Is piddarshahi a feminine noun?

On sisterhood, solidarity and the sacrifices made to organise and attend Aurat March


Content warning: descriptions of abuse, incitement to violence and rape

HIBA REMEMBERS WAKINGup to the front page of Dawn on March 9 last year with a feeling of jubilation. The day before she had sung, marched, and danced her way from the Lahore Press Club to Alhamra Hall with her fellow women and allies. Evidence of that day’s multiple historic moments sat proudly on the front page: a photo of Krishna Kohli, the first Hindu and Dalit woman elected to Senate, as she chairs a session of the upper house, alongside pictures of elated women taking the streets in cities across Pakistan.

“All of us were fooled for an instant that Pakistan is so progressive, that we’re able to exist in public like this. But we were brought back to the stoop the next day.” 

Nearly a year later, I dig up the paper from Hiba’s memory. The photos are front and centre, but the headline is small and somewhat generic. WOMEN RALLY ACROSS PAKISTAN FOR RIGHTS, END TO INJUSTICE. Something about the word ‘rally’ irks me; it makes the day feel spontaneous, fleeting, glossing over the hard work of mobilisation. I look more closely: the words Aurat March are omitted from both the image captions and the headline.

Still, Hiba felt uplifted and—I imagine—gratified that so many women had been able to march for their rights across Pakistan. Bilal felt that way, too. It had been his first Aurat March. He and his friend spent a great deal of time preparing their placards, bringing them to life with bright, meaningful colours. BARABAR HAQOOQ, read his placard—not just for women, but for everyone minced under the heel of power. (After all, for some communities, it still only felt possible to make their point obliquely.)

Courtesy Strugglistan

 At the march, Bilal couldn’t believe his eyes: “It’s something I’ll never, ever forget in my entire lifetime. So many queer people were present. Being openly, visibly queer. I felt seen for the first time. Walking on the streets, I felt I was a part of this country after all, and that there were others like me.”

Thousands of women and members of the trans and queer communities came together in 2018 and 2019 to March for equality and the abolition of patriarchal norms. “Even those who don’t know or agree with what Aurat March stands for tend to have an opinion about it,” said Leena Ghani**, an organiser for the march in Lahore, “which is telling of how much attention it has garnered and the conversations it has started.” Earlier this month, when novelist Mohammed Hanif asked his class of 21-year-olds what they thought were the most historic events in their lifetime, Aurat March was third on the list, after the War on Terror and the attempt on Malala’s life. For a generation that grew up with a fraying of public life, due to violence and insecurity, Aurat March augured the possibility of a different future. 

The ensuing backlash has made it apparent, however, that this future must be fought for fiercely.  

“I felt so good after Aurat March,” says Bilal, who works as a minority grassroots organiser and is a dedicated volunteer for the march this year. “But the backlash was a very poignant moment for me. All of us were fooled for an instant that Pakistan is so progressive, that we’re able to exist in public like this. But we were brought back to the stoop the next day.”  

BISMAH AZHAR ATTENDEDAurat March as a student last year. She wielded a placard that read: TU KARE TOU STUD, MAIN KAROON TOU SLUT? Abuse poured in over social media; a year later, the more run-of-the-mill slut-shaming and insult-hurling has faded into the background but the graphic comments are seared into her memory.

Itna shauq hai tou main mardeta hu teri.

This is how rapes happen. Phir rape ho jayega tou mat rona.

Kanwal* has been organising Aurat March for three years now. She’s better able to ignore the abuse now, but concedes some cruel comments still get to her. In 2018, Kanwal’s younger sister became a target for trolls, after her photo from Aurat March was posted online. Thousands of comments flooded in, ridiculing her. Nothing was spared: her teeth, her appearance, her character. “It hits especially close to home when someone you know is being attacked,” says Kanwal. “When you see someone else go through it, someone you love, it takes a toll on you too.”

“Bismah felt all the expected emotions in the face of harassment: she felt targeted, anxious, and hurt. But she also remembers feeling alone.”

