Change does not come by sitting idle. Societies evolve but not without contentious politics. Repertoires of contention might vary and could be questionable to many, but communities begin to decay without their existence. Among many, patriarchy is one of the chronic diseases institutionalised and has become the structural root cause of many societal and political issues that Pakistan is facing today. Amidst the strong criticism directed from within the society, women across Pakistan take to the streets on 8 March every year to question the prevailing culture of violence in the society. Where the women-led movement threatens many, it justifiably asks for recognition, respect, and dignity for everyone. During the Aurat March, women question the prevalent economic inequalities, patriarchal nature of our institutions, their incapacity and brutality towards gender and justice.
Criticism, scepticism, and denigration are true for almost every social movement whatever orientation it may have. Change is never easy especially when it relentlessly demands to transform the culture of violence into a culture of peace. A lot of unlearning and learning goes into this process. It takes decades, at times centuries when there is lack of democratic principles and values in a society or a state. Fortunately, in the case of Pakistan, the Aurat March has successfully generated a debate on the role and treatment of genders in society. It would not be wrong to say that the Aurat March has taken the agenda to people’s consciousness along with the legislature. If one analyses the past five Aurat March manifestos, the first of which was released in 2018, one would know that it is not just about women rather they cover wide range themes i.e., children rights, minority rights, economic inequality and injustice, institutional reforms, accountability, environmental justice, health care, inclusion and no war. In all these themes, gender dimensions have been highlighted to seek public attention to the rising gender-based violence in every stratum of Pakistan’s society.
Fortunately, in the case of Pakistan, the Aurat March has successfully generated a debate on the role and treatment of genders in society. It would not be wrong to say that the Aurat March has taken the agenda to people’s consciousness along with the legislature.
Aurat March has not been in vain considering its accomplishments. It has produced results and, on many subjects, stirred debate, especially in the legislative bodies. One of the key themes in every manifesto has been harassment. From demanding the implementation of “Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010”, the writers of the Aurat March manifesto expanded their demand to redefine the definition of workplace. The significance of this demand was highlighted during the Meesha Shafi case when Lahore High Court dismissed her case on the ground that Meesha Shafi was not at a “workplace” and was not an “employee” according to the harassment act of 2010. This was so because the act had narrow definitions of “employee” and “workplace” that did not include non-contractual, independent, freelancers or domestic workers as employees along with their workplace. This year in February 2022, with the massive contribution of women’s rights groups, the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace amendment bill 2022 has been passed by the parliament. This new amendment bill has widened the definition of “workplace” by including informal workspaces where services are rendered or performed; “employees” by including domestic workers, freelancers, part-timers, gig and piece-rate employees; and harassment has been defined as “discrimination on basis of gender, which may or may not be sexual in nature but which may embody a discriminatory or prejudicial mindset.”
Aurat March activists have also been demanding to place robust and effective mechanisms to stop the growing sexual abuse cases. Women’s activism for proper investigation, prosecution, and rehabilitation following rape cases has proven effective as President of Pakistan Arif Alvi approved the Anti-Rape (Investigation and Trial) Ordinance, 2020. This ordinance has sanctioned the establishment of Anti-Rape Crisis Cells across Pakistan headed by either a Commissioner or Deputy Commissioner and comprising a Medical Superintendent, Independent Support Advisor and District Police Officer. These anti-rape crisis cells would conduct a medico-legal examination within six months and be responsible for gathering evidence and any forensic examination. Additionally, Special Courts would be established across the country for speedy trials of rape cases. Police and government authorities would be held responsible in case of negligence and imprisoned for up to three years along with a fine.
The ordinance has also directed the National Data-Base Registration Authority (NADRA) to register sex offenders. Their list would be not released except to a court of law and law enforcement agencies. The demand to protect victims’ identities by women activists has also been accepted as, according to this ordinance, the victim and witness protection system would also get established under which identities would be concealed. No one would be allowed to reveal the identity of victims and their families without their written permission.
Women activists have also been protesting against the two-finger test, practised across Pakistan, an archaic practice and utter humiliation for a rape victim. The Lahore High Court has also banned this test. In the judgement, this test was declared an act of gender discrimination and an offence against Article 25 of the Constitution. Islamabad High Court has also addressed the issue of child marriage by ruling against underage marriage and declaring 18 years as the legal age for marriage.
Would these legal actions have taken place if there had been no campaign, no protest or march? The answer is obvious. Change occurs when people mobilise. While these steps are significant for transforming the culture of violence, these marches must continue because unlearning does not happen in five years. The agenda is too wide; it needs every individual effort to change society’s mindset. Institutions are not fully capacitated to oversee the implementation of these laws effectively. Therefore, the debate must continue. Only then would we see a non-violent, just and accountable society and institutions.