera Jism Meri Marzi (My body my choice) highlighted the practice of objectifying women and demanded giving women the right to define their lives according to their choices.
The question is: why did an occasion meant for the betterment of the human rights of women gather bad press? The answer, in all honesty, is that there were a few slogans that did not sync with reality. It is one thing to demand a woman’s right to a safe and secure life both at the workplace and home, but it is different to portray her as a cold creature with no warmth to look after her family, husband, and children. Raising a family and cooking food for them can never be a chore unless women are subjected to violence for not accomplishing their duty in this regard.
The struggle for women’s emancipation is not over yet. Whatever women have achieved in the realm of freedom became possible by struggling within the system and not as an outlier.
There is no doubt that religious elements in Pakistan want to see women latched to the desires of men in the family, which has been one of the biggest reasons for population growth in the country. There is also no denying that woman harassment leading to violence against them has yet to find solid legal protection. The acquittal of Qandeel Baloch’s brother, who killed her, is a case in point. However, it is also true that of late, the struggle for women’s empowerment has become more of a tug-of-war against men rather than the system per se. That was not the idea of any movement for women’s empowerment. Women want freedom, not to become independent of men. Instead, they want independence in making choices for themselves around their relations with men and others in society.
The extreme behaviour seen on both sides — government and the organisers of the Aurat March — will only undermine the spirit of women’s empowerment or their recognition as equal partners. The fight of liberal versus non-liberal or the tendency to see secularism as a bane to Pakistan’s society is in nobody’s favour. In all fairness, if there is any religion, which is both secular and liberal, it is Islam, which gives complete protection to women.
As for the suggestion for making International Women’s Day as the Hijab Day, it can be anything but a sane idea. We cannot change the essence of international days to protect our so-called moral values. We have done that with Valentine’s Day without achieving any meaningful result. What is happening in India to Hijab-wearing women is wrong, but we cannot show solidarity with them by forcing our women to wear Hijab. How would that differ from the forced removal of Hijab off Indian students’ heads? If anything we can do, it is to accept the rationality behind the slogan, Mera Jism Meri Marzi (My body my choice), to give women, whether in India, Pakistan or anywhere in the world, the right to choose just not their attire but everything that concerns them.