Podcast

Introduction

Welcome to our new venture, a podcast series called Khoj which means to look for answers; to inquire; to search. We are stepping into the world of podcasts to bring into the public domain our rich reservoir of multifaceted research. We hope to use this medium to generate broader interest in the issues that we work on through a mix of dialogue and voices from the field.

The current series draws on findings from a research programme called Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA), a multi-country research initiative hosted by the Institute of Development Studies in the UK. The podcasts in this series will explore areas of women’s collective action, changing civic spaces, and donor programmes to support empowerment and accountability.

Read our research publications here.


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Episode 2: How does the State plan to protect its poor?

Date:13-04-2021

Description: What does social protection mean? Do we have any effective policies to help the most vulnerable? What do these policies look like in Pakistan’s fragile economic landscape further impacted by Covid?

Transcript KHOJ Episode 2 transcript

Ayesha Khan (AK), Asad Sayeed (AS), Haris Gazdar (HG)

[Slow music]

AK: Good afternoon, and welcome to the podcast series Khoj. This series is hosted by the Collective for Social Science Research. We are a development research organisation based in Karachi, working on a wide range of issues, from gender to social protection, economics, and policy analysis to name just a few. Through our podcast, we will share with you some of the fascinating findings of our deep dives into the issues and communities we study. This work is part of a programme called Action for Empowerment and Accountability, a multi country research initiative hosted by the Institute of Development Studies in the UK. My name is Ayesha Khan, and I have been working for many years on gender and development issues here at the Collective.

AS: The unfortunate thing over the last few years has been that there is really no debate on social protection in Pakistan, and how do we move forward? Or what should be its parameters?

HG: So government had the responsibility, it had the opportunity, it had the resources… to actually do something much better. And that wasn't done. And I think that I feel very sorry for our country that we missed that opportunity.

AK: For today's episode, I have invited two of my colleagues, Asad Sayeed, and Haris Gazdar, who are economists and senior researchers with me at the Collective. Amongst other topics, both of them are experts on social protection issues in Pakistan. Over the years, Asad was involved in assessing social protection in the formal sector. He has also assessed child protection activities, and citizenship vulnerabilities, while strategizing ways to reconstruct the lives of those impacted by the 2010 Indus floods. And Haris has conducted several evaluations of the Benazir Income Support Programme with a focus on its cash transfer schemes. Today, we will talk about what social protection looks like in the country's fragile economic landscape, and what effect the pandemic has had on existing programmes.

Welcome, Asad and Haris. Thanks for taking the time out to record this important conversation. Why don't I start by asking you Haris What was the government's social protection response during our first lockdown over a year ago? Did it work?

HG: Thank you Ayesha. It's a very important question. But before answering that, I'd like to say a context, before we get to how things panned out with respect to the pandemic. So social protection, it's a commitment. It's also a resource transfer. And it's basically a way in which a government ensures that none of its citizens fall below a certain threshold in terms of consumption, or income, or well-being.

But it really mostly refers to assistance to people in the economic or material realm. So of course you have a broad range of social policies, in education, in health, and in other areas, and some of them are connected with social protection but social protection really is about helping people who fall below a certain level with respect to their income. Now, in market economies, social protection plays a very critical role because in these economies, when we expect that people consume, or they eat, or they earn, what they do through their work, or if they have assets. So any shortfalls in the economic system, any shortfalls in terms of their assets, in terms of their wages, where will they be met from?

Now, you know, in the old days, people thought of charity. But that's neither a commitment by government, nor is it based on any notion of rights. And finally, it is not something which is a guarantee from anybody to anybody. So Pakistan, started its first steps towards establishing a comprehensive social protection system around 2008 with the establishment of the Benazir Income Support Programme, and I would stress that it was a start. So it was an important programme. It was an important change in Pakistan in several ways. Firstly, it was a programme that was a very large programme. Second, it was a programme that wasn't based on cherry picking beneficiaries. What do I mean by that? Before this programme, whenever the government felt the need to assist people who are in any kind of difficulty, it would assemble administrative officials, sometimes political officials, and ask them to identify people whom the government could support.

The Benazir Income Support Programme changed that, it adopted a modern method for approaching who the beneficiaries will be, beneficiary selection. And it was based on identifying all Pakistani citizens as the potential universe for the programme. So it starts from a well defined definition of a universe. And from there it has different it can have different policies with respect to who the eligible beneficiaries would be. So, so that was a success. So it was a mass programme, it was designed on sound principles, its primary beneficiaries were women. And also, it constructed a number of important partnerships between government and other organisations around the technological means for transferring money in a transparent way.

When this crisis hit, it had actually quite remarkable demands upon us. Because several things were happening at the same time, the first thing that we experienced was a lockdown of the economy, which means that and something that was very conspicuous in the discussions at that time, was what would be the fate of people who relied on daily wages? Because if you shut the economy down, they don't have salaries to rely on, they may not have savings, they probably don't have savings. And they're in any case, living very precarious lives - hand to mouth -- particularly in the urban areas, because the lockdown was most strictly enforced in urban areas.

So what would happen to the urban poor, particularly those who relied on wages, daily wages, as well as large number of people who rely on charity, but again, who live in a very precarious way on a day to day basis. So that's really where the social protection response was required. It was… the social protection is always around a particular kind of need. So the response has to be tailored to the condition that you're going to face. And then, for a long time, the not much could be done.

And when the response finally came, it was a big response in terms of budgetary resources, it was actually quite a big budgetary outlay… I think up to a billion rupees in the end, but much of it was really around the initial list of beneficiaries that were identified under the Benazir Income Support Programme, through its survey of 2010-11. So we used the database, which was about 10 years old, which was focused on chronic poverty, the vast majority of whose beneficiaries were in rural areas, and a system that had really no way of identifying daily wage labourers or casual labourers who were going to be the most affected.

AK: So if I understand you correctly, Haris, you're saying that the initial beneficiaries were Benazir Income Support Programme on their lists, but actually the needy at the time when COVID hit, were people living in the urban areas. So Asad, do you think that that's what happened? And also, I just want to ask, whether related to that, weren't there lots of charity efforts in the urban areas like for example, Saylani Welfare Trust, giving out food to the urban poor? And was that not enough?

AS: Well, initially, as Haris said, that, that the distribution that was done was based on the existing lists for BISP, and the amount was enhanced. And the bulk of the beneficiaries were in the rural areas. And just to recall, it was exactly this time last year. And this is a time when the wheat harvest happens. So there was first of all, very little evidence of COVID because at that time, COVID was in Pakistan, largely imported from outside the country.