As Bismah grappled with the online abuse, she also had to worry about her parents discovering her photos and the comments below. Even when she chose what to write on her placard, she had her parents at the back of her mind; she reasoned that they would not know the meaning of slut or stud. She was right: her aunt saw the photos and forwarded them to her father. Thankfully, as Bismah predicted, he did not come across the comments and didn’t know what the words meant.  

Bismah felt all the expected emotions in the face of harassment: she felt targeted, anxious, and hurt. But she also remembers feeling alone. “I felt alone even though I knew it was happening to other people—some who even had it worse. Their faces were on TV, and they were getting attacked more. Despite that I felt alone.”

Amal Awais Chughtai also suffered under the tide of public backlash. She felt on edge for weeks after last year’s Aurat March. The safety, comfort and solidarity she had felt on the day—something she rarely feels otherwise—dissipated into a deep sense of panic when she discovered HumTV had featured her face and placard in a segment defaming Aurat March. Her placard was meant to be a humorous take on a common stereotype: FEMINISM DOESN’T HATE MEN, it read, BUT I SURE DO. Indignant hosts debated the validity of her words, holding them up as proof that the march and its demands were indefensible. Amal was lucky: digital rights activist Nighat Dad was a guest on  the show, and came to her defence.

“I was very scared,”  Amal recalls. “On the streets, I thought people would recognise me and attack me.”

Courtesy Strugglistan

Bilal also remembers being alarmed by the harmful narrative being broadcast into people’s homes last year. The week of the march, last year, Orya Maqbool Jan spent 17 minutes on national television accusing Aurat March of being a cover for “the homoagenda”. The queer community was reduced to the periphery once again as the marchers could not come to its defence as vocally as they could for its non-queer marchers. Bilal’s older sister went through his personal belongings and devices and exposed his support for queer rights to his family, who began viewing him with suspicion and concern. 

“The backlash I got from my family is honestly the only backlash that really affected me,” he says. He knows that if his father were to find out about his activism, he would be kicked out of the house. His mother worries he’ll run into trouble if he frequents leftist spaces. His mental health began to suffer. He agonises over other things too: he worries, for instance, that his visibility might bring harm to those in the community who don’t have the privilege of even thinking about visibility, let alone living it. He finds himself in such double-binds all the time. “You’re trying to fight oppression, but that fight against oppression also has to go through loopholes of oppression.”

Those who oppose the march—or are merely entertained by it—do not think as carefully or ethically. Amal was able to confront her source of harassment, an opportunity rarely afforded to women. With some help, she contacted the TV host to protest the use of her images without her consent or knowledge. Instead of working on taking down the video, however, the crew tried to persuade her to come on the show. To Amal, this felt like just another attempt to get ratings from the Aurat March hype; the last thing she wanted to do was create content for their show. It became clear to her that they were not at all apologetic about placing her in the way of harm. “I told them if anything had happened to me, it would have been because of them.”

Tooba, an organiser for Aurat Azadi March in Islamabad, who has worked with the Awami Workers Party and the Women’s Democratic Front for almost a decade, has defended many unpopular causes. But she too was caught off guard by the extent and intensity of the backlash. “Only then did I fully realise how horrible the situation is for women in this country… that even a slight mention of it resulted in a backlash so violent and threatening.” 

“You work so hard, you’re almost about to burn out by the time the march happens. And it’s this great thing, which energises you, reinforces everything you believe in—and then your bubble just bursts,” says Kanwal. Every day for a week after the march last year, primetime news carried images, snippets and opinions about the march. “That really tired us out.”. But it ultimately helped in unifying everyone, says Leena, inculcating a sense of ownership and solidarity. 

Courtesy Strugglistan

Tooba’s background as a political worker has helped her from despairing too much. “I know that when you’re trying to change the system, trying to shake something which upholds power, it’s always going to receive this kind of backlash.” Her defence mechanism is to shut out the vitriol and keep organising: “The spheres of power will stand up against you. You just have to keep going because that is the only way.” Amal’s experience last year pushed her to become actively involved in organising this year. “If people are going to take my image and my voice and do that on their behalf and use it to back up their own rhetoric about the March, I want to have ownership of that,” she says.

