KARACHI, Pakistan – It’s a rare sight. Hundreds of Pakistani feminists across the ethnic and class divide are celebrating and mourning together in Pakistan’s megacity Karachi. Behind them, the sun sets on the iconic Quaid Mazar, the mausoleum built for the founding patriarch of Pakistan, who dreamed of a country where minorities could be safe and free. They are all captivated by a woman in purple scrubs speaking on a stage.
“Look at my face, because I am not demanding anything wrong. I only demand wages, security and peace,” Sarah Gill, the first transgender doctor of Pakistan, declares as she takes off her surgical mask.
Transgender women face the most systemic violence in Pakistan. Twenty trans women were murdered in the country last year, and all of those cases remain unresolved.
A charged crowd responds by chanting Gill’s words back at her in unison and rhythm. They are a sea of women and allies from daily labourers, Christian organisations, trans rights groups, climate activists and women who left school, work or their homes and hopped on a rickshaw to be here for the Aurat March. Gill’s words resonated with all of them.
The Aurat or Women’s March is a rights movement that centres women and Pakistan’s most disenfranchised and marginalised groups. It began organically five years ago on March 8, International Women’s Day. Every year since, in the country’s largest cities women get together and chant, sing, and dance to build communities that challenge patriarchal violence and oppression across gender, ethnicity, religion, occupation and class.
This year, hundreds of women and allies rallied across the country, with marches held in Multan, Lahore, Karachi, Hyderabad and Islamabad.
In a country where numbing violence against women and minorities make headlines every day, scores of feminists danced and unapologetically chanted slogans for freedom, equality and justice.
Just two days before the march, a man in the Mianwali district of Pakistan fatally shot his week-old baby girl four times in cold blood – because he wanted a son, not a daughter. In February, the brother of Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch was acquitted of her 2016 murder in the name of “honour.” In July of 2021, wealthy socialite Zahir Jaffer beheaded artist Noor Mukadam after she refused to marry him; he was sentenced to death last month.
Posters with Noor’s name were at all the marches. The violence she faced from a scorned and entitled man is something that all Pakistani women can relate to.
Especially the march organisers. Every year, they receive rape and death threats from online accounts, some anonymous and some not, and brazen false propaganda from YouTubers painting them as “vulgar” women out to spread sexuality and immorality in the Islamic republic of 200 million.
Despite this barrage of negativity, march organisers focus on making the movement an inclusive and celebratory sisterhood that shares joy, healing and resistance, and centers the most oppressed women in the country.
“Living under fear is the daily thing for us, it's the norm for us. This is the one day where we can actually come and not feel afraid and feel like something will happen to us, because we have our sisters by our side,” Lahore-based Aurat March volunteer Sana Jafri told VICE World News.
In Karachi city, Shaheen Gull, who grew up in a small village and now studies performing arts in the city, rapped on the stage, “I am a biker girl. I’m a fighter girl.” The crowd went wild as the student sang about the struggles that women like her face when commuting between their home and school. Then she read a poem about children facing sexual abuse within their homes. And everyone listened somberly. A rural folk singer later sang a centuries-old Sufi song, and women got up and performed the Sufi ritual dance of dhamaal.
In Islamabad, women wrote their hopes for a feminist future on strips of cloth they hung on trees. In Lahore, a live art memorial honored the lives of the 20 murdered transgender women. A procession of trans activists covered in fake blood held a sheet over their heads and chanted, “She has awoken, the transwoman has awoken,” as the crowd showered them with rose petals.
“Aurat March provides us with a pause of relief where we can finally release our collective anxieties. It lets us reclaim our narratives, our spaces and the happiness that so many bruised male egos have violently stolen from us,” 21-year-old Karachi resident Khaula Shahid told VICE World News.
In 2021, Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights reported 16,153 cases of sexual violence against women, including workplace harassment, in the previous four years. According to Human Rights Watch, 1,000 women are murdered in Pakistan on average every year. Most crimes against women and sexual minorities however go largely unreported.
