LAHORE - Attendees of the Aurat March gathered outside the Lahore Press Club on a Sunday morning on March 8, amidst a backdrop of hostile statements both online and on television channels. But while there were incidents of stone pelting at the march in Islamabad, those in attendance in Lahore had a more positive experience.

For many, this was a rare opportunity to walk the streets of Lahore without apprehension. “It feels amazing to be here, in the middle of such strong emotion. It was great that so many men came out and supported us, it is comforting to know we are not alone,” said an excited young marcher.

“It is about time Pakistan realises that its women are not treated equally, it is about time that we talk about issues that women face openly and publicly,” stated Raina, a civil service aspirant, who travelled from Multan on her own to be part of the march. 

The Aurat March’s broad fifteen-point manifesto included demands for economic justice such as increasing the minimum wage, the implementation of labour rights, laws against sexual abuse, enforced conversions and child marriages and the Sexual Harassment Against Women in the Workplace Act 2010. Additionally, the recognition and formalisation of the unpaid labour of women through the ‘care economy’ and their contribution in agriculture across Pakistan is included in the manifesto. Among other things, the organisers also demand access to safe and clean drinking water and air and an end to the surveillance of students in educational institutions.

And perhaps it is this versatile agenda that drew individuals from all over Lahore. When asked about the most common external criticism – that Aurat March is predominantly made up of people from affluent, educated backgrounds – the response was mixed. Many pointed out the diverse groups, genders and classes that were in attendance, while others were more willing to accept this description. “This is such unfair criticism, we are here because we can be here, many women from rural or conservative backgrounds are not even allowed to leave their houses,” stated one animated middle-aged attendee.

“It is true that the majority of people here are young, educated and urban, but we are fighting for the rights of all women, irrespective of who they are or where they come from. Do we ask politicians how much they make when they talk about the common man’s problems?” she asked.

Despite having different backgrounds and genders, the marchers gave similar reasons when asked “why do you march?” “Growing up in Pakistan and living with a single mother and an older sister I have seen the kind of difficulties they go through just trying to navigate their daily lives,” said a 26-year-old lawyer. “Being a man, I know exactly the kind of abuse women are subjected to, how society keeps them tied down – I am marching to change that oppression.”

“(This) is a slow and steady battle,” stated one of the many exhausted yellow-vest wearing volunteers dotting the premises. “Now that we know the government will support and protect us, our number will Inshallah grow year by year.”

A police official on duty at the demonstration was very positive about the security arrangements at the venue. “Yes, we have been working here since last night, setting everything up. All those blockades you see on each side, we set them up to make this place safe for all those who are in attendance. There has been no untoward incident so far and everything has been calm,” he said.

As reports of minor clashes with counter-protesters in Islamabad filtered through, the constables on duty remained confident. “No, nothing like that. It has been very smooth here. The only people here are those who support (the Aurat March).”

Nayab Gohar Jan, one of the volunteers at the March in Lahore, corroborated the stance of the authorities. “Yes, we felt very secure throughout. They (authorities) have been very supportive. It has been extremely smooth. They escorted the march throughout and it was very nice.”

Others had a slightly different view. Neelam Hussain, a member of the Women Action Forum’s old guard, a teacher and a civil society member, felt that the security arrangements had affected the spirit of the March. “By restricting us here (with blockades), the state has killed spontaneity. But naturally, we would have come anyway and in fact, this year, there are more people,” stated Neelam.

While there was no exact figure for those in attendance, estimates put it anywhere from 1500-2500. “I would say there were at least as many people as last time. Last time we estimated 2500. What happened (this time) was that, because we didn’t get Al-Hamra, a lot of people left as soon as the March ended. So that was a big problem, and counting is a little difficult,” explained Nayab.

When asked whether blockages had an effect on the numbers, Nayab replied, “Definitely. I think the biggest effect were the security threats and the fact that it wasn’t ending at Al Hamra. In Al Hamra, convening is much easier, you can hear people and you can set a stage; I mean, that is what it is for.”

Passions ran high, but most attendees took realistic stock of the March’s achievements. A group of O-Level schoolgirls – who also had organised independently of their school – commented, “We know one protest won’t change things overnight, but the debate, and even the controversies, surrounding the March has brought a lot of awareness to the people, our demands have been heard by the government, and we have shown there is strength in our numbers.”

A fellow student of the school chimed, “It should not matter that we are students, we are here because we are citizens of this country too, and we have a right to demand better treatment.”

The spirit of International Women’s Day was not restricted to the marchers. Female traffic wardens, police constables and senior officers were at the forefront of the well managed and courteous security arrangement – a fact that was celebrated by the speeches given in the rally. On a day when tension surrounded Islamabad’s procession, the Lahore administration made sure all necessary arrangements were made.