So it was very much an urban phenomenon but the bulk of the beneficiaries were in the rural areas. The lockdown in Pakistan for good or for bad did not last for too long. But the cities went through the lockdown, and it was a fairly comprehensive one in the large cities, at least in Karachi, Lahore, etc. It was fairly comprehensive. So, so the need for social protection was clearly in the urban areas.

Now, a smart and doable response would have been to do a cash transfer and do a cash transfer based on geographical targeting. We by and large know where the poor live, and they live in those distinct localities and areas. And we have the information through the national database once we identify those localities.

So cash transfer would have been the optimal response. That was not done, because we were doing it on a list which was 10 years old, and which was actually made for a different purpose. It wasn't there for a contingency such as a pandemic. Food was distributed, yes. But it was done in a haphazard manner. One locality at one point to one point in time and other locality at some other point in time, there was there was a lot of duplication of effort that was happening, because the government was supposed to only coordinate it, essentially, and these charity organisations were supposed to deliver.

Now the problem always is that food, first of all, because there's no coordination, that it may reach some, it may not reach others, and it may reach those who actually either have jobs or who have savings or who have assets, and not others. So there was an issue of targeting, there was an issue of duplication.

And the situation was such that your supply chains of food were all working at that point. So markets are full of essentials, food essential especially. And the cash programme could have been done. It could have been rolled out in a couple of weeks. But that was not done.

AK: So this is a bit confusing, because on the on the one hand, we heard that, you know, Ehsaas programme was so big, and it was meeting the needs of people affected by the COVID lockdown. Then on the other hand, you're telling me now that there were so many it was mis targeted because it reached rural beneficiaries when actually urban beneficiaries needed. And then to add another layer of confusion on to what we heard recently, a few months ago almost 200,000 beneficiaries of the BISP were actually ineligible. So what's going on?

HG: Firstly, there are several questions embedded in that one question. So, let me try to unpick that. So, the BSP was and is the flagship programme, it has legal protection. It has a system. So as I explained its database exists, it is premised on a data, it was collected door to door. So although it is dated, and also, although it was intended to capture chronic… the chronic poor. So there are limitations to that data to those data. Nevertheless, that's what the BISP is.

Now, about 90 to 95% of the beneficiaries of Ehsaas are from the BISP list. So let's be perfectly clear about that. So Ehsaas is not a new programme. It's basically another layer of labelling over a programme that already exists. So, whatever happened in the COVID response, and it was called the Ehsaas programme, at its core, as well as its periphery, except for maybe about 10% of additional beneficiaries, all of the other beneficiaries are somewhere in the BISP list. So that's, that's who they are.

Now, what happened to be BISP beneficiaries prior to the COVID crisis? What was the policy of the government as it was developing Ehsaas, with respect to be BISP beneficiaries and so on? Yes, certainly... There was a stage when a very large number of beneficiaries were taken off the list. I think perhaps the number was much bigger than 200,000. I think the number that I had seen at one stage was about 800,000 people nationally.

Now, who were those people? A lot of those were people who were post hoc, identified as being ineligible. What do I mean by that? When the programme first came into play, it had a specific criterion for selecting beneficiaries. Later on, just maybe two years ago, the government decided that actually, it's going to add further criteria, such as ineligibility of people who had government jobs, or those whose family members had government jobs, people who had travelled abroad, or those whose family members have travelled abroad, people who had bank accounts, in certain kinds of banks, or whose family members had those bank accounts, right. So none of these criteria were actually in existence, when the initial list of beneficiaries was established. Of course, the government had the right, it had the legal right.. The board can decide, and the cabinet can decide to change the criteria.

But to say that those people were ineligible and they had become part of the programme is incorrect. Those people were eligible. They met the original eligibility criteria, those criteria were changed. And then a conversation was started that they were fraudulent. So anyway, that was I think, in some ways, an irresponsible conversation because it, you know, asked or in the public mind, it posed questions about the credibility of a programme, which actually had passed many tests of being transparent and being correct and being effective. Of course, there are going to be problems in every programme. But relative to other programmes, the BISP was known to be an effective programme.

So this was the story prior to COVID. Now, what happened when COVID hit was that we were already in the middle of an IMF programme. Now this is very important to understand that we were already undergoing an important economic crisis, a very big economic crisis. We don't have the time to talk about the responsibility for the crisis. Of course, there were governance failures, and there were all kinds of economic failures. There were things happening in the global economy as well. But nevertheless, we were in that situation. And we were in the middle of an IMF programme that had set some very stringent targets with respect to government expenditure, with respect to power tariffs with respect to interest rates, and a lot of those measures had led to a contraction of the economy. So when the pandemic hit with its own demands on the economy with its own burden on the economy, the economy was already reeling under one big shock. Or the people who support the programme would say it was reeling under the medicine that had been administered, because it was in a problem before then.

Now, at that moment when the pandemic hit, and the government understood that, you know, things were going to be very difficult. The Pakistan government, like many other governments, they approached the IMF, they approached their foreign lenders for relief. And Pakistan, then received relief way back. I think the negotiation started in March/April immediately and that relief basically gave us a holiday from the IMF programme. Right. So it wasn't a get out clause, it was it was a like a little break from the programme. And we have now re-entered the programme. But that break was premised on the government doing a number of things with respect to pandemic response. So a lot of government expenditure had to be directed towards social protection, it had to be directed towards health.

Now, I know that there were three important donors who came in with a total of one and a half billion US dollars, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the Asian Investment Bank. So these three banks with $500 million each came up with a total bill of one and a half billion dollars. And the conditions attached to it were almost all exclusively around giving benefits under the social protection programme.

AS: So, as Haris mentioned earlier it's important to remember that when you have a targeted programme, or even if you have a universal programme, there are certain criteria, which make you eligible for the benefit. So in Pakistan, that was chronic poverty. There could be many other situations where it's these criteria could be different. For instance, if there is a flood, then those who are affected by the floods would be the beneficiaries and not others, or a few live in a coastal area, and there's a tidal wave or a tsunami, then those who are in that area would be the beneficiaries.

And in any social protection programme, or social security programmes anywhere in the world, there are what we call errors that do happen. And these errors happen to be of two sorts. One is that when you include the wrong people, and that would be called an inclusion error. The other is that you exclude the right people. And that would be the exclusion error. So now there was this this notion of excluding existing beneficiaries, on whatever grounds that were mentioned. First of all, as Haris mentioned, though, those grounds did not exist 10 years ago, or those questions were not asked at that point in time. And secondly, that was if anything that was an inclusion error.