“Grammatically, piddarshahi, the Urdu word for patriarchy, is feminine. Theoretically, everything it stands for is masculine.”

Leena and Hiba take comfort in their feminist foremothers. “For the initial few weeks, the most haunting aspect of being targeted so viciously was the sense of  helplessness,” says Leena. But the support she received from older feminists—in particular, the storied Women’s Action Forum—was of great help. “Fatima Jinnah, Benazir Bhutto, Asma Jahangir—what woman exists in our history whose character has not been maligned?” reflects Hiba. “So I tell myself that the backlash, the maligning, the abuse—the unimaginably disgusting abuse hurled at us that cannot even be repeated—I tell myself this is part of history, this is part of change.”

IS PIDDARSHAHI, THEUrdu word for patriarchy, muzakkir or mo’annis, masculine or feminine? Translating the viral Chilean protest anthem Un Violador En Tu Camino (The Rapist is You), volunteers of the Lahore Aurat March chapter found themselves in a fix. Grammatically, the word is feminine. Theoretically, everything it stands for is masculine. The volunteers wondered what they should do. They didn’t want to fuel the opposition’s charge of elitism, that the women lacked even basic command over the rules of Urdu. But they also wanted to make a symbolic point: to subvert language—which so often protects and bolsters power—to make it more… true.        

Piddarshahi woh judge hai / jo hamari paidaish par / faisla sunata hai. Technically, since ‘judge’ is gender neutral in Urdu, the correct translation of this sentence would be feminine—piddarshahi woh judge hai / jo hamari paidaish par / faisla sunati hai—but would’ve sounded odd. After all, as Bilal notes, “the judge, jury and executioner in this country are always men.” 

“The layers of things you have to think about are just off the charts,” says Kanwal. Everyone seems to have an opinion on Aurat March. The organisers are often accused of being anti-state, foreign agents; they are labelled ‘bad women’. Invoking feminist scholars Dr Rubina Saigol and Dr Amina Jamal,  Tooba says: “They are not the wilful daughters or the subservient mothers of the nation-state; they don’t carry around cultural markers. Such women are never acceptable to any riasat.” In reality, these ‘bad women’ have full-time jobs and juggle the same responsibilities most of us do: work, friends, family, personal lives. In planning for the march, they often have to ask themselves: is there enough budget for this? Organising might be a labour of love, but it also amounts to a full-time job.    

“Apparently once you do this, you’re not a full person who does other things in life,” Kanwal jokes. Often she just stands there nodding at the flood of unsolicited advice, thinking: don’t you think we thought of that?

When Bismah’s placard vent viral last year, Bismah also felt—aside from psychological trauma—burdened by a sudden expectation to continually prove her politics. “People start identifying you with a cause. Suddenly, we have to start bearing the burden that your behavior has to be perfect. We become representatives of feminism and the march in some ways.” 

“The intention this year is to control the post-March narrative before the metastasizing lies of right-wingers and misogynists plant themselves in the national discourse.”

Kanwal remembers spending endless hours last year, perfecting Aurat March Lahore’s manifesto, which, this year, is a fifteen-clause document that addresses topics ranging from economic justice—calling for living wages and reduced inflation—to ending domestic and sexual abuse and enforced disappearances. But the only thing that gets much attention is the placards. “We march in favour of workers’ rights; we are for unionisation. We express solidarity: for freedom of press, with the causes of Kashmir and Palestine. We are against the death penalty,” said Hiba. “A big part of our manifesto is always, always dedicated to climate change; clean air and water are big issues for us. We spend so much time on how economic changes impact women and trans people but that message is always lost.”

