Despite my ideological disagreement with the liberal feminist narrative, I participated in the Aurat March in Islamabad on March 8 this year simply for the honour to be part of a significant political activity arranged by one of the most structurally-marginalised groups of our society.
I marched with a political consciousness working beyond the constructed separate zones of men and women and the false binary of liberal/conservative. I marched as a political worker.
In countries like Pakistan where political spaces are rapidly going to shrink through systematic and naked coercions, the political significance of such events cannot be underestimated. They can help in protecting the political space. I marched for the protection of right of politics and assemblage to be exercised by everyone as defined in the constitution. No mighty, be that military, the mullahs or their ghosts, has the authority to issue permissions as to who can come on the streets and who cannot, and what can be said and what cannot be. I marched for the protection of formal liberty — a least human right and a beginning. The march continues.
I marched with a desire that such activities which are now dominated by the civil society style, would not remain a one-day exercise. They would transform into a mature political programme in the future through conscious effort in terms of consistency, outreach, representability and inclusivity.
I marched as a Pashtun nationalist and follower of Bacha Khan. I have never imagined my nation as well as its emancipation as a male construct. In the teachings of Bacha Khan, the emphasis on creating an enduring space for joint political struggle of men and women appears as one of the most important aspects of his ideology of national freedom, democracy and social justice. For Bacha Khan, no political movement without the participation of women is a true movement and so is freedom.
Along with that, I marched, as a student of anthropology, to have a little ‘participant observation’ of the shades of activism and culture of the new middle class in the metropolitan, which is among the leading debates in the contemporary social sciences. The Aurat March provided me with an overwhelming opportunity to closely look into the rise of unity among a section of the ‘subalterns’ who were luckily privileged to speak and contribute in initiating a new identity politics, a type other than that of the ethno-nationalism.
This new identity politics seeks recognition of women as a separate category of the oppressed and declares ‘being woman’ as its principled foundation. This was the most striking point in the Aurat March, as the very name of the organisers ‘Hum Auratein’ (We the Women) indicated at the desire of the formation of a new collective identity which can, consciously or unconsciously, be used in suppressing the politics of ethnicity in Pakistan in the future.
The March took women’s issues in a very generalised way and declared them as common and biggest issues faced by women in the country. Taking women as such a unified category has its own problems. It brings with itself another form of misrepresentation because women are so badly divided along geographical, ethnic and economic lines.
The history informs that even more progressive political actions in the structural core have often failed to represent the aspirations of the peripheral ethnicities in Pakistan. Hope the emergence of this new ‘women movement’ would prove itself as a different experience. It should reinforce the genuine political concerns of the oppressed nations and try to represent the complex historical realities and peculiarities of the gender landscape in the country.
As said earlier, the Aurat March was built on a civil society model. It was non-centralised and less structured. It claimed to be strictly non-partisan. The reason was very straight: the women were in search of their own identity and they wanted to be recognised independent of all other existing identities.
Most importantly, some placards and slogans which got very harsh reactions from different quarters of the society were basically about politics of body and embodiment, micro-aggressions, everyday harassment, routinised violence and sexism against women.
Those who harshly reacted to such a fearless representation of the women’s plight in the so-called private or domestic sphere should be reminded of the famous words of Saadat Hasan Manto, “if the society is naked, I cannot clothe it, it’s the tailor’s task, not mine.”
The women who held those ‘undesirable’ placards and chanted those ‘controversial’ slogans were perhaps not the representatives of the women depicted in Manto’s writings but they courageously carried and underscored Manto’s tradition of telling ‘naked truths’. The satirical rephrasing on the placards was perhaps strategically aimed at testing the limits of masculinity.
Patriarchy as an ancient form of structural inequality and violence has been acting on the entire progress of human society since time immemorial. Women and transgenders are undeniably the worst victims of the structure of patriarchy but men are mistakenly declared as beneficiaries of it. The beneficiaries of patriarchy have certainly been the ones who have monopoly over the economic and state structures. Having said that, the representation of patriarchy and feminism both as grand narratives are equally misleading and problematic in their oversimplifying treatment of the complex historical and cultural realities and particularities.
Allow me to say that women empowerment cannot be achieved only through antagonising men, particularly right-wing reactionary men and their ‘allied’ women. The reality is however much bigger than that. It lies in the historical formations of gender landscape and the regimes of (mis) recognition and (re) distribution of resources and power.
It is the responsibility of men and women as well as transgenders to change the system that is completely based on the hierarchical and unequal relationships. The suffering brought by the tyrannies of capitalism, patriarchy and the state is our shared experience, so be our struggle for a world free of all subjugations including gender inequality.
I marched with this in mind and hoped that the Aurat March would negotiate a political resolution and bring a point of departure, a way forward.