But at the same time, over the years, we, the government itself, as well as the press, as well, as research was showing us that there was a very large number of people who were excluded from the programme, for reasons that they did not have, either the national identity card, or that they did not have permanent addresses. And that number was far larger and close to about 2 million people who were excluded. So, there was very little that was done over this period of time to remove the exclusion error, and there was emphasis on inclusion errors, which was also politically motivated as this government is keen on, on demonstrating corruption and corrupt practices of previous governments. So, there was this this large gap that was already there that was not filled. And one reason is that the poverty census that was done in 2010-11, would have become redundant any waiver in a span of say about five years. And it's been over 10 years that the new survey or the new census that was to be done, has not been completed and a new list has not been developed.

AK: So this sounds like maybe a lot of money went into social protection over the last year, but for a programme that maybe was not fit for purpose? I mean, both of you have spent a lot of time in the field understanding the needs of communities, both urban as well as rural across different geographies in Pakistan. So, you know, does this work? Was this programme fit for purpose?

HG: And I would say it in a slightly different way, I would say that the beneficiaries of the Benazir Income Support Programme, who now we are saying that the Ehsaas beneficiaries, as well as the people who are added on later, mean, I have no reason to believe that they are not amongst the poorer people of Pakistan. And if money was transferred to them, I don't really have any complaints about that.

But what I do have a problem with is that we had an opportunity to do something much better that we didn't take. So that opportunity was lost, what was that opportunity, the opportunity was to actually upgrade the programme, make it much more effective, make it much more nimble, much more responsive to the kinds of needs that we would now encounter, I think virtually every year… I think the pandemic was just one of the many, many wake up calls that we've received in Pakistan, just remember, we are in the middle of a climate disaster in this country, you know, we have floods every other year, we have droughts in different parts of the year. And we have all other kinds of disasters, locusts coming, all of these things, you know, they take away the little people do for themselves. And it really throw people you know into the margin. And I think that's really, so government had the responsibility, it had the opportunity, it had the resources… to actually do something much better. And that wasn't done. And I think that I feel very sorry for our country that we missed that opportunity.

AK: So what what's missing from the discussion, then?

AS: I think the, the unfortunate thing over the last few years has been that there is really no debate on social protection in Pakistan, and how do we move forward… Or what should be its parameters? So there's a lot of talk of helping the poor supporting the poor. But there's no there's no debate on what are the basis on which we're going to do it.

So now the global debate in developing countries has been across a number of areas, that should social protection be something which is universal, that all citizens qualify but the uptake would be those who are the poorest. So you remember, we had a ration system in Pakistan, which was adopted, which was actually inherited by the country from the colonial state. And that ration system would provide certain food items at a subsidised rate, and everyone was eligible for it. But for several reasons, a lot of the uptake was amongst those who, for whom it was difficult to afford those, those particular goods at those prices. So it kept their consumption levels intact. And it was mainly it was staples, it was wheat, it was rice, it was oil, sugar, etc. Now that was done away with in Pakistan in the 1970s. India continues with that. In India, they call it the Public Distribution System. And I think they even they want to do away with it now. But there's a debate that should it be universal, should it be targeted.

Targeted is better if you have limited resources, and nowadays, we have the technology to identify people through national databases. So there are a number of areas. So that debate is not happening as to who is it that we should be targeting or who should be the beneficiary population, who are the ones whom the market doesn't fully support us or serve. And as a result, what we have is a lot of ad hoc stuff that goes on.

So you have nowadays the panahgahs have started which are shelter homes for the poor. Now, if you look at the number of beneficiaries of these shelter homes, they'd be like, not even 100th of those who actually do not have adequate housing. Or you have a food or soup kitchens that were advertised recently by the Prime Minister himself, which would, which doesn't even begin to address the issue of food insecurity, and nutritional deficiencies that the country faces.

So, now all of this would come about, through some sort of a rational debate, and the debate as to whom do we wish to protect? And in what order of priority do we want to protect? And then the second element of that is that, how much money are we willing to spend? What is our fiscal window for social protection? And that, again, is part of what national priorities there are in terms of spending? So do we want to spend on defence? Do we want to spend on physical infrastructure? Do we want to spend on climate protection? And do we want to spend on social protection, etc. So, the big problem right now is that there's a lot of populism, there's a lot of bravado… But there's very little actual debate, neither at the political level, nor at the academic level.

AK: So basically, what you're saying, if I understand correctly, is that you can have politicians can have the best intentions to provide food, to provide shelter, to provide cash transfers, but unless it's a very thorough and well thought out policy, mistargeting will happen. And possibly, not all the right people will get the help that they need in time.

AS: Or you may just do ad hoc things as being done, which does not address the underlying issue. I mean, just to take the example of the shelter homes and the food programme, they do not address the underlying issue of inadequate housing, or inadequate shelter for the poor, or of nutritional deficiencies and food insecurity.

AK: But some critics would say that, you know, social protection, isn't it like a band aid in the sense that it's not going to actually address the drivers of poverty is it?

HG: The whole social protection paradigm arose when it became clear that the world was moving towards some kind of a global consensus in favour of a market economy. So people would work, the labour market would either provide jobs, or people would be unemployed, or people would be in the age of being pensioners. So all of the people who would not be actively in the labour market, or whose wages were going to be too low, even within the labour market, were the ones that social protection came in aid of. So that's really where all of the whole discussion for social protection started. And I think that we remain in that paradigm. And hence, we have to continue thinking in terms of social protection as a way to protect people while doing other things to make sure that there is a growth in jobs, there is a growth in incomes, and the economy's lifted up.

So I guess the lessons that we've learned from building the Benazir Income Support Programme, and then the lessons that we've learned over the last one year are really that if you have made the investment, both resource investment and the political investment in creating good systems, you will actually have mechanisms for helping people when you need to help them. But to build systems is actually a laborious task, it is tedious, it requires a lot of effort. And it may or may not give you the political headlines, it has to be done mostly in a quiet way. And ultimately, yes, you know, you will earn some political reward, or you might get some fame. But you know, that's how it is. But that's really the experience of every single country in the world. So, Europe went through it after the Second World War when they build their social welfare system. So we say, social welfare state, but actually they build systems through which these things could be delivered. And so we were on our way to building that system. And then somewhere along the line, we've stopped. And I think that when you're not building systems, you're basically chasing headlines, and you're still finding certain, you know, bits of good news that Asad talked about, that a shelter here and you know, a community kitchen there, and you make a big deal out of it. But actually the task of building the systems, maintaining them and upgrading them, that really is the task for all countries in this time.

AS: And social protection is a very important sort of citizenship sort of empowerment tool, especially in developing countries, and especially in post-colonial countries, where citizens and the state only interact in either a conflictual or an oppressive manner. So the poorest of the citizens’ interaction with the state happens either through law enforcement or through the courts. But here is something where a positive relationship between the citizen and the state can be created. So its benefit, apart from the benefit that accrues to the poorer segments of society is also one of nation building, and of transforming nations into more inclusive societies.