Courtesy Strugglistan

Kanwal doesn’t particularly care about respectability politics. “I’m so happy that all sorts of women came out and talked about their bodily autonomy, sexuality, along with other things.” But she too has had to stifle her radical politics to appear acceptable and non-threatening. “We always have to stay calm, obviously. You can’t lose your temper even though a lot of things can be triggering. If someone is sitting across us on a TV panel and saying misogynistic things, it’s going to hurt. Especially when you’re tired, you’re more likely to get angry. But you can’t. We have to pretend like this isn’t affecting us.”

AS PART OFthe strategy for Aurat March 2020, organisers in Lahore are already preparing for post-march backlash control. This year, unlike in the past, the backlash arrived before the march, adding to their already teeming workload. The intention this year is to control the post-March narrative before the metastasizing lies of right-wingers and misogynists could plant themselves in the national discourse. Already, in Islamabad, a feminist mural was defaced; human rights activist Marvi Sirmed was insulted on national television. 

“Since the march always takes place on March 8, religious right-wing groups as well as the institutional apparatuses that are against us know that it’s coming,” says Kanwal. “We’re very transparent and public about everything that we do.” But Tooba points to one benefit of having the march on the same day every year: the potential for institutions to build capacity to support it.

Scarred by past experience and historical precedents, the women have little faith in institutions. Hiba recalls the state’s complacency—and complicity—when they approached its institutions for protection amid the backlash to Aurat March last year. “A mullah from the pulpit said these women deserve to be raped and that is somehow acceptable. Fazlur Rehman said he won’t let us march again. This really messes with your head because even as we filed complaints about these hate crimes, no action was taken against these elements. The police said there is no crime here so how can we file an FIR?”  

In contrast, last year, police registered an FIR against Aurat March. It was later thrown out. The Lahore High Court accepted a petition this year seeking to ban the march. The petition alleged that “various anti-state parties… are funding this Aurat March with the sole purpose of spreading anarchy among the masses.” Women from the legal community were shocked that such a frivolous case was entertained by the High Court, even if it was eventually dismissed. 

Courtesy Strugglistan

Tooba added that the cyberwing of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) knows that women suffer this time every year; still, it refuses to take action on its own. Kanwal agrees: “FIA is notoriously useless when it comes to protecting women. They told us they couldn’t identify bloggers that were entirely visible in their videos but they have no difficulties identifying anonymous trolls targeting Ali Zafar [a singer/actor accused of sexual harassment].”   

Hiba, who is a lawyer, understands even more intimately the ways in which legal institutions fail women: “When we try to access the law for our protection, there is no support forthcoming. That is precisely the situation women find themselves in every day. Despite knowing they are available, I know they are not accessible to me….For a young girl coming to the march for the first time, if her photo goes viral and she faces backlash, she might not even have the support of her family. She will find it even harder to access the law and that breaks my heart.”

EVEN FRIENDS OFAurat March in previous years have backtracked this year: Alhamra Hall, which regularly hosts progressive events, including the last two iterations of Aurat March in Lahore, redacted its support with just two weeks to go. For Kanwal, the rejection further fuelled her drive to pull off the march on an even larger scale. In the absence of institutional support, the organisers are doubling down on their efforts to pre-empt, and protect against, further backlash.   

“We’re being very careful in our messaging and coordinating it across campaigns,” Kanwal said. Organisers are holding media training sessions for those expecting to be on national television, defending Aurat March against patriarchal pundits. Safety remains a grave concern—during the march as well as after—but there is also the recognition that public spaces and large events can only be preplanned and managed to a certain extent. At a safety workshop last Wednesday, attendees discussed methods to look out for each other in the event of a mishap. Mob violence, crowd control and de-escalation were discussed. They brainstormed ideas to avoid getting caught on camera. For those who participate without telling their families, visibility was a particular concern. Perhaps masks might be a good idea? One workshop participant even expressed apprehension over the use of drones by external media houses. It was telling to notice that, more than the possibility of physical violence, people were worried about the psychological violence that might arise from visibility and ensuing online backlash. 

