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A woman’s place is in the resistance: From the Aurat March to Shaheen Bagh (Demo)

Aurat: Women march against patriarchy

In 2018, several feminist groups in Pakistan organized marches under the banner of ‘Hum Auratien’ or simply Aurat (‘We Women’ in Urdu) in time for International Women’s Day on 8 March. These marches, held in the cities of Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, mobilized thousands who called for an end to gender-based violence and demanded the protection of women and provision of services to all sexual minorities.

Last year, Aurat Marches expanded to seven cities, and participants continued to raise economic, reproductive, and political issues affecting women, especially those coming from marginalized communities.

Conceptualizing the Aurat March and turning it into an annual protest event is an outstanding achievement. Beyond that, it has united different networks to fight patriarchy and challenge policies that enable violence against women. Since its inception, it has striven for inclusivity, welcoming the participation of all who are committed to combatting gender violence.

But its success has also generated online and offline backlash from conservative sectors in society. Participants were harassed, bullied, and targeted by vicious trolls. Some of the attacks have come from women.

Sadaf Khan of IFEX member Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) explains the intense reaction to the Aurat March. “I think the march breaks so many taboos and raises so many questions that break the status quo a bit. Most women aren’t comfortable with it, possibly because of internalized misogyny, and also because their belief system is threatened.”

This year, the Aurat March is expected to gain more support from the public despite new cases of violent acts against organizers. Women’s groups remain undaunted. Some have adapted and performed the anti-rape song that was created and performed in Chile, before becoming a global sensation.

The poster below reflects the vision in the Aurat March manifesto: Promoting women’s empowerment, building safer spaces, and fighting for equal rights.

Those who speak out for equality must be able to do so in safety. Organizers of the march in Karachi told IFEX via email that they have formed a team to counter the online attacks – a team that will remain in place after the protest, as well. They added that the backlash is inevitable in a society dominated by patriarchy and fearful of change, but they are prepared for the long battle ahead.

“An egalitarian culture isn’t built in a day. Our response to the backlash will be a sustained one, as we continue to fight against the injustices perpetrated by the patriarchy in the weeks, months, years and decades following this march.”

Women ‘raging against power’ in Hong Kong

Since June 2019, more than two million people have joined street protests in Hong Kong to call for the withdrawal of the Extradition Law Amendment Bills, which critics said would give even greater political control to Beijing authorities. The massive protests led to the suspension of the proposed legislation, but this only inspired more people to push for still more governance reforms, including the granting of universal suffrage.

Women from all walks of life are active participants of this protest movement. In a popular Twitter thread by Hong-Kong based activist uwu – “A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance” – describes the many essential roles women have in the campaign for democracy. Uwu contrasts this with the government’s ‘misogynist’ attitude towards women protesters, which also ‘treats little girls as quiet docile pets to be spoiled.’ The image below better captures the participation of women in the Hong Kong resistance whether as students, masked activists, first aiders, journalists, professionals, and migrant workers. “Mothers, nanas, aunties – they are on the streets, raging against power.”

One of the young activist icons is Agnes Chow, referred to by many as a ‘goddess of democracy’ because of her prominent role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement as a teen protester, her decision to challenge the ruling party by running for public office (she was disqualified as a candidate), and her constant presence in 2019 rallies, despite threats and legal persecution.

“Democracy, to me, is like air. We don’t really realise how important it is, but once there is no air, we struggle for it,” she wrote.

Another popular activist is Denise Ho, a pop singer whose music catalogue was removed from China’s streaming sites because of her involvement in the democracy movement. She testified at the United Nations Human Rights Council and the United States Congress about the situation in Hong Kong – actions which further incurred the ire of the Beijing government. Watch her powerful talk at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Taiwan in 2019.

Even those who simply expressed support to protesters have been targeted and punished by authorities. Rebecca Sy, the chair of the Hong Kong Dragon Airlines Flight Attendants’ Association, said she was fired by Cathay Dragon, the airline where she had worked for 17 years, for her Facebook posts about the protests. She later wrote why she decided to speak out. ‘I don’t have another choice, because if I don’t speak out then the company would just think there’s nothing wrong.’

Foreign residents also showed solidarity in their own ways. Ethnic South Asian reporter Nabela Qoser gained public support for her critical questions during government press conferences. Indonesian writer and migrant domestic worker Yuli Riswati documented the protests, which gained them wider attention, but prompted authorities to deport her for a visa violation.

Women protest the blackout in Kashmir

On 5 August 2019 Kashmir and Jammu were cut off from the rest of the world after a communications blackout was imposed by Indian authorities. The shutdowns have severely disrupted the lives of ordinary Kashmiris, and made it impossible for journalists to report fully on developments the region.

Journalists and students were among the first to express dissent over the prolonged blockade. They were joined by women residents who wanted to restore not only the internet but also the fundamental rights of Kashmiris. On 15 October, a silent protest was conducted by women in the capital city of Srinagar where they carried placards demanding respect for rights and the special status of Kashmir. They were detained for this peaceful protest, but their defiance reverberated beyond the borders of Kashmir.

India: the women protesters of Shaheen Bagh

Shaheen Bagh is no longer just a neighborhood in New Delhi. It has become a symbol of a vibrant protest movement, after a women-led contingent occupied a major street in the community and demanded the withdrawal of India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019.

The CAA has been widely criticized for legitimizing discrimination, since it excludes Muslims in offering citizenship to migrants fleeing from religious persecution. Anti-CAA protests have been massive, including the formation of a massive human chain, expressions of solidarity by Bollywood stars, and pushback against government forces.

The Shaheen Bagh sit-in has been ongoing since December, and its success in sustaining the participation of women and children in the community has inspired similar actions in other parts of India. Despite threats of dispersal, the sit-in has expanded and acquired popular support.

Petitions have been filed asking the Supreme Court to supervise the removal of a continuous protest on a public road. But the women are standing their ground. They have demonstrated their efficiency in organizing the protest and countering the disinformation campaign of state-backed trolls.

In less than two months, Shaheen Bagh became synonymous with a growing movement whose aims include the fight against discrimination and bigotry; and more importantly, the strengthening of democracy. The Shaheen Bagh protesters are clearly not yet done creating history.

Watch this video to learn more and be inspired by the women protesters of Shaheen Bagh.

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