Pakistan’s constitution provides equal rights to half its population – women – but in reality ever since the 1950s, Islamist ideologues and organizations have been allowed to dictate state policy. This fear of women seeking their rights was visible on Sunday on the occasion of International Women’s Day, when Islamist groups and their supporters physically attacked the Aurat March.
Two days before the Aurat March, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) had expressed support for the March, and condemned “any attempts to subvert, malign or threaten the march, its organisers, and supporters. HRCP sees Aurat March as an integral part of the collective struggle for human rights in Pakistan and beyond. The depth and breadth of the movement’s manifesto is a measure of its inclusivity. Among its legitimate demands, Aurat March has called for an end to violence against vulnerable groups, including women, children, and transgender persons. It has spoken out against enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and warmongering. It has upheld the right to a living wage, the right to freedom of expression and assembly, and the right to a sustainable environment. These rights are enshrined in the country’s constitution and its international human rights obligations. Above all, they are integral to any sense of humanity, empathy and compassion. The ethos of Aurat March reflects the very values that HRCP has consistently upheld: inclusivity, peace, democracy, and the inviolable dignity of all persons regardless of gender, class, ethnicity, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation or identity. Thousands of young women, transgender persons, and men will mobilise on International Women’s Day to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and challenge the inherently discriminatory status quo. This is a matter of pride – not cause for censure – and warrants the full support of the state and citizens alike.”
Yet, on Sunday March 8, the march was attacked by a group of counter-protesters in Islamabad who hurled stones, bricks and sticks at the marchers. “It was a coordinated attack from the patriarchal and right-wing forces on the women’s movement,” said Ismat Shahjahan, one of the organisers of the event. “We demand an independent judicial inquiry,” she added. The police had registered a case against some 35 people late on Sunday, including organisers of the anti-feminist rally for “provoking the religious sentiments” of their followers against the Women’s Day marchers. The march’s organisers, however, have argued that the police downplayed the severity of the attack and should have included more serious charges against suspected assailants.”