[Slow music]

AK: So lots of serious problems to address and it seems that we never have enough time, nor enough debate to actually come up with the right solutions. But thank you so much Asad and Haris for taking time out for this conversation. I've certainly learned a great deal. And it seems that well targeted and reliable social protection programmes are certainly needed, especially as our citizens recover from the pandemic. With a third wave already upon us it will be interesting to see what the government does now to protect the poor.

This podcast was produced in collaboration with Films d’art. I would also like to thank SoundsGreat studios for the recording facilities. I hope you enjoyed listening to the second episode of our podcast series Khoj, and will tune in again for the next time until then, goodbye.
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Episode 1: Why We March?

Date:22-02-2021

Description: How feminist activists mobilize women from different sections of society to demand their rights and celebrate themselves at the annual Aurat March.

Transcript KHOJ - Episode 1 transcript
Ayesha Khan (AK), Moneeza Ahmed (MA), Qurat Mirza (QM), Fatima Majeed (FM), Pastor Ghazala (PG)

[Slow music]

AK: Assalam o alaikum and welcome to the launch of ‘Khoj’. This is the podcast series hosted by the Collective for Social Science Research. We are a development research organization based in Karachi working on a wide range of issues from gender to social protection, economics and policy analysis to name just a few. Through our podcast we will share with you some of the fascinating findings of our deep dives into the communities and issues we study.

My name is Ayesha Khan, and I have been working for many years on gender and development issues here at the Collective. Today’s podcast draws on our research with women in protest actions in Pakistan. This work is part of a programme called Action for Empowerment and Accountability, a multi-country research initiative hosted by the Institute of Development Studies in the UK.

We examined protests which were episodic, meaning they happened repeatedly, exploring how the initial protests developed into collective action, how women’s demands changed and evolved over time, and what outcomes they achieved.

Not all of the contentious episodes were explicitly feminist yet we found that where women were involved in protest actions, the attention to gender empowerment grew overtime. We asked whether the special context in Pakistan offered new opportunities for women to exercise leadership through collective action. And if so, how did they exercise this leadership?

Our research methods were qualitative relying mainly on key informant interviews with women leaders. We also attended some protests and analysed the content of women's public speeches and finally we catalogued media coverage of the protest to highlight significant moments.

The Aurat March began as an initiative by young feminist activists in Karachi to mark International Women's Day and highlight the lack of gender justice in Pakistan. It was inspired by the global #MeToo Movement but has brought together women from diverse causes and organisations on its platform. The annual Marches mobilise thousands of women in more cities every year to demand greater rights and freedoms, better employment, housing, security and to call out the everyday misogyny in our midst. In fact the March has brought more women and LGBTQI people on to the streets than any other feminist mobilisation during this generation. And as many of you may know, the Aurat March also led to controversy from some religious groups, media channels, and sectors of society who argue the slogans go against our social and religious values.

[chanting at Aurat March -- Azaadi -- Qurat Mirza leading]

One of the first people I spoke to was Moneeza Ahmed who has been organising the Karachi Aurat March each year since 2018. We met during a break from her office job and sat down for coffee to talk. Moneeza told me that she has been an activist since her student days in Toronto, Canada. When she came back to Pakistan over a decade ago, she was interested in working with young people and joined the Lawyers' Movement too but she soon became disillusioned by what she calls civil society politics. And I asked her why.

MA: I just feel like it wasn't longer term engagement with people, with communities, with certain kind of like constituencies jin kai baray main aap baat kar rahay hain, bol rahay hain. Aik koi longer term engagement, relationship-building as such itni nahi thi. I know these are organisations which are doing that but overall jo civil society hai, it's very loose, very unstructured which is great, which can be great but then it can also be very short term.

AK: So I asked Moneeza what were they marching for?

MA: For me I feel like at least the main apnay reason ki baat kar sakti hoon but I think everybody was, was about showing political presence of women. Uh... and it was also shown, you know organising women. Because I think donon taraf sai zaroorat hai. It is the state that needs to take women seriously but it's also women who need platforms and who need to organise themselves to have that voice and to be political in that way, right?

AK: After meeting with Moneeza, I went to interview another feminist leader from the Aurat March Karachi. Her name is Qurat Mirza and I met her in yet another busy cafe in the city. She agreed with the idea that the March was about doing politics.

QM: Maqsad dekhain ye tha kai March jo hoti haina it's a very political action. Jo aap sarak par arahay hotay haina it's like you are showing your presence and you are showing, aap state ko bata rahay hotay hain kai ji we exist aur hum jo hain woh ab resistance ki movement ki taraf jayeingay. Hum... aik aik political action hai. Tou mujhay lagta tha kai ziyadatar jaisay humara kaam hua hai even Sindh Assembly main bhi legislations kai hawlay sai tou bohat progressive, bohat acha kaam hua hai. Lekin woh sara kaam aik hi tareekay ka horaha tha jaisay lobbying horahi hai, advocacy horahi hai, ye horaha hai. Aur of course woh un hi aurton kai liyay horaha haina jo kai more than 50% of the population of this country. So, humein jo ye group tha, humein lagta tha kai ye saari cheezain bohat achi hain ye hoti rehni chahiyen lekin aurton ko politicise bhi hona chahiye. Aur March aik aisa political action tha jis main log agar sirf shaamil bhi horahay hain tou woh aik, woh politicise horahay hain uss March main rehtay huay, woh jo organising horahi hoti hai uss kai doraan - aap logon sai jur rahay hotay hain, mil rahay hotay hain, woh aik saari aik aik aap politicisation ka aik amal hai. Tou humein ye laga kai bohat zaroori hai iss waqt kai aurton ko jo kai inko lagta hai kai ye issues un kai nahi hain like agar kisi aurat ko lagta hai kai domestic issue kisi aur kai ghar ka issue hai, meray issue nahi hai tou iss baat pai aurton ko politicise karna kai ye bhi sab ka issue hai.

Tou aurat jab iss society ka aadhay sai zyada hissa hai tou hum tou har issue main uss hi tarha kharay thay na. Be it like kai militarisation ho ya woh capitalism ho yaani jo bhi aap kai upar hain dikatein un main sab main tou aurtein uss hi tarha khari hain jis tarha haq hota hai.

AK: The organisers of Aurat March soon realised that facilitating a movement requires a lot of planning. I asked Moneeza how the organising committee was formed?

MA: So that was very organic uh that was very like whoever sort of... so we did three weeks of just meeting women and then we did do one meeting uhm which was a lot of younger women and that kind of became the organising committee.