Courtesy Strugglistan

But while people appear worried about backlash and are taking proactive measures against it, there was no talk of ‘holding back or self-censorship. Neither organisers nor participants are considering taming their messages to appease hatemongers. Perhaps one crucial change this year is the organisers decision to deal with the backlash on their own terms, instead of being swept up by it as in previous years. They also plan on taking time to revel in their achievements. The past two years, said Leena, the organisers didn’t have a chance to celebrate. “We jumped right into damage control because of the false narrative that was created, because placards were mansplained and doctored. Even though we knew Aurat March had succeeded in doing what it set out to do, a lot of our messages got lost in the propaganda.”   

This year, said Kanwal, “we’ve planned to have a few hours to relax after the march before we start working on controlling the narrative that night.” She laughed. “I’m already exhausted just thinking about it.”

AS OF MARCH 6, Aurat March Lahore has still not received a “no objection” certificate (NOC) from authorities. Previously, said Leena, the process had been relatively seamless. “We have not broken any laws and both times we have peacefully marched and celebrated the one day we are given out of the year.” 

Defiant enthusiasm pervades the days leading up to March 8. Bismah is “pretty excited” to attend the march this year. Bilal has been tirelessly working on the organising committee: “Last March, I just knew I had to build on the queerness,” he says. Amal is also busy organising. And Tooba is hopeful, not afraid. “Despite the backlash, even more women are mobilising this year. More men are coming forward, people of different orientations are joining. It just keeps growing.” She is excited that the March 8 events have spread beyond the largest cities: to Quetta, Sukkur, Multan and Turbat.     

Courtesy Strugglistan

I asked some of the organisers if they had any regrets about their involvement—or the extent of it—in Aurat March. Most of them laughed before offering a resounding no. “I’m more cognisant of what our feminist foremothers had to go through to get this far. Sure, in the moment, one is exhausted and sick of everything… but it gives you an idea of just how long and arduous the struggle is,” said Hiba. 

“We own every placard. We own everything that was officially said at the march. We stand for our manifesto and the important stances we take.” Kanwal is on her way to work in the morning, as we have this conversation on the phone. In the evening, after her full-time job wraps up, she will travel across the city to attend a safety workshop in preparation of Aurat March, handing out manifestos, offering clarity, welcoming all those present. She even stays on for a subsequent workshop, offering her counsel to the crowd, well after I and many others have left. Late into the night, Kanwal and her fellow volunteers are still replying to WhatsApp messages, debriefing each other on the day that has just passed, strategising for the day ahead.

On regret: Kanwal is still laughing between sentences, as if the very notion in this situation was comical to her. “I feel for the women who individually got caught in the wave of the backlash and I wish that hadn’t happened. If they regret it, I regret it on their behalf but otherwise I regret nothing.” 

She continues: “No amount of  backlash can take away the magic that happens on that day. It fuels us all for the entire year.” ■

EDITOR’S NOTE: Organisers for Aurat March Karachi, approached for this story, responded with the following statement:  

“Disclaimer: One of our organisers was sexually harassed at Soch by someone who still works there. She demanded a sexual harassment policy from the organisation but never received one – in fact the incident was used by the organisation to undermine her, gaslight her and bully her, until she eventually had to leave. A sexual harassment policy was introduced a year after this incident – but by then, a woman was already out of a job due to harassment. We mention this here because the organisation you are writing for is very much a part of the problem that you aim to address in your article. As women who organise this march, we are subject to all sorts of violence on a daily basis—it doesn’t just come after the march in our DMs, it is our lived everyday. It isn’t enough to just write about the hatred in order to denormalise it, feminist politics needs to become a part of the everyday, lived practices of our alleged allies in order for the movement to grow.”

Following the incident, an external audit was conducted to improve Soch’s handling of harassment claims. The audit was completed in June 2019; you can read its findings here. [Update: For a statement from Soch management, click here.]

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy
**Leena Ghani initially asked to remain anonymous. She was previously referred to in this piece as Lubna.

ZUNEERA SHAHworks in development and writes on the themes of gender, marginalisation, and politics.
Photos from Lahore Aurat March 2019, courtesy STRUGGLISTAN.

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