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 1: Why We March?

Date: 2021-02-22

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.