So we had a very much non-hierarchy policy. Dou teen cheezain hain jo became the principles of the March was no hierarchy, no NGO funding, and no NGO banner and no political party invitations and those things were very much pushed by everybody. There are about 25-30 women in the organising committee...

AK: If the Aurat March organisers wanted to break new ground and mobilise different groups to protest, I wondered how they went about identifying communities to approach.

MA: Actually just by contact. We did not have any procedure kai humein in in main jana hai. We’re... well actually, the one thing was that we definitely need to hit the marginalised communities jin main humein jo humaray liyay focus tha was minorities. So we did a lot of outreach in Christian and Hindu communities.

AK: One community that brought women to the March was the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum that works to protect the livelihoods of coastal communities in Sindh and Balochistan. Fatima Majeed is Senior Advisory Chairperson of the forum. She has been in politics as well as a member of Karachi's District Council and as a candidate for election on a PPP ticket. We went to Ibrahim Hyderi and spoke with Fatima about her work and how she mobilised for the Aurat March.

FM: Mera bhi shoq tha, mainay kaha kai ye kuch alag honay jaraha hai tou iss main hum log shaamil hongai. Tou main thora sa un dinon party kai kuch program bhi thay uss main masroof thi lekin main sirf do dinon ki mobilisation sai main 6 busein le kar gayi thi wahan pai bhar kai aurton sai, haan. Tou mainay uss main Aurat March main jo hai wahan par shareek hui thi.

Phir iss main mainay mobilisation ki aur jo hai main aurton ko uss main lekar gayi aur aurton ko bohat maza aya uss main. Haan unko bohat maza aya tha woh keh rahi thein kai iss baar hum nai jo ye program kia haina iss main humein bohat maza araha tha. Aik tou yeh kai humein jo hai koi woh pabandi nahi thi. Aurtein jo hain apni marzi sai jo hai woh kar rahi thein. Baat kar rahi thein. Aur har koi apnay, apnay tareekay sai jo hai woh apni, apna ahtejaj kar raha tha.

AK: We asked Fatima whether they faced any backlash for taking part in the March?

FM: Humaray mardon nai tou nahi woh kyunkai meray saath atay jatay hain unka tou aisa koi khayal nahi tha woh tou aik taraf bethay huay thay. Woh ye samajh rahay thay kai nahi humari aurtein aayi hain, ye saari jo hain saray tabqon sai taaluq rakhnay wali aurtein yahan par hain tou aurton ko bhi mauka milna chahiyay na kai woh apnay tareekay sai apni baat rakehin, ahtijaaj karein aur matlab jab woh unkay, aurton kai haqooq ka aik aalmi tor par aik din manaya jata hai woh apni poori azadi sai manayein. Unko mauqa milna chahiyay. Aur, doosri baat ye hai kai thora sa mujhay community main aisi baatein matlab sunain ko mili kai jo slogan kuch in logon nai banaye thay na tou uss par mujhay... lekin phir mainay face bhi ki. Un sai behes bhi hui meri. Aur kuch slogan kai tou unki wajah sai matlab keh rahay thay kai ye jo hai... Matlab "lo main beth gayi" ya "mera jism meri marzi" tou is tarah ko zahir hai woh us kai peechay tou matlab aisi koi baat nahi thi. Woh aik protest thi woh bhi uss kai peechay lekin logon nai usko apnay... Zahir hai jiski jitni soch hogi woh utna hi usko lega na.

AK: We asked Fatima what were the demands of her community during the Aurat March and what did their slogans look like?

FM: Humara tou ye tha aik hum nai tax kai hawalay sai banaye thay na - tax justice kai hawalay sai. Kai aik tou ye hai kai humaray khanay peenay ki aur ye roz marah ki istimaal ki cheezain hain uss par jo matlab uss par tax na lagaya jaye. Aur humari aurton par jo hai woh tax ka bojh hai woh kam sai kam kiya jaye. Aur doosri humari demand aur bhi thein matlab mangroves kai hawalay sai thi aur samandar kai hawalay sai thi. Matlab ye sari humari rozgari kai hawalay sai thi.

Aurton kai hawalay sai bhi thein kai humari aurton ko barabari ki hawalay sai. Kai yaqsa kaam aur yaqsa ujrat, aurton ko matlab barabari di jaye. Unkai huqooq jo hain woh agar mardon kai barabar kaam karti hain tou unko barabari ka haq diya jaye.

Hum aik goth sai arahay hain na theek hai ab Ibrahim Hyderi bohat bara hogaya hai lekin yahan ka humara apna culture hai na. Hum apnay tareekay sai yahan par rehtay hain aur jab iss maahol... Humara maahol zahir hai alag hai aur hum jab iss maahol sai nikal kai hum nai apni saari aurton ko... Meray saath aurtein saari woh hain, saari ghareeb hain - theek hai gharon main kaam karti hain, banglow main aur factoriyon main jaati hain ya apna koi ghar main kaam kar rahi hoti hain tou woh meray saath jab jaati haina tou doosron kai saath iss tarha matlab mil kai bethti hain tou unko acha lagta hai. Aur woh keh rahi thein kai meri aurtein jo meray saath jaati hain woh bata rahi thein kai hum log aur bhi program main gaye hain lekin iss baar bohat matlab... koi faraq mehsoos nahi horaha. Barabari. Hum sab barabar bethay huay hain. Saari jo aurtein hain woh mukhtalif tabqon sai ayein hain aur woh aik hi jagah sab barabar bethay huay hain - koi bara nahi hai, koi chota nahi hai. Aur main ye samajhti hoon kai sab sai zyada enjoy meri aurton nai kiya hoga kyunkai sab sai zyada naach woh rahi thein.

[Aurat March chants]

AK: I wanted to find out more about the diversity of the participants of the March. Qurat Mirza explained.

QM: Jin logon kai saath hum organize kar rahay thay woh aam community kai log thay - aurtein thi. Aur uss main students thay, uss main jo underprivileged areas hain ya far-flung areas hain even Karachi kai outskirts main udhar ja kai un aurton ko keh rahay thay. Aur woh aurtein jo kai kisi na kisi tarha victim hain, kisi na kisi tarha in saari cheezon sai guzar rahi hain. So, humara jo target. Hum jin kai saath kaam kar rahay thay woh thi aurtein, aur sexual minorities jiss main transgenders bhi thay aur jiss main religious minorities ki taraf sai aurtein thi, working women thi, polio workers thi, lady health workers thein. Aur jo message hum dena chah rahay thay woh state ko tha.

