Pakistan’s leading religious right newspaper Daily Ummat refers to them as whores. The Taliban threatened them and accused them of spreading vulgarity. Two courts in Pakistan have ordered police investigations into obviously doctored videos that frame them of committing blasphemy, a deadly crime in the country.
All they did was organise marches for women's rights on March 8. The organisers of a women-led collective called Aurat March (“aurat” translates to “woman” in Urdu) raised slogans against rape culture and demanded economic, reproductive, environmental and gender justice for all women, trans, and non-binary communities. Thousands attended across Pakistan.
Afterwards, they faced a coordinated campaign to malign, threaten, and silence them. Pakistan’s Aurat March organisers then sought protection from their prime minister in an open letter.
Two days later, the Prime Minister of Pakistan engaged in classic victim-blaming. He linked the rise in rape cases in the country to what the Taliban and conservative newspapers accuse the Aurat March organisers of: vulgarity. He also implied rape is rising because of what victims wear.
In a virtual townhall on live television, Prime Minister Imran Khan responded to a query about rising incidents of rape and sexual violence and said, “If you indulge in vulgarity, it will have some impact on our society.” He added, “Not everyone has the willpower to resist temptation. That’s why purdah is so important.” Purdah is a term that can refer to gender segregation and modest clothing.
Pakistan officially registers at least 11 cases of rape every day. In his live townhall, PM Khan said, “The prevalence of rape in Pakistan really concerns me. The reported cases of rape are just 1 percent of the actual numbers. [Rape] has really spread in our society.”
His government approved the stringent Anti-Rape Ordinance in December 2020, which includes, among other promises, speedy trials, and chemical castration of repeat offenders. Ironically, the Aurat March organisers led the mass protests in September 2020 for anti-rape reforms after a senior police official blamed the survivor of gang rape for driving alone at night.
The Aurat March organisers believe measures in the ordinance do not address the patriarchal structures and culture that enables rape.
Before the PM’s townhall, Aurat March organisers wrote an open letter—signed by nearly 600 supporters— asking him for intervention, even as Twitter users flooded the Prime Minister’s timeline with calls to take action against them. PM Khan has not commented on the ongoing threats against Aurat March, and the open letter they wrote to him. But last year, he had called the backlash against them “a cultural clash.”
In South Asia, the onus of sexual crimes often falls on victims and survivors. Since 2018, Aurat March organisers, supporters and allies have been highlighting institutional failure towards survivors and the root causes of rape culture.
Last year’s Aurat March slogan—“My body, my choice” or “Mera jism, mera marzi”—led to an aggressive backlash, with organisers from the various city chapters facing online rape and death threats. One march was even pelted with stones.
This year marked an unprecedented effort to stop women from asking for their rights. “It’s always been dangerous [for women to march in Pakistan],” Farzana Bari, a veteran women’s rights activist who leads Aurat Azadi March in Pakistan’s capital city Islamabad, told VICE World News. “But this time, things took a more dangerous turn.”
In the days following this year’s March 8 rallies, a series of coordinated online attacks were fuelled by doctored videos and photos from the actual protest. In one video, women raising the slogan, “Mullah (Muslim cleric) should listen” was distorted to “Allah should listen.”
In another, a photo of a banner of the Pakistani feminist organisation Women’s Democratic Front (with red, white and purple colours) was misrepresented as the French flag. France is hugely unpopular in Pakistan.
The organisers went into damage control mode to clarify the rampant disinformation. Many were forced into hiding. “This is the first time that false allegations of blasphemy were weaponised against Aurat March,” Farieha Aziz, a co-founder of Pakistan’s digital rights non-profit Bolo Bhi, told VICE World News. “The implications of these allegations are not just deliberate and malicious, but also puts lives at risk.”
Pakistani Taliban, a banned militant group, threatened the organizers with this warning: “Fix your ways, there are still many young Muslims here who know how to protect Islam and the boundaries set by Allah.”
In a series of tweets, Aurat March organisers said the fake posts were created to “elicit some sort of violent or perhaps even fatal reaction”.
On March 26, local court judges in Karachi and Peshawar ordered the police to investigate blasphemy charges against some of the women organisers. The petitions in both cities named many organisers—all women—accusing them of displaying “obscene posters” and “insulting the Prophet Muhammad and his companions” during a gathering.
In the past, vigilantes have lynched and killed those accused of blasphemy. In some cases, the murderers are celebrated. Data compiled by Al Jazeera found that at least 77 suspects of blasphemy were murdered since 1990.
“Blasphemy accusations are a license to kill in Pakistan,” Usama Khilji, another co-founder of Bolo Bhi, told VICE World News. “Their names and photos are everywhere, and some right-wing newspapers are circulating it. This is despite a lot of effort to dispel the disinformation.”
Rizwan Saeed, who documents toxic masculinity in South Asia’s digital spaces through Aurat March’s online activity, observed that this year’s abuse came after “troll gangs” came together about three months before the March 8 rallies. Unlike previous years, this year was planned and had one sole purpose: to create a false narrative about the protesting women.
“This troll gang was composed of men and even women who were threatened by those who defy patriarchal norms and came together just to propagate anti-Aurat March hashtags,” the digital researcher told VICE World News.
“[These trolls] want to reclaim their space in the digital world and protect their interpretations of local norms, religious traditions and culture,” said Saeed.
“I also came across a video where a woman’s voice was replaced with that of a dog barking,” Saeed added. “This shows extreme misogyny by a different group of trolls, who did not allege blasphemy but simply wanted to channel their hate against women.”
Khilji said that his organisation contacted Twitter to take down the doctored viral videos but by the time Twitter responded to some of them, the damage had been done. “Twitter really needs to dedicate more resources and local language expertise at the time of crisis because their response time could put people’s lives at risk,” he said.
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