Activists have called for government policies to address gender inequality, sexual violence, poor health services and a host of other issues facing women in Pakistan, but their calls have attracted a strong backlash from conservative critics on social media. 

Leading the annual Aurat [Women’s] March on International Women’s Day, protesters noted that Pakistan was ranked second worst by the World Economic Forum in its 2018 Global Gender Gap Index report, which gauges economic opportunity, education, health and political empowerment. Lawyer and rights activist Shumaila Shahani, one of the organizers of the march, warned politicians to start taking women’s issues seriously.

“We know we are not the state’s priority, but through this march we want to send out a message that if governments do not make our issues their priority they’ll lose out in elections,” Shahani said. “We are half the population and our issues should be taken as seriously as men’s issues.”

Issues attracting attention include government policies on population control, child marriages, limited access to education, and honor killings. About 64% of girls from disadvantaged backgrounds are married before the age of 18, and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported 737 cases of honor killings between June 2017 and June 2018. Many of the marchers wore masks of feminist icon Qandeel Baloch.

According to the Madadgaar National Helpline, 70% of women experience physical or sexual violence at some point from their partners and 93% experience sexual violence in public spaces. Poor levels of education are hampering efforts to change attitudes: the literacy rate for women is just 48%, compared with 70% for men, according to government estimates.

Shahani said that while there was a need for more legislation to help women, a bigger problem was that existing laws were not being implemented. These include the 2011 Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act, the 2011 Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act, the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Ac (2016) and the Punjab Women Protection Authority Act of 2017. 

Krishna Kumari, the first Hindu Kohli woman to become a senator, and who was asked to chair the upper house session marking Women’s Day, said  that significant progress had been made on women’s rights in Pakistan.

“But yes, there is a lot that needs to be done. There is some legislation that we are working on, but more importantly we are trying to ensure that the existing laws are thoroughly implemented. We want to make Pakistan safe for every woman in the country regardless of her religion, province, ethnicity or economic background,” she said.

Political system failing to deliver

Alveena Jadoon, an editor at The Nation newspaper, said the government needs to realise that women’s rights movements are emerging without affiliation to any political party.

“This means that the mainstream system has failed to deliver on the expectations of people. Now their job is to identify how they can work with these new pressure groups and for that, they need to develop channels for galvanizing interest,” she said. “What the Aurat March will achieve due to social media access is to gather more and more people willing to speak up against patriarchy.” 

However, there has been a massive backlash against the movement in social media since the marches began last year. Tehreem Azeem, a women’s rights activist and social media strategist at Shirkat Gah Women’s Resource Center, said the march attracted criticism because it clashed with the misogynistic values ingrained within society.

“[Many feel] that it somehow clashes with religious ground. Even when we were preparing for the Aurat March, we were told to not write anything against mullahs and the military. I was asked not to post a picture of our work space on my non-profit organization’s official social media platforms because of safety concerns,” she said.

Much of the criticism was leveled at banners carried by marchers, which some found provocative. One of the banners from the 2018 march, which said “khana khud garam kar lo” [heat up your own food] has become a feminist anthem. Another held by activist and blogger Laiba Zainab that had a depiction of the female biological system with the text “grow some ovaries” also was ridiculed.  

“Grow some ovaries means acting bravely and maturely. For me it also signifies celebrating daughters in our society where a daughter’s birth is frowned upon,” Zainab said. After witnessing the backlash last year, she said the marchers were better prepared this time.

“I wasn’t used to the kind of death threats and rape threats sent out [last year]. But I feel I’ve become more stubborn over the past year. This time we were all ready for the backlash,” she said.