Can Women March for their Human Rights in Pakistan?

by | Apr 3, 2023

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About Rida Tahir

Rida Tahir is a UK qualified Barrister-at-law and an Advocate of the High Courts of Pakistan. She is a lecturer for the University of London and University of Hertfordshire law programmes in Pakistan.  Rida specialises in human rights litigation with particular focus on the rights of women and children.  Recently, she was invited by the UN Women to a consultative meeting, which was presented to the office of the Honorable Prime Minister of Pakistan and resulted in the National Gender Policy Framework.

A recent decision of the Sindh High Court (SHC) in Pakistan has established that the catchcry commonly used by women’s rights advocates is not objectionable and women are entitled to the freedoms provided under the law and Constitution. Nevertheless, Pakistan remains ranked as the second-worst country in terms of gender parity, placed 145 out of 146 states in the Global Gender Gap Report 2022. Violence against Women (VAW) is widespread across Pakistan: about 34 percent of ever-married women have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence, while 56 percent of ever-married women reported experiencing physical or sexual violence but never sought help to stop the violence nor told anyone.

Pakistan is a patriarchal society: men exert control and influence over the lives of their female relatives. Resistance towards advancement of women’s rights stems from men’s bias toward traditional gender roles, as well as the perceived threat that empowered women may represent to the social status quo.

Aurat March (Women’s March) is a public demonstration held annually, since 2018, in various cities across Pakistan on the 8th of March – globally recognised as International Women’s Day. This event has attracted backlash from a section of the population as the slogans, banners and placards are perceived as provocative, as they challenge patriarchy and highlight issues facing women. The term, ‘’ میرا جسم میری مرضی’’(my body, my choice) was coined at Aurat March to highlight the pressing issues being faced by women, such as female genital mutilation/cutting, marital rape, moral policing of women, physical abuse, lack of agency to make decisions regarding their employment and healthcare, domestic violence, and child marriage.

A petition was filed in the SHC seeking a ban on the Aurat March under Article 199 of the Constitution of Pakistan (Constitution), which states that: ‘’… a High Court may.. (a) on the application of any aggrieved party, make an order- (i) directing a person performing, within the territorial jurisdiction of the Court, functions in connection with the affairs of the Federation, a Province or a local authority, to refrain from doing anything…’’. The petitioner contended that the Aurat March should be banned, because the slogan raised by the participants ‘’ میرا جسم میری مرضی’’ (my body, my choice) are obscene and are contrary to sociocultural norms of the society.

On the 3rd March 2023, the SHC held in Bisma Naureen v Federation of Pakistan that there was nothing objectionable in the slogan, as it merely seeks to convey the sense of agency and self-efficacy that a woman is entitled to have and exercise over her person and actions. The Court referred to Articles 15, 16, 17 and 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan and stated that these articles guarantee the fundamental rights to freedom of movement, assembly, association and speech to all citizens. Likewise, Article 25 secures equality before the law and equal protection of the law by stipulating that there can be no discrimination on the basis of sex.

The SHC held that ‘’…women’s rights are human rights, and in a country based on democratic values, women are entitled to and need to be extended the full measure of freedoms enshrined under the law and Constitution.’’ The SHC dismissed the Petition in limine, while imposing costs to the petitioner after holding that her petitioner did not disclose any valid cause of action. The costs sanction can be expected to deter individuals from filing future petitions to ban the Aurat March for frivolous reasons.

The SHC’s verdict is being rightly celebrated. However, it is important to note that participants of the Aurat March are often baton-charged by the police force. Moreover, participants continue to face hostility from religious organisations, who may physically attack the participants and chant slogans against them. Such religious organisations often stage counter protests called Haya March’ (Morality March) in close proximity to the Aurat March. Due to the threats and security concerns, organisers of Aurat March are often compelled to cancel and reschedule the event. Further, police and district administration officers often engage in intimidation tactics by turning off microphones and threating sound system operators at the women’s rights events.

Article 34 of the Constitution states that ‘Steps shall be taken to ensure full participation of women in all spheres of national life.’ However, the SHC did not address this Article in its judgement and thus missed an important opportunity to direct the provision of protection and facilitation (by the State) to the organisers and participants of Aurat March. This highlights the fact that women within Pakistan will continue to face barriers while marching for their human rights and their entitlement to substantive equality.

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