Which is why for many, marching equals survival. “There were a lot of security threats this time and we knew that a lot could happen, but honestly, it makes us want to march more, because every day is a security threat for us, ” said Jafri.
And the threats are serious. When marchers come together, religious right-wing groups and misogynistic media falsely brand the march as a movement to spread immorality, instead of a freedom movement for women to exist and thrive, putting the lives of organisers and participants at risk.
In 2020, marchers in Islamabad were physically attacked by religious conservatives armed with batons and stones. Last year, doctored videos and images emerged online that attempted to portray participants as raising blasphemous slogans.
In Pakistan, blasphemy charges carry the death penalty, and even mere accusations of blasphemy can lead to fatal mob violence. The disinformation campaign led to numerous death threats against the organisers, including an ominous warning by the Pakistani Taliban to “fix their ways.” As a result, many organisers were forced into hiding. Police also filed blasphemy charges against march organisers in Islamabad. A court later dismissed the charges.
This year was no different. In February, religious hardliners from the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) political party tried to stop the march with threats of mob violence.
“We reported the threats to the district administration but we didn’t receive any response in this regard. In fact, they repeatedly emphasised that they were helpless in the face of right-wing groups,” an Islamabad-based organiser of a local chapter of the Aurat March told VICE World News on the condition of anonymity for their safety.
On March 8, the day of the march, Aurat March Islamabad’s Twitter page alleged that the police and the district administration kept disrupting the event by turning off speakers’ mics, threatening their driver and preventing participants from reaching the venue. The Islamabad march ended early.
While this was happening, religious and conservative groups held an opposing rally dubbed a “Haya” or modesty march at the Islamabad Press Club. The principal of the Jamia Hafsa religious seminary, Umme Hassan, reportedly said that the Aurat marchers deserve the same fate as Noor Mukadam.
In Lahore, marchers from religious groups hosting a modesty march positioned themselves 200 metres from the Aurat rally and became increasingly aggressive, chanting hateful slogans aimed at the Aurat marchers. Hostile male reporters were seen harassing marchers, and at least one railed against trans women at the rally. The Lahore march, too, ended early because of disruptions from those opposed to it. Some were riled up by an art installation which featured cardboard cutouts of YouTube journalists calling them out for sensationalising, misrepresenting and harassing Aurat marchers in the past.
In one incident, a reporter repeatedly harassed trans women and organisers at the march using derogatory slurs and questioning the presence of trans people at the event. The Lahore march also ended early from combined pressure by police, media, and unruly counter protesters.
In Karachi, the march was almost cancelled when the city administration took issue with a rainbow graffiti that appeared close to the venue for the march. They claimed the organisers put it up to promote vulgarity at the march.
“They said that we had created the wall art promoting ‘obscenity.’ Neither we nor our allies had anything to do with it. It did not even look like a rainbow. It consisted of two emoticons kissing,” a Karachi-based organiser told VICE World News, requesting anonymity for their safety. Similar pushback from authorities hounded organisers in Multan city.
Despite all the opposition and backlash, the marches pushed through and the spirit of intersectional sisterhood and feminine solidarity prevailed.
“We organise because we don't want to remain reactionary and constantly do the firefighting,” a march organiser from Islamabad, told VICE World News, also requesting anonymity for their safety. “We wish to see a feminist utopia of our own. We actually want to move ahead. We want to build something creative, sustainable and hopeful.”
From the eve of the Aurat March until sundown on the day itself, Pakistani women find safety and bravery in each other. The march has become a space for women to express their feministic politics freely. They organise and celebrate unapologetically, with their most oppressed sisters at the centre each year, to defy the system that tries to stifle and diminish all of them.
“We have cried all year. This is the day that we go and we celebrate with each other because we are still alive,” said Jafri. “And we shall celebrate as long as we live.”