There is abundant antagonism and frenzied rhetoric among the pious and the God-fearing, visible all over the social media these days, all because of the supposedly raucous and raunchy gatherings of the liberal aunties in the name of aurat marches held in the cities. Dozens of pleas have been lodged in courts praying for banning these alleged festivals of obscenity in the name of women marches being organized in the nation’s urban centers. Women marchers are loathed for being the paid agents of the west operating to destroy our sacred culture based on the firm foundations of the sublime “eastern” values.

The obnoxious slogans and chants raised in these marches add fuel to fire, the infamous slogan “mera jism meri marzi” has wreaked havoc in the country and so much of our precious “sharm-o-haya” is at stake right now. Outright confrontation and violence was narrowly avoided on 8th march in Islamabad between the participants of women march and the campaigners opposing this march in the name of “Haya March”. Passions are high and Pakistani society seems polarized like never before. Social media is inundated with hateful memes, videos, and other propaganda materials that degrade and demonize organizers and participants of the women march.

Cherry-picked placards and personal opinions are being presented in a negative light, conspiracy theories are being floated and the intent of the women-march organizers is being questioned by those who oppose this march on various grounds. The women marchers came under attack for the rebellious and paradoxically elitist overtones of their choice of communication tools.

Against this back-drop of toxic hostility, there is notable support shown by a sizable portion of society, for the women marchers, they have been praised for their courage, creativity and resilience in the face of massive opposition, smear campaigns and propaganda. The organizers deserve credit for speaking up and taking a stand for women of the country and showing the courage to highlight something that is often ignored and pushed under the carpet. Even though they have been blamed by some people for being out of touch with the ground realities of the country and insensitivity towards local cultural norms, the movement has gained greater momentum and is being appreciated for the dynamism, audacity and creativity shown by the organizers. It’s important to note that this activism remained visibly restricted to large cities and its penetration and popularity in smaller cities and rural areas is obviously limited. The impact therefore is not as resounding as the opposition’s hue and cry who are calling for nothing less than complete ban on women march.

Why is there so much opposition and hostility for a small-scale movement with such limited impact and public appeal? The answer lies in the widespread support for patriarchal and obscurantist views about women. This opposition is not based on some definable principles or ideology, it rather relies on the moral panic and conspiracy theories created and concocted by apologists of patriarchy and distrust and misapprehension of feminists ideas. Feminism is viewed with great suspicion and is deemed to be synonymous with sexual libertarianism, unbridled promiscuity and an antithesis of the institutions of marriage and family.

Some apologists of patriarchy have applied themselves in spreading fake news and photoshoped memes and spewing the venom of misogynistic prejudices just to paint the women march in negative light and to exacerbate an already toxic environment. Above all there is a general attitude marked with persistent denial of the plight of women in our society. This cult of denialists believes that there is nothing unusually wrong with rejecting women’s right to property and pursuit of happiness. In the eyes of these denialists who spurn with contempt at the slogan of “my body my choice”, the issues like under-age marriages, forced marriages, honor killings, acid attacks, sexual harassment, gender wage gap, economic disempowerment, crippling financial dependence, forced conversions and kidnappings of Hindu girls, are nothing to be worried about. These people are in a state of stubborn and blind denial of the fact that Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries to be a woman, Pakistan is a country that has one of the highest gender pay gap in the world, and women’s participation in public life is discouraged on a massive scale.

These denlialists can’t keep their eyes “wide” shut at these cold, hard facts forever, the voices that may sound rebellious and rude to many patriarchal ears in this country, cannot be silenced for an indefinite period of time in the name of tradition or religion. This widening divide can only be bridged when the rightful grievances are heard, dissenting voices are tolerated and gender based disparity is acknowledged as a real issue.