AK: It seemed to be that the young feminists of Aurat March wanted to do things differently from the older activists who began the modern women's movement in the 1980s. This movement was led by a group called Women's Action Forum (WAF) or "Khawateen Mahaz e Amal" in Urdu. This was not an NGO but a platform for mainly educated and urban-based women to lobby with government to remove discriminatory laws against women and make policies that protect women's rights. WAF still exists today, in fact Qurat is a member of its Karachi chapter. I asked her how the Aurat March organizers felt they were different from WAF?

QM: Dekhain strategy main, main abhi tak usko explore kar rahi hoon kai farq kiya hai kyunkay main khud bhi part rahi hoon. Aik tou mujhay lagta hai kai Women's Action Forum ki rahi hain bohat achievement rahi hain - achievements sai zyada lafz hai contribution bohat raha hai. Lekin woh zyada, it's a advocacy main, aap woh samajh lein think tank ya iss tarha ka hai group. Aur issues bhi iss tarha kai hain kai agar koi araha hai tou unn kai issues ko suna hai lekin jo politicization hai unka ye hai kai woh aik issue ko lekai zyadatar legislation aur iss tarha pai kaam kartay hain...

Forced conversion bill, uskay upar sab nai bohat kaam kiya lekin woh kahin aik jagah ja kai woh nahi ho saka pass. Humein ye laga kai agar iss kai peechay aik bohat bari quwat aurton ki hoti aur hum agar sarkon par nikal kar atay aur boltay, "No, we want this" tou riyasat majboor hoti hai jab aap kai log chahtay hain... woh gap humein nazar aya.

AK: So it sounds to me that younger feminists are impatient with the lack of progress on important legislative reforms, among other issues. They want to generate support on the streets to push politicians to act. But this approach has some risks as well. Some right-wing groups threatened legal action against Aurat March organizers, and certain activists received threats. In 2020 there was a court petition to stop the March in Sukkur, which eventually failed, but still – I wondered if the backlash generated some fear amongst the activists. Qurrat told me that the public never expected five thousand women to come out on the streets of Karachi or other cities like Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta. And the controversial posters were meant to provoke discussion and debate about our social values that were harming women’s rights. The backlash took a while, but when it came it was not only from the usual quarters, but also from liberals, from those Qurat calls misogynistic. I asked her to explain.

QM: So, uh there are like 'boys' out there jo kai educated bhi hain, itnay practicing bhi nahi hain kisi religious jamaat kai saath bhi taaluq nahi hai lekin unki masculinity itni hurt hui hai kai hum jab keh rahay hain "mera jism meri marzi" tou unkay zehn main ye araha hai kai bhai "how dare" you know? So woh aik nexus ban gaya hai kyunkai jo religious fundamentalists hain unka bhi wohi hai kai kisi tarha aurat ki sexuality ko control karna hai - this is what patriarchy is so woh donon cheezain aik jagah jama hogayi. Tou iss tarha hua kai pehli jo Aurat March thi uss main tou bohat clear tha kai ji religious fundamentalists and you know these misogynist people who are there left, right and centre jo bhi hain, lekin uska jo backlash aya uss main time laga because samajhnay main unko zara der hogayi kai "mera jism meri marzi" aur you know sara kuch...

AK: I asked Qurat what the organisers’ strategies have been apart from hosting the annual Aurat March.

QM: Hum tou aik rishta jornay ja rahay hotay hain aur jab woh rishta jur jata hai humara uskay baad hum Aurat Haq main jatay hain aur hum ye kehtay hain kai aap ki siyasat kiya hai, humein apni siyasat sikhayein aap. Hum ye nahi chah rahay kai hum aap ko siyasat sikhayeingay - tou aap ka issue jo hai woh domestic violence issue hai so uss main ye hua kai jaisay Aurat March main hum fisherfolk community kai saath juray. Aurat Haq main uss juray rehnay main ye hua kai woh log humein apni problems batanay lagay. So foran unka hota hai kai ji kahan pai hum aap ko support kar saktay hain aur kahan pai aap humein support kar saktay ho tou it's more kai relationship-building kai liyay. Humara bilkul ye target nahi hai kai hum ye collective bananay ja rahay hotay hain ya koi leadership banana chah rahay hain ya koi membership... Abhi it is too early. Hum nai kahin dafa socha kai hum membership days kuch kar sakein but we want kai thora grow karein. Hum sirf dostiyan bana lein ja kai iss hi tarha jaisay minorities groups hain humaray saath jo Christian minority kai group hain, unkai issues hotay hain tou unkay saath hum jurtay hain aur kuch cheezain hoti hain jo hum samnay le kar arahay hotay hain, kuch cheezain hoti hain kai aapus main hum sirf baat kar rahay hotay hain.

AK: Pastor Ghazala is a Christian scholar and leader who founded her own religious order for Christian women in Karachi, called "Bait ul Momineen". She responded to the Aurat March invitation and brought women from her community to join in every year. I asked her what she thought the protest action has accomplished.

PG: Aur jo mujhay bohat acha laga Aurat ye Haq ka jo platform bana aur iss main saari young larkiyan hai. Aur aap agar jawani sai activism seekh letay hain na, sensitise hojatay hain tou aap zahir hai jahan pai bhi hain, aap aik influence... Aap apnay ghar pai bhi influence kartay hain, ap apnay school hai, college hai, university hai isko bhi influence kartay hain. Tau mujhay bohat khushi hui hai Aurat Haq aur iss Aurat March sai kai young activists bohat samnay aye hain tou uss main Aurat March tou aik huge impact usnay dala hai. Aur main kehti hoon kai collectiveness ayi hai khawateen kai andar. Mainay iskay baad dekha hai kai collectiveness bohat aayi hai kai ikatha hona chahay woh bari umar ki khatoon hon ya choti hai - they all are coming together aur sab aik doosray ko space de rahay hain.

AK: Pastor Ghazala feels the long term success of the Aurat Marches will be secured if women politicians, such as MNAs and MPAs can be brought onto its platform.

PG: Dekhain ye mainay kaha bhi tha Aurat March walon sai bhi kai humein ja kar political jo humari khawateen hain MNAs MPAs hain, un sai ja kai Aurat March walon ko milna chahiye. Aur main sochti hoon kai Aurat March aik wahid aisa platform aya jahan aurat khul kai nikli, khul kai naachi bhi hai aur boli bhi hai.

AK: While the internal debates about who to involve and how to strategize continue, the next Aurat March, 2021, is upon us. We look forward to seeing how activists will unite and organize to put forward their demands. In the current climate of shrinking civic spaces in Pakistan it may be harder than ever to mobilize for women’s rights.

[Aurat March music and chants]

AK: This podcast was produced in collaboration with Films D’art. I would also like to thank my research officer Asiya Jawed for her contribution. I hope you enjoyed the first episode of our podcast series Khoj and hope you will tune in on our next episode. Until then, Khuda Hafiz.

