Pakistan Broaches ‘Hijab Day’ for International Women’s Day

In one of the worst places to be a woman, politicians are doubling down.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Aurat March women's activists march in Pakistan.
Aurat March women's activists march in Pakistan.
Activists of the Aurat March carry placards during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Lahore, Pakistan, on March 8, 2020. ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

ISLAMABAD—Pakistan’s minister of religious affairs has called for events marking this year’s International Women’s Day to be canceled and for March 8 to be rebranded as “Hijab Day” to celebrate a garment that faces no threat to its existence in this overwhelmingly Muslim country.

The minister, Noor-ul-Haq Qadri, has also demanded that the Aurat March—“aurat” means woman in “Urdu”—be banned, and he has written to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, a former professional cricket player and a playboy with a penchant for appeasing extreme religious groups, to declare International Women’s Day activities un-Islamic.

Qadri’s call has been condemned by women’s rights activists and some independent lawmakers, though Pakistan’s mainstream political parties have largely been silent. At least one right-wing organization accused women’s rights marchers of “obscenity” and said they will be beaten with batons. Rights advocates say that even though women take part, at least to some extent, in Pakistan’s economic, social, and political life, violence against women remains entrenched. Each year, around 1,000 women are victims of so-called honor killings—murdered by family members to atone for a perceived shame, according to Human Rights Watch. Many thousands more are injured.

ISLAMABAD—Pakistan’s minister of religious affairs has called for events marking this year’s International Women’s Day to be canceled and for March 8 to be rebranded as “Hijab Day” to celebrate a garment that faces no threat to its existence in this overwhelmingly Muslim country.

The minister, Noor-ul-Haq Qadri, has also demanded that the Aurat March—“aurat” means woman in “Urdu”—be banned, and he has written to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, a former professional cricket player and a playboy with a penchant for appeasing extreme religious groups, to declare International Women’s Day activities un-Islamic.

Qadri’s call has been condemned by women’s rights activists and some independent lawmakers, though Pakistan’s mainstream political parties have largely been silent. At least one right-wing organization accused women’s rights marchers of “obscenity” and said they will be beaten with batons. Rights advocates say that even though women take part, at least to some extent, in Pakistan’s economic, social, and political life, violence against women remains entrenched. Each year, around 1,000 women are victims of so-called honor killings—murdered by family members to atone for a perceived shame, according to Human Rights Watch. Many thousands more are injured.

As the military-dominated government seeks to consolidate and extend its power, it is exploiting religious conservatives to ensure that ideas like gender equality do not threaten its authoritarian control. Thanks to a tightly muzzled media, the Army is better able to rein in other freedoms like speech and assembly, as well as institutions like the judiciary and parliament. Right-wing religious groups are thriving in this environment. They have been further emboldened by the return to power last year of the ultra-conservative Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, where women have effectively been erased from daily life.

The Aurat March, now in its fifth year, aims to draw attention to a wide range of issues that disproportionately impact women due to their general exclusion from decision-making, according to march organizers. They have issued a 12-point manifesto calling for an overhaul of the justice system; an emphasis on education rather than victim blaming; the inclusion of women in policing; increased health funding for victims of gender-based violence and the inclusion of mental health in the state’s free health care scheme for low-income earners; and the implementation of laws to protect transgender people. 

“Nothing in the manifesto contradicts the religion. But this is a tool. Every time you accuse somebody of disrespecting Islam, of blasphemy, you are inciting violence against them,” said Ailia Zehra, managing editor of the digital news outlet Naya Daur Media-Friday Times. Mobs have attacked and killed people accused of blasphemy, which remains a crime in Pakistan. The Center for Research and Security Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank, reports that since Pakistan was founded in 1947, 89 people have been killed after being accused of blasphemy, 18 women and 71 men. Of a total of 1,415 individuals who faced complaints of blasphemy in that time, the report said that the overwhelming majority, 1,287, did so in the last decade.

