Women, trans people, non-binary folk, and men walking side-by-side through the streets, as bystanders look on, people marching in tandem to the beat of a drum and the chant of rhythmic slogans, thought-provoking placards being brandished justice are just some of the things one can expect to witness at the Aurat March.

2022 will mark the fifth year that women in Pakistan have mobilized and marched shoulder-to-shoulder in an attempt to reclaim public spaces and demand the fulfillment of rights that are extended to them by the laws of the state

Asal Insaaf or Reimagining Justice is the theme for this year’s Lahore chapter of the Aurat March. While conversing with Ajwah, who has been volunteering for Aurat March Lahore since 2019, I asked her how the volunteers of had gone about the process of drafting such a detailed manifesto and list of demands:

“The Aurat March manifesto is always a collaborative effort. Since we can’t speak for all communities, we keep contact with them, hold meetings, ask them about their problems, and what a world with justice looks like to them. This time, in the manifesto, we are not only listing problems, but also emphasizing that there can be no resolution of these issues without an attitude of care, without building up communities themselves.”

The most important demand that was put forth is for the government to make efforts to bring about structural changes. The advocates of Aurat March have called for authorities to introduce judicial reforms that will have a lasting impact, rather than implement short-term measures. They claim that changes such as greater representation of women and minorities in the legal system, although a step forward in the right direction, will not be enough to overturn or even counteract the misogyny, classism, and sexism that is prevalent in courts and the patriarchal institutions that have informed the laws and procedures of the judicial system.

As it currently exists, the Pakistani judicial system focuses heavily on punishment as a way to combat the crimes and the injustices that citizens are made to suffer through. The problem with this approach is that the fear of punishment is not a powerful enough deterrent, especially in a system that is fractured and allows criminals to walk free and whose laws leave room for impunity even when it comes to serious crimes. The manifesto states that more resources should be allocated to preventative, rather than punitive, measures.

The manifesto also claims that defamation laws are inherently anti-survivor and are often abused by perpetrators to make themselves appear as victims, which is why they should immediately be decriminalized. Furthermore, laws that exist to protect women, such as the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act 2016, should be implemented properly to ensure the security of women in public and private spaces. Another point that is stressed upon in the manifesto is with regards to the various “safe city projects” that the government has launched and how they are a waste of public funds that could be better distributed towards creating survivor-support mechanisms and welfare programs. There are barely any shelter homes or affordable housing options that the survivors of domestic abuse and gender-based violence can seek refuge in after escaping abusive households and/or marriages.

“In the manifesto we talk about how communities have a collective responsibility, where they can be an important source of intervention. The rehabilitation of prisoners who have served their time is important and our communities can play an active role in that,” said Ajwah when I asked her about the significance of rehabilitation of ex-convicts and why this section was included in the manifesto.

The idea of Aurat March was borne out of the need to propagate feminist ideals in a country that is ruled by out-dated colonial laws and patriarchal structures. Contrary to popular belief, feminism does not aim to promote misandry and disseminate a narrative that women are superior to men. Instead, feminism is a belief system that strives for the equality of all genders and works to liberate them from confining gender roles. Feminism emphasizes the protection of women’s rights, those of the transgender community, and minority groups, in particular, and attempts to elevate their voices, because these are the sections of society that have historically been marginalized and oppressed.

Women marching on the streets and demanding their rights is a sight that attracts controversy and criticism from onlookers and the media each year. While discussing the inevitable backlash that the Aurat March receives each year, Ajwah told me about some of the efforts that volunteers had made this year to curb vitriol from the public and prevent false narratives about the March from making rounds on social, digital, and print media:

“We think that there is definitely going to be backlash and we don’t know what it’s going to look like…Almost all of our social media posts try to curb the narrative that women who march are spreading ‘fahaashi’. One of the major ways that we have tried to shift that narrative is through our ‘Collective History’ series through which we have tried to show that this is not a western movement, but something that is borne out of feminist resistance -even though it wasn’t explicitly called ‘feminist resistance’- that existed here in the past also…One of the problems we face each year on the day of the March is with regards to media reporting, so we hand out media passes to ensure that volunteers and participants of the March only speak to media outlets we trust to carry our message forward.”

Even amidst a call to ban the Aurat March and to observe “International Hijab Day” in its place in a letter penned by the Minister for Religious Affairs, Noorul Haq Qadri, to Prime Minister Imran Khan, volunteers, supporters, and prospective attendees of the Aurat March are hopeful that the March will take place peacefully and will prove to be a successful display of women raising their voice against oppression, violence, and injustice.

The purpose of the manifesto for this year’s March is to urge practitioners within the judicial system to focus on not just legal justice, but economic and environmental justice as well. While legal justice refers to effective implementation of the Constitution of Pakistan and enforcement of the Rule of Law, economic justice pertains to the condition wherein measures are taken to eradicate the exploitation of workers, ensure sufficient incomes, and bridge the gender pay gap; and environmental justice relates to the idea that every citizen of the state should have equal access to clean air, water, and unpolluted land for living.

We must realize that there is still so much work to do and a lot to overcome. Only by reimagining the idea of justice as encapsulating the resolution of legal, economic, and environmental crises in Pakistan can we move towards creating a feminist future where every person is granted their due rights and has access to a safe and healthy living.

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