[soft music]

A special thanks to Komal Qidwai, Zonia Yousuf and Fatima Jafar for their research support.
Translation KHOJ - Episode 1 English translation
Ayesha Khan (AK), Moneeza Ahmed (MA), Qurat Mirza (QM), Fatima Majeed (FM), Pastor Ghazala (PG)

[Slow music]

AK: Assalam o alaikum and welcome to the launch of ‘Khoj’. This is the podcast series hosted by the Collective for Social Science Research. We are a development research organization based in Karachi working on a wide range of issues from gender to social protection, economics and policy analysis to name just a few. Through our podcast we will share with you some of the fascinating findings of our deep dives into the communities and issues we study.

My name is Ayesha Khan, and I have been working for many years on gender and development issues here at the Collective. Today’s podcast draws on our research with women in protest actions in Pakistan. This work is part of a programme called Action for Empowerment and Accountability, a multi-country research initiative hosted by the Institute of Development Studies in the UK.

We examined protests which were episodic, meaning they happened repeatedly, exploring how the initial protests developed into collective action, how women’s demands changed and evolved over time, and what outcomes they achieved.

Not all of the contentious episodes were explicitly feminist yet we found that where women were involved in protest actions, the attention to gender empowerment grew overtime. We asked whether the special context in Pakistan offered new opportunities for women to exercise leadership through collective action. And if so, how did they exercise this leadership?

Our research methods were qualitative relying mainly on key informant interviews with women leaders. We also attended some protests and analysed the content of women's public speeches and finally we catalogued media coverage of the protest to highlight significant moments.

The Aurat March began as an initiative by young feminist activists in Karachi to mark International Women's Day and highlight the lack of gender justice in Pakistan. It was inspired by the global #MeToo Movement but has brought together women from diverse causes and organisations on its platform. The annual Marches mobilise thousands of women in more cities every year to demand greater rights and freedoms, better employment, housing, security and to call out the everyday misogyny in our midst. In fact the March has brought more women and LGBTQI people on to the streets than any other feminist mobilisation during this generation. And as many of you may know, the Aurat March also led to controversy from some religious groups, media channels, and sectors of society who argue the slogans go against our social and religious values.

[chanting at Aurat March -- Azaadi -- Qurat Mirza leading]

One of the first people I spoke to was Moneeza Ahmed who has been organising the Karachi Aurat March each year since 2018. We met during a break from her office job and sat down for coffee to talk. Moneeza told me that she has been an activist since her student days in Toronto, Canada. When she came back to Pakistan over a decade ago, she was interested in working with young people and joined the Lawyers' Movement too but she soon became disillusioned by what she calls civil society politics. And I asked her why.

MA: I just feel like it wasn't longer term engagement with people, with communities, with certain kinds of constituencies - the ones we usually talk about. There is no longer term engagement, relationship-building as such. I know these are organisations which are doing that but the overall civil society is very loose, very unstructured - which is great, which can be great but then it can also be very short term.

AK: So I asked Moneeza what were they marching for?

MA: For me, I feel like at least I can talk about my reason, but I think for everybody it was about showing the political presence of women. Uh… and it was also shown, you know, organising women. Because I think it needs to be from both the sides. The state needs to take women seriously but it's also women who need platforms and who need to organise themselves to have that voice and to be political in that way, right?

AK: After meeting with Moneeza, I went to interview another feminist leader from the Aurat March Karachi. Her name is Qurat Mirza and I met her in yet another busy cafe in the city. She agreed with the idea that the March was about doing politics.

QM: The goal of the March is for it to be a political action. When we come on the streets, we show our presence to the state so they know that we exist and are now moving towards a resistance movement. This is a political action. I believe that the work that has been done in the Sindh Assembly is quite progressive, it is good work. However, similar kinds of work has been done. For example, people are doing lobbying and advocacy related work. And of course, all of this work is for women who make up 50% of the country’s population. So our group believed that all of these things are great and they should keep happening but women need to be politicized too. And the [Aurat] March is a political action that politicizes people even if they are merely a part of it. While organizing for the March, we meet people and connect with them which is part of the politicization. We think that politicization is imperative for women at this time. Women who think that domestic issues are not their issues because they don’t face these in their homes need to be politicized. Since women are more than 50% of the country’s population, they need to stand up against these issues. From militarization to capitalism, women are standing up against these issues and demanding their rights.

AK: The organisers of Aurat March soon realised that facilitating a movement requires a lot of planning. I asked Moneeza how the organising committee was formed?

MA: So that was very organic uh that was very like whoever sort of... so we did three weeks of just meeting women and then we did do one meeting uhm which was a lot of younger women and that kind of became the organising committee.

So we had a very much non-hierarchy policy. Dou teen cheezain hain jo became the principles of the March was no hierarchy, no NGO funding, and no NGO banner and no political party invitations and those things were very much pushed by everybody. There are about 25-30 women in the organising committee...

AK: If the Aurat March organisers wanted to break new ground and mobilise different groups to protest, I wondered how they went about identifying communities to approach.

MA: Actually, just by contact. We did not have any procedure that we have to go to these specific communities. Well actually the one thing that we confirmed was that we definitely need to hit the marginalised communities where our focus was on minorities. So we did a lot of outreach in Christian and Hindu communities.

AK: One community that brought women to the March was the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum that works to protect the livelihoods of coastal communities in Sindh and Balochistan. Fatima Majeed is Senior Advisory Chairperson of the forum. She has been in politics as well as a member of Karachi's District Council and as a candidate for election on a PPP ticket. We went to Ibrahim Hyderi and spoke with Fatima about her work and how she mobilised for the Aurat March.

FM: I was also interested -- I thought that something different is happening and we should be a part of it. During that time I was a little busy with the programs of my party but after mobilising for only two days, I brought six buses filled with women to the March. I participated in the Aurat March and mobilized women too. They came to the March with me and had lots of fun. Yes, they had a lot of fun. They said that they really enjoyed the program (Aurat March). One good thing was that women didn’t have any restrictions - they were doing whatever they wanted to. They were speaking up and everyone was protesting in their own way.

AK: We asked Fatima whether they faced any backlash for taking part in the March?

FM: We faced no backlash from men in our community because they actually accompanied me [in protest actions], so they were just sitting in one corner. The men thought that as women from their community have gathered at the Aurat March, women from all classes are there so they should also get a chance to say whatever they want to say and carry out protests. They recognize that Women’s Day is celebrated internationally, and women should be given the freedom to celebrate this day fully.They should have this opportunity. Other than that, people from my community complained regarding some slogans at the March but I faced these complaints. I also had an argument with them. And they were complaining against slogans like, “lo main beth gayi sahi sai” [Look, I sat properly] and “mera jism meri marzi” [my body, my choice] which weren’t trying to say what they thought they were. These were all used for the protest but people will assume whatever they want to; it depends on their way of thinking.

