Last month, a wall at Lahore’s Hussain Chowk received a rather unusual makeover. Girls and women turned up from across Pakistan and plastered multiple posters on its chipping facade. The art and writing on it carried similar overlapping themes—of women unshackling themselves, demanding the right to education, pushing for equality and even sporting Quranic verses about equal rights for men and women. And alongside the messaging were images of girls and women in sports, public spaces and activism. But a few days later, these posters were either vandalised or torn down. The women were not even surprised this happened; it wasn’t the first time either.
Over the last few years, women’s rights activism in contemporary Pakistan has given birth to Aurat March (translates to ‘Woman March’): a bold, subversive women-led campaign that has united activists and citizens from across the world to come out and occupy public spaces in Pakistan on Women’s Day (March 8).
And like any form of protest that seeks to reform regressive attitudes and laws, Aurat March has become a significant voice that confronts patriarchy. And they do so in the form of visual and strongly articulated slogans and creatives that call out bigotry and inherent sexism in South Asian culture. But just like in any South Asian society, championing women’s rights is no mean feat. It can get dangerous.
“The words ‘Aurat March’ now create a knee-jerk reaction of animosity in many [Pakistani] men,” Shehzil Malik, Pakistani artist and activist who is one of the organisers of Aurat March, tells VICE. Shehzil’s work—especially the one in which a woman in a hijab sits on a bike—itself has been vandalised in the past. “I see [the vandalism] as a sign that men are very uncomfortable with women, both as human beings and as depictions of art. Why did it offend men? Posters for advertisements (with women) stay up. Is that because a non-threatening, passive, aesthetic depiction of a woman is acceptable?” says Shehzil.
This simple act of vandalism is symptomatic of the larger aggression and violence against women, which often manifests in crimes like rape and abuse, or vicious online trolling. In South Asia, women’s movements are still fighting for basic, fundamental rights, like freely using public spaces, or being heard or taken seriously.
“As Aurat March gains momentum, it has brought so many hidden realities to the surface,” says Shehzil. “From daily reports of women murdered and raped, rampant sexual abuse, the more silent oppression of all women as second-class citizens, the resistence to their getting an education or employment, to the silent marginalisation of women at home and in the workplace—Aurat March is now a platform where women can find safety in numbers.”
The movement is breaking the silence despite critics (mostly men) calling them pointless, anarchist and an exploitation of feminism, while sending rape threats, or petitions to courts to ban it. Last year, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly unanimously passed a resolution to condemn the marchers. "Some hidden forces have sped up their efforts to destroy our family system and social customs, the practical demonstration of which took place on March 8, 2019, in various big cities on Women's Day,” said the resolution.
The posters from previous editions—which carried messages like “Khana garam kardoongi, bistar khud garam kar lo (I’ll warm up the food, you warm up the bed yourself)” or “Tu kare to stud, main karoon toh slut (If you do it, you’re a stud. If I do it, I’m a slut)”—were even featured in Pakistani television shows for being “dishonourable” and “objectionable”.
But as campaigners and activists in Pakistan will tell you time and again, they expect criticism before they even start feminist messages in campaigns. Shiza Malik, who was the media and communications manager of Oxfam International Pakistan when the NGO started “Free from Fear” campaign last year, says the more we talk about women’s rights, the more negative reactions they get from “threatened” men. “We knew that the [Free from Fear] campaign will be attacked in online spaces, as are so many feminist messages,” she says.
Last year, this Oxfam project had young people create artwork that navigated restrictions around women’s mobility, and the impact of fear from violence and harassment. The result was images depicting women living free from fear, casually lazing around, driving bicycles and rickshaws. “There were some negative comments, especially about one artwork of a police woman standing with her legs apart,” says Shiza. However, posters showing women in burkha were positively received. “This reflects the South Asian fixation with policing women’s clothing, and that while patriarchal societies such as ours are beginning to allow women some freedoms vis-a-vis education and employment, women's bodily autonomy remains a far-off dream,” says Shiza.
No wonder then, that in a subcontinent where male ego is more fragile than an egg shell, the bold and unapologetic language of something as simple as posters continues to ruffle up feathers. But the artists and activists are adamant that they will not stop occupying more public spaces. “If you’re afraid of our power, of art, we’ll do it again,” an Aurat March volunteer told the local press last week, in response to the vandalism. In the lead-up to Aurat March next week, activists and volunteers will cover up more walls with posters, which are now available online for free.
At a time when dissent and social disruption in South Asia is increasingly being seen as “anti-national”, civil justice movements like Aurat March prove that raising voices is more than just that. They’re radical disruptors at an unjust time. “Women's voices are often not heard or given a platform; they’re not considered important,” says Shehzil. “But art can break through this silence.”
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.