In Pakistan, Hijab Is A Weapon Against ‘Un-Islamic’ Aurat March

by Swati Goel Sharma - Mar 9, 2022 07:14 PM +05:30 IST
In Pakistan, Hijab Is A Weapon Against ‘Un-Islamic’ Aurat MarchA picture from Haya March, a counter to Aurat March, in Pakistan yesterday.
Snapshot
  • Ironically in India, the groups that claim to fight conservative and radical forces are supporting pro-hijab movements.

Women clad in hijab (full-body veils barring eyes, in this case) hit the streets in Pakistan yesterday (8 March) in protest of the annual ‘Aurat March’. Decrying the “un-Islamic” and “western ideas of feminism” allegedly propagated by Aurat March participants, the hijabi women named their rally “Haya March”, translated as rally of modesty.

When the Aurat March began in Pakistan in 2018 as a movement against patriarchal norms in the Pakistani society such as killings of women for their choice of dressing and romantic partners, it became a target of conservative religious groups in no time.

Initially, the criticism was limited to labelling the participants as agents of western liberalism, “Lord Macaulay’s class” and even Jewish allies, but the targeting became more sinister last year as a smear campaign was run against them for being "blasphemers" of Islam and its founder.

A year earlier, the women wing of Islamic organisations Jamaat-E-Islami and Jamiat Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, along with some others, had started Haya March to counter the Aurat March.

What made the clerics and religious commentators attack Aurat March the most was a slogan raised by them which said that women had complete control on what to do with their bodies. Their slogan, ‘Mera jism, meri marzi’ (my body, my choice), was immediately panned by maulanas as being anti-Sharia.

Hugely popular cleric Khadim Husain Rizvi, who founded the radical Tehreek-E-Labbaik organisation before his death in 2020, said in a speech that Aurat March participants were acting against the orders of Islam’s founder Mohammed by chanting the said slogan.

“Muslims must behave like camels who have all their movements controlled through a nose peg, the controller in Muslims’ cases being Mohammed," Rizvi said.

Rizvi’s speech found many supporters and the slogan soon came under an organised attack from conservative groups, forcing participants to add riders to it. ‘Celebrity’ allies such as actor Mahima Khan have used their media influence to explain the slogan.

Participants of Haya March have been raising a counter slogan — ‘Mera jism, Allah ki marzi’ (my body, God’s choice) — since inception.

To briefly sum up what the respective movements stand for, in their own words, the Aurat March participants in the rally yesterday held placards that said, ‘She wasn’t asking for it’, ‘Just looking for fundamental rights’, Weak men fear strong women’, ‘Asal insaaf ghar se shuru hota hai’ (real justice begins at home) and ‘Izzat nahi insaan hai aurat’ (woman is a human, not honour), among other slogans.

Haya March participants, who reportedly attempted to disrupt Aurat March, held placards that said, ‘I am priceless, I am a homemaker’, ‘Hijab is the personality of women’ and ‘Safe women, strong family, strong society’. While Aurat March participants raised the slogan of ‘Mera jism, meri marzi’, the Haya March participants responded with ‘Mera jism, Allah ki marzi’.

Aurat March participants told the media that theirs was a movement to celebrate womanhood and create a space for themselves. Dawn quoted a participant as saying, “I had to fight for my education, to work, marry by choice, travel abroad. So when I come to the march I find a lot of women like me who need permission to seek an education, work and travel on their own from their parents. I find strength in these women.”

On the other hand, participants of Haya March told the media they don’t consider the other protesters as “real Muslims”.

A participant said that if women stay in burqa, they would be seen with respect. Another participant said that they have no relation with women who are “badjaat” (of bad birth) and enemies of Pakistan and Islam.

Another woman said that Pakistan’s public has rejected Aurat March, which could be gauged from the fact that more women were sporting purdah than ever before.

Another woman said that fellow women rallying in the street without burqa nullifies the very idea Pakistan was created for.

Government representatives have been critical of Aurat March, if not openly siding with its counterpart. Pakistan’s minister for Religious Affairs Noorul Haq Qadri recently called for declaring 8 March — the day of the rally — as ‘International Hijab Day’, while saying that Aurat March must not be allowed to question or ridicule Islamic values.

Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar has been quoted by Dawn as saying that the West could not imagine the abundance of rights enjoyed by women in Islam, in what has been perceived as a dig against the march.

Earlier this month, the Lahore High Court heard a petition against Aurat March, where the petitioner Azhar Siddiqui said the event is being funded by “various anti-state parties” with the “sole purpose of spreading anarchy in Pakistan”. He also said that the march was “against the norms of Islam” and had an agenda to spread “vulgarity and hatred”.

The high court allowed the march to be carried out, but with a condition that “it is the responsibility of the organisers of the Aurat March to ensure that no immoral slogans are raised at the march”.

Pakistan Versus India

As an observer of these events unfolding in the country created out of India as a place for Muslims in 1947, the irony of hijab being promoted as a symbol of women liberation in India these days is hard to miss.

While in Pakistan, extreme conservative and radical religious elements are decrying women for not wearing hijab (or burqas) and making their point by counter-rallying in hijab, the groups within India that claim to fight conservative and radical religious elements are supporting the view that hijab is an essential religious practice for Muslim women, indirectly forcing it on all women who are born into Muslim families.

These groups include self-proclaimed ‘secular’ political parties such as the Congress and their supporters, and self-proclaimed ‘atheist’ political and social groups swearing allegiance to communism.

Do these groups stand with the mera-jism-meri-marzi Aurat March or pro-hijab Haya March? While the groups have refrained from commenting on the issue in the neighbouring country, from the look and tone of it, the ongoing hijab movement in India seems to be a movement akin to Haya March.

At its very core, the pro-hijab movement whether in Pakistan or in India is a movement for the right to not be free if religion forbids freedom.

Only in Pakistan, pro-hijab marchers and their allies are calling their protest a response against “westernisation”, while in India, pro-hijab marchers and their allies are doing it in the name of fighting “Hindutva”.

Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.

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