Participants in past Aurat marches have been pelted with stones and threatened with acid attacks. Last year, video footage posted on social media was doctored so that the marchers’ chants were anti-Islamic, and slogans such as “My Body, My Choice” were twisted to sound like calls to promiscuity.

“The state has been extremely hostile to the Aurat March in Pakistan,” said Munizae Jahangir, a journalist and board member of the AGHS Legal Aid Cell, founded by her mother to provide free legal aid to vulnerable people.

“Under this current government we have seen a lot of extremist elements within the government; even some federal ministers have opposed legislation on the marriage age for women,” she said. “In one province [Sindh] it is 18 years, like [much of] the rest of the world. But in the other three provinces, it is 16,” despite Pakistan ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes the elimination of child marriage, in 1990. 

Though recent legislation apparently makes it easier for victims to report rapes, the new laws couldn’t be applied in 30,000 cases in Punjab state alone, she said, since police were not properly equipped. Many police stations lack female officers and DNA kits, so basic evidence collection can’t even begin.

Rights activists say victim blaming and shaming forces women into silence and impedes progress. Even Khan, the prime minister, currently married to his third wife, has blamed women for whatever happens to them. “The concept of pardah is [to] avoid temptation in society,” Khan told an interviewer last year. “If a woman is wearing very few clothes, it will have an impact on men. Unless they’re robots. I mean, it’s common sense.”

This makes him part of the problem, activists say. “When the prime minister thinks that way, his followers will naturally resort to an anti-women mindset,” Zehra said. “If the prime minister had taken a clear position against [threats] and extended support to the Aurat March, and said, ‘We support women marching for their rights and we would like to accept their demands’—but he doesn’t, so people think violence against women is OK.”

The kind of trickle-down message helps make Pakistan one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a woman. The World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report last year ranked Pakistan 153rd out of 156 countries, with women earning on average just 16 percent of men’s income and lacking equal access to justice, land ownership, or inheritance rights. The report said women accounted for just 7 percent of Pakistan’s labor force, the third-lowest figure in the world. And 85 percent of Pakistani women had been on the receiving end of “intimate partner violence,” the report said.

This year’s Aurat March follows two high-profile criminal cases in which women were killed by men they were close to. Both cases galvanized national attention on so-called honor killings and have led to demands for the introduction of stronger legal protections for women.

Noor Mukadam, 27, was locked up, tortured, and beheaded last July by Zahir Jaffer, apparently after telling him she did not want to marry him. Jaffer, the son of a billionaire and himself a U.S. citizen, was found guilty in February and sentenced to death. Two staff at his home were found guilty of abetting the murder; his parents, who faced charges of covering it up, were acquitted. Jaffer’s sentence was greeted with relief, as the conviction rate in cases of violence against women is extremely low—estimated at between 1 and 3 percent—contributing to a culture of impunity.

More typical is the case of Qandeel Baloch, regarded as Pakistan’s first social media star and 26 years old when she was strangled in 2016. Her brother, Waseem Azeem, was first jailed and then acquitted of her murder on a technicality, as his confession was taken down in English, a language he does not speak.

Baloch’s case highlighted a loophole in the law against so-called honor killings that allows relatives to forgive the killers, which they often do, as the killers are family. Activists had hoped the legacy of Baloch’s death would be the closure of the loophole and harsher sentences—a hope that is yet to be satisfied.

“The government should end a system in which a woman’s life is considered worthless and family members can kill with impunity,” Human Rights Watch’s senior counsel for Asia, Saroop Ijaz, wrote.

But Baloch’s tragic death may yet have one positive legacy: a lasting aspiration for greater freedom among young Pakistani women, said journalist Sanam Maher, who wrote a book about the case.

“We only really understood what she meant to us, especially to young women, after her death. They talked about her, watched videos of her, dressing and talking however she wanted to,” Maher said.

“They may or may not have aspired to her fame, but they admired her freedom to do what she wanted without caring about how she was judged by other people. I don’t think these aspirations died with her.”

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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