AK: We asked Fatima what were the demands of her community during the Aurat March and what did their slogans look like?

FM: The slogans that we made were regarding tax and tax justice. We didn’t want our utilities and everyday expenses to be taxed. And we also made a slogan that the tax burden on our women should be reduced. We also had more demands regarding the mangroves and the ocean. All the demands were regarding our employment.

There were also certain demands regarding women and equality. We demanded that women work with men and are given equal rights. If women are working alongside men, they should be given equal rights.

We come from a village, and even though Ibrahim Hyderi has really expanded now, we have our own culture here. We live here in our own way and have a different environment here. All of the women who live here with me are poor - some work in factories, and some in bungalows as house help. So when they accompany and sit with other women they feel nice. And the women who accompany me told me that they have gone to other programs as well but at this time [at the Aurat March] they didn’t feel different from others. Equality. We were all sitting together. Women came from different class levels and were sitting together at one place - no one is bigger, no one is smaller. And I believe that the women who came along with me enjoyed the most because they were the ones who were dancing the most.

[Aurat March chants]

AK: I wanted to find out more about the diversity of the participants of the March. Qurat Mirza explained.

QM: The people who we were organizing with were from ordinary communities - they were all women. And there were students in it too who were going to underprivileged areas or far-flung areas in Karachi’s outskirts to inform women living there about the March. And those women who are victims in one sense or the other, are going through these problems in one way or the other. So our target… the people that we were working with were women, sexual minorities, which included transgenders too. Then religious minority women, working women, polio workers, and lady health workers. And we were trying to give this message to the state.

AK: It seemed to be that the young feminists of Aurat March wanted to do things differently from the older activists who began the modern women's movement in the 1980s. This movement was led by a group called Women's Action Forum (WAF) or "Khawateen Mahaz e Amal" in Urdu. This was not an NGO but a platform for mainly educated and urban-based women to lobby with government to remove discriminatory laws against women and make policies that protect women's rights. WAF still exists today, in fact Qurat is a member of its Karachi chapter. I asked her how the Aurat March organizers felt they were different from WAF?

QM: I am still trying to explore the difference in strategies because I have been a part of it too. I believe that Women’s Action Forum has had lots of achievements - I would call these contributions rather than achievements. But they are more involved in advocacy so it’s more like a think tank sort of a group. And they work on issues that are brought forward to them but in terms of politicization the thing is that they mostly work on legislation.

Everyone worked a lot on the forced conversion bill but we couldn’t pass it for some reason. We thought that if we have a strong women’s force behind this and if we go out on the streets and say that “No, we want this” the state will have to listen to us… so we witnessed that gap.

AK: So it sounds to me that younger feminists are impatient with the lack of progress on important legislative reforms, among other issues. They want to generate support on the streets to push politicians to act. But this approach has some risks as well. Some right-wing groups threatened legal action against Aurat March organizers, and certain activists received threats. In 2020 there was a court petition to stop the March in Sukkur, which eventually failed, but still – I wondered if the backlash generated some fear amongst the activists. Qurrat told me that the public never expected five thousand women to come out on the streets of Karachi or other cities like Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta. And the controversial posters were meant to provoke discussion and debate about our social values that were harming women’s rights. The backlash took a while, but when it came it was not only from the usual quarters, but also from liberals, from those Qurat calls misogynistic. I asked her to explain.

QM: So there are these ‘boys’ out there who are educated, not really practicing [Muslims], aren’t affiliated with any religious groups but their masculinity gets hurt when we say “mera jism meri marzi” [my body my choice] - so they think, “how dare” you know? So this has become a nexus - religious fundamentalists' goal is to also control women’s sexuality - this is what patriarchy is and both these groups have kind of aligned. What happened was that in the first Aurat March it was quite clear that these religious fundamentalists and these misogynist people are there left, right and center but the backlash took some time because they didn’t understand what we meant by “mera jism meri marzi” [my body my choice] and all of that.

AK: I asked Qurat what the organisers’ strategies have been apart from hosting the annual Aurat March.

QM: We go [to these communities] to build relationships, and once we have developed a relationship we go to Aurat Haq and ask them what their politics is and if they can teach us their politics. We don’t want to teach them any politics. Someone might have a domestic violence issue and at the Aurat March they can connect with the fisherfolk community. And staying connected in Aurat Haq means that those women started sharing their problems with us. So the immediate thing that they think about is how they can support each other. It’s like relationship-building. We don’t aim to make a collective, leadership or membership - it’s too early for that. We thought multiple times about the membership days but we first want to grow. We just want to make friendships - for example we work with minority groups and have connected with the Christian minority group -- they have their issues so we connect with them so we can talk about their demands and bring forward some of them.

AK: Pastor Ghazala is a Christian scholar and leader who founded her own religious order for Christian women in Karachi, called "Bait ul Momineen". She responded to the Aurat March invitation and brought women from her community to join in every year. I asked her what she thought the protest action has accomplished.

PG: One thing that I really appreciate is that all women in the Aurat Haq platform are young. And if you learn activism in your youth and become sensitized, you will definitely have an influence… You can have an influence at your home and at your school, college or university. But I am really happy that through Aurat Haq and Aurat March young activists have come forward and that has had a huge impact. And I would say that there is a collectiveness amongst women. I have seen the collectiveness as women are coming together whether they are older or younger - all of them are coming together and giving each other space.

AK: Pastor Ghazala feels the long term success of the Aurat Marches will be secured if women politicians, such as MNAs and MPAs can be brought onto its platform.

PG: Look, I also said this earlier to the Aurat March people that we need to connect with women politicians. Aurat March people should meet MNAs and MPAs. And I believe that Aurat March is the only platform where women have openly protested, danced and raised their concerns.

AK: While the internal debates about who to involve and how to strategize continue, the next Aurat March, 2021, is upon us. We look forward to seeing how activists will unite and organize to put forward their demands. In the current climate of shrinking civic spaces in Pakistan it may be harder than ever to mobilize for women’s rights.

[Aurat March music and chants]

AK: This podcast was produced in collaboration with Films D’art. I would also like to thank my research officer Asiya Jawed for her contribution. I hope you enjoyed the first episode of our podcast series Khoj and hope you will tune in on our next episode. Until then, Khuda Hafiz.

[soft music]

A special thanks to Komal Qidwai, Zonia Yousuf and Fatima Jafar for their research support.