‘My Body My Choice’ — The Feminist Slogan That Took a Nation by Storm

Activists present on the stage of the Aurat March, Karachi, 2022.
Activists present on the stage of the Aurat March, Karachi, 2022.

Aurat March (Women’s March) is an annual march that takes place in all major cities in Pakistan on 8 March, International Women’s Day. The year 2022 saw the fifth Aurat March where women and allies of all ages, from all socioeconomic classes, took the streets across the country to demand gender equality, bodily autonomy, and individual rights. This article outlines the events of the 2022 Aurat March in Karachi and how it came to be despite the backlash leading up to the event, including hindrances and threats from fringe groups and conservative communities in the country.

To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March 2022, women and their allies took part in Aurat Marches across the country.

The first Aurat March took place in 2018 in Karachi. The following year, it was held in many more cities, including Lahore, Multan, Faisalabad, Larkana, and Hyderabad. Similarly, in 2022 women and allies marched across different cities in a display of feminist resistance to call for equal rights for women and other marginalised communities.

Despite numerous obstacles and threats, the organisers managed to continue the feminist tradition and hold the fifth march to campaign for gender equality. One of the challenges faced by the march involved Abdul Majeed Hazarawi, a leader of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), one of the leading political parties in Pakistan, who threatened to stop the march in the country’s capital with sticks. The Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Noor-ul-Haq Qadri also condemned the march, calling it an aberration to the religious and cultural values of Pakistani society. Additionally, the organisers faced police reports made against them, alleging that they had used defamatory language against Islam. More than the march itself, conservative and fringe groups had a problem with the slogans and placards held by the participants. In particular, the slogan ‘Mera Jism Meri Marzi [My Body My Choice]’ faced staunch backlash throughout the country. The slogan, which aimed to highlight the need for bodily autonomy and individual liberty for all groups of society, was deemed controversial. Nevertheless, the Aurat March did not compromise on any of its slogans and encouraged attendees to bring creative and innovative placards to fight the patriarchy.   

For its first four years, the Aurat March was held at Frere Hall in Karachi. For the most recent march, organisers chose to hold the march at Jinnah Park, opposite Mazar-e-Quaid (Jinnah Mausoleum). Women and men of all ages and backgrounds marched down Muhammad Ali Jinnah Road.

The theme of the march was labour, with the main slogan being ‘Ujarat Tahafaz aur Sukoon [Wage, Security, Rest]’. The march targeted various issues, including minimum wage, social security, and the right for women to rest and be at leisure. The first demand was for the implementation of minimum wage across all sectors. The second demand was for the provision of social security to women and the Khwaja Sira (transgender) community in the form of monthly stipends to recognise the caregiving and emotional labour provided by these groups. The third demand was for immediate measures against child and bondage labour. The march called for the government to establish child protection centres across Karachi, and to provide child support services in the rest of the province. The fourth demand was for a living pension for all, and for single mothers, older women, as well as widows to receive tax cuts to increase their disposable income. The fifth demand called for health insurance, maternity leave, prenatal confinement, nursing breaks, childcare facilities, and postnatal care in workplaces. They also demanded unemployment support.In Karachi, feminists and allies started gathering at Jinnah Park around 3 p.m. At 4:30 p.m., the area was bustling with people. Carpets were laid down in front of the stage on one side of the ground for people to sit on. On the other side, there were rows of chairs. On stage, a sign language interpreter was present to ensure accessibility and participation of people with hearing difficulties. Many communities were represented on the stage through their speeches, poems, and even rap songs. This included a member of the Midwifery Association of Pakistan who articulated their struggles through a rap performance. A group of female students also took to the stage to speak about the need for harassment committees in educational institutions to ensure transparency and female representation. Furthermore, polio workers voiced the upheavals they face while campaigning for polio vaccines, and Khwaja Siras called for the destigmatisation of HIV. The issue of Gujjar Nala was also raised, as displaced female residents narrated how their homes were being taken away from them.

A great number of young students participated in the 2022 march. One female student present, Safina Aslam, attended her first Aurat March in Karachi. She emphasised the significance this march holds for her: ‘The Aurat March to me means liberation; it means freedom of mobility, of speech, of my attire, it means to me that one day out of the 365 days I can be out on the street in the middle of a sea of women and undoubtedly feel protected by them.’ About her participation in the march, she added, ‘I feel like this is my small contribution to dismantling this very large-scale problem of patriarchy that will exist for years to come.’

Another student, declining to adhere to any gender, Ali Bashir, said, ‘The march literally means the act of movement, so for me, the Aurat March is by definition a movement. In the past four or five years, the movement itself has been evolving.’ They further commented about their experience, ‘This year I am here with my younger sisters for the first time and it is a fascinating experience. I am sure they are confused right now since it’s their first exposure to this space.’

Regarding the change of location to Jinnah Park, Bashir added, ‘This choice of place is very radical, this is happening in front of Quaid-e-Azam ke mazaar (Jinnah Mausoleum), it is a strategic move in terms of visibility . . . legitimacy. Ap main MA Jinnah road band kardo [When one blocks MA Jinnah Road], that itself is very significant because this road is one of the oldest roads of Karachi.’ 

Bashir’s comments hinted at the progress the feminist movement has achieved in the last decade in Pakistan. A road that is mostly used by major political parties to protest and demonstrate their popularity has now become a part of the gender discourse, and this itself is no less than a triumph and marks significant progress in the right direction.

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ArtIQulate is a publication associated with the Adenauer Fellowship, a scholarship programme by the Media Programme Asia, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Ltd.
About the author

Wara Irfan

Wara Irfan is a multimedia journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. Her focus lies at the intersection of media, gender, and culture. She is currently working for Dawn.com as an Adenauer Fellow for media and communication. She is passionate about documenting and historicising indigenous forms of resistance and writing about postcolonial media and visual cultures in the city.

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