“Not Going Was Not an Option”: Aurat March 2020

Poet and Auratnaak Lahore founder Yusra Amjad gives an inside view of the Aurat March 2020, as she has been a volunteer and supporter since its inception. She picks her favourite placards as well.

When my mother told me a distant cousin was in a fight with his father over “mera jism, meri marzi”, I was surprised. Because I don’t watch television, I hadn’t expected that my uncle would have heard about the contentious placard from the very first Aurat March in 2018. My mother looked at me like I was an idiot. “Of course he has heard about it. It’s on every television screen in the country. Every talk show is discussing it.”

It was then that I began to actually process the fact that the Aurat March had sparked a nationwide discourse. I thought back to the very first Aurat March meeting, two years ago. What had I expected to come of it? Certainly not that it would become a topic of conversation amongst the most conservative uncles I knew; certainly not that it would threaten them so much that they would spend hours dismissing and condemning it in their living rooms and their WhatsApp chats.

“I certainly did not expect that the Aurat March would threaten conservative uncles so much that they would spend hours condemning it in their living rooms and their WhatsApp chats”

In the wake of a very difficult year, I had become too emotionally exhausted to engage much with the external world; I volunteered my efforts for the 2020 march in whatever limited capacity I could. The morning of the march, I was both exhilarated and stressed as I coordinated rides, packed supplies, and worried if any of my placards were provocative enough to become the target of mass cyber-harassment. Lurking underneath my immediate concerns was the much bigger fear that the march would be attacked, but I ignored it. There was no point dwelling on that fear; not going was not an option.

Unlike the past two marches, this one had a security checkpost that attendees had to pass through. Our bags were searched, our bodies frisked. I had mixed feelings about it – I was glad there was some level of security, but I also wondered how much of the state’s so-called protection was actually surveillance and regulation. It was also disheartening that we had received so much backlash as to make this necessary.

“The morning of the march, I was both exhilarated and stressed, wondering if any of my placards were provocative enough to become the target of mass cyber-harassment”

The press is to the Aurat March what flies are to honey. Getting all the attendees behind the leading banner is difficult enough, but getting the cameramen who crowd in front of it to get out of the way is even harder. I, along with other volunteers, stretched out a length of rope between us and walked forward, forcing the cameramen to move back. A particularly determined “journo uncle” strained against our rope barrier constantly, several others became disgruntled when asked to stop pushing. It was exhausting work; we did it together until we had cleared enough space in front for the march to proceed and keep proceeding smoothly, until the endpoint.

I won’t bore you with the details of crowd control. I will just tell you this: Aurat March is magical because it is a space in which you can call out for help and be immediately heard. If you say “idhar rasi pakarni hai!” several pairs of hands will present themselves. If you say “band-aid chahiye!” you will be handed four Saniplasts within ten minutes. And if you say you are being harassed a whole army of fiercely protective women are ready to believe you and take action.

“Aurat March is magical because it is a space in which you can call out for help and be immediately heard”

During her speech, Mohiba Ahmed asked everyone to raise their placards and told the media-persons present to read them, to note their diversity, to report on them accurately and responsibly. Let me take a moment to share my favourite placards:

  1. “Mujhse pehli si complacency meray oppressor na maang.” A brilliant play on Faiz’s famous love poem, and a reminder that there is no going back for Pakistani women. We have stepped out and now we will only move forward.
  2. “My abuser is here.” Every Aurat March, I count how many men who are misogynists, harassers, and abusers in real life show up to use the event as a photo-op for their progressive persona. That’s why this placard resonated with me so much.
  3. “Pyari betion! Ma’en tumharay saath hain!” a mother carried this placard with a broad, proud smile on her face. Kudos to all the parents who trust their daughters more than they trust society’s misogynist narratives.
  4. “Nikkahnama lifetime consent ki subscription Always relevant in a country that doesn’t legally recognise marital rape.
  5. “Mera jism, teri marzi. Ab khush ho?” Carried by the legendary feminist Nighat Said Khan, this sign curtly cut to the chase about what Pakistani patriarchy really wants: control over women’s bodies.

My favourite part of the day was the final, surprise performance. A beautiful young woman climbed atop the lorry we were using as a stage and began to sing Faiz’s dissident anthem Hum Dekhenge. She wore a black sari, just as Iqbal Bano did in 1986 when she sang Faiz’s revolutionary words in defiance of Zia-ul-Haq’s rule. Both the pallu of Farheen Raza Jaffry’s sari, and her rich, resinous voice, floated on the spring breeze, as hundreds of Aurat Marchers raised their hands in the air and sang along with her:

sab taj uchalay jayen gay, sab takht giraen jaaen gay.

About the author:

Yusra Amjad is a poet, writer and stand-up comedian who is passionate about art that confronts the everyday experience of living in a postcolonial state. She founded the Lahore chapter of the Auratnaak stand-up comedy troupe.

Featured Image by @shehzilm

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