On the 8th of March 2021, hundreds of people gathered in cities across Pakistan for the annual International Woman’s Day March. Now in its fourth year, the Aurat Azadi March (Women’s Freedom March) has become a prolific event in the country, taking place in cities such as Islamabad and Karachi. The campaign for this year’s protests was a manifesto on female health, hoping to increase the health budget following the impact on women after COVID-19. Those at the forefront of the march have been pioneers in Pakistan on conversations around fundamental rights, including seeking to end violence against women, environmental justice, wage equality, and fair political representation.
As the popularity of the protest has increased, so too has backlash from its critics. Since this years’ march, the organisers have received relentless campaigns of misinformation, allegations of blasphemy, and violent threats – including from the terrorist organisation Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. This week it was announced that a police complaint has been registered in the city of Peshawar under sections 295-A and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which deal with allegations of blasphemy laws and hate speech. Such laws can be punishable by fines, incarceration, or death.
The allegations of blasphemy were supported by images and videos that show protestors promoting anti-Islamic slogans. Organisers of the event have denied all claims of blasphemy, stating that they are “being incriminated for crimes we never committed, slogans that were never raised, and banners that were never carried.” They say that the images were doctored and that no protests took place in Peshawar, the location where the police report was filed.
The march has become a polarising event in Pakistan, with the recent allegations being the latest in a string of attempts by right-wing groups to counteract the efforts of organisers. Its critics have named it ‘vulgar’ and accused it of ‘spreading Western values’ in the country, taking particular offence at the campaign slogan ‘mera jism, meri marzi’ (my body, my choice). This slogan, which is a regular feature across placards across the globe, holds particular sensitivity in Pakistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan recently came under fire for his response to the increase in reports of rape in the country, claiming they indicated the “consequences in any society where vulgarity is on the rise.”
Tooba Syed, an organiser of the march told DW Magazine “When women talk about themselves, or their body, it offends everyone because a woman’s body is considered a man’s property.” Laws on blasphemy are frequently exploited in Pakistan to persecute minorities or groups that pose a perceived threat to the state, which maintains its order based on deeply conservative hierarchies. The writer and director Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar, a known opponent to the march, told DW Magazine “If these women stop using these shameless and dirty slogans, I would be their biggest supporter. They should know that they can't get their rights by snatching them from men and disrespecting their fathers and husbands.”
The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 rated Pakistan at 151 of 153 countries listed for global gender parity indices. The report also disclosed that around 85% of women in Pakistan have experienced ‘intimate partner violence,' which by nature is harder to punish due to the societal power structures that exist within the country.
Earlier this month, Muslim women in France were also protesting against restrictions on their freedom, though seemingly through a different lens. As part of the ‘anti-separatism’ bill, the French Senate voted to approve an amendment that bans Muslim women under the age of 18 from wearing a hijab anywhere in public. This also extends to the banning of any parent wearing ‘religious clothing’ from participating in school activities. To be codified as a law, the proposal must be passed through the lower house of Parliament. Though it has been suggested that the chances of this are slim, the proposal of the law has sparked international outrage and re-surfaced accusations of Islamophobia in France.
The first openly anti-Muslim law in France was passed in 2004, banning hijabs in school on the basis that it contradicted laïcite (political secularism). In 2010, legislation was passed forbidding any individual to have their face completely covered in a public space – a law explicitly drafted against the burka and the niqab worn by Muslim women. Many campaigners have pointed out the irony of this law still existing in 2021, where it is currently mandatory for people in France to wear face masks in the fight against COVID-19.
The control of modern Muslim women under the guise of secularism has links with France’s colonial past. In 1958, during the French colonisation of Algeria, Muslim women were forced to remove their veils and burn them in so-called acts of ‘liberation’ – even though such liberation was the result of direct orders from French colonial authorities. The proposed new legislation in France, that calls for the “prohibition in the public space of any conspicuous religious sign by minors and of any dress or clothing which would signify inferiority of women over men,” feels familiar.
Muslim women navigate life through the spectrum of patriarchy, with the addition of Islamophobia in the Western World that has traditionally left them out of many feminist movements. Muslim women in media are presented as oppressed and naïve, waiting for feminism to release them from the shackles of Islam (enter Carrie Bradshaw, SATC 2). Many have also pointed out that the disparity between the age of sexual consent in France (15) and the age from which women can choose to wear a hijab (18).
For many people in Pakistan, it seems that feminism is a threat to Islamic values and a direct act of aggression and disrespect towards men. In France, a war has been declared on Islam, albeit masked in the context of female liberation. As proclaimed by former President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010 “It's a problem of liberty and women's dignity. It's not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement.” The only consistency between the two countries appears to be the view that to exist as a feminist and a Muslim woman is to exist in an oxymoron. Ultimately, the bodies of Muslim women are always the battleground for political weaponisation – whether they are in a religious state such as Pakistan, or in the name of laïcité in countries such as France.