The ongoing month of March has seen COVID-19 evolve into a pandemic, in turn becoming the focus of global, and local, attention. But it is also worth reaffirming that earlier this month the continuation of a momentous feminist movement was witnessed, which has the potential of reshaping the country for the better.

The Aurat March, which began in 2018, being organised on March 8 – International Women’s Day – saw it grow further with increasing numbers across Pakistan. Placards and slogans designed to challenge the patriarchal status quo and underline the stumbling blocks for women’s rights in the country were witnessed in all rallies.

The issues taken up in the rally included violence against women, girls’ right to education, female body and reproductive rights, workplace divides, sexual harassment, systematic gender discrimination among others.

Pakistan ranks third worst – 151 out of 153 – on the Gender Parity Index of the World Economic Forum (WEF). The country ranks fourth worst – 164 out of 167 – on the Women’s Peace and Security Index of the Georgetown University Institute for Women, Peace and Security and Oslo’s Peace Research Institute.

The Rural Women in Pakistan Status Report 2018 underlines that 75 percent of employed women and girls work in the agriculture sector, with 60 percent of them being unpaid. Only 19 percent count as formally paid employees.

More than five million primary-school-age – a vast majority of them girls – don’t go to school.

The International Monetary Fund, which is currently spearheading its 13th bailout programme in Pakistan, has underlined that bridging the gender gap could boost Pakistan’s GDP by 30 percent.

The organisation Sahil has revealed that over 10 child sexual abuse cases are reported daily in Pakistan. According to UNICEF, 21 percent of Pakistani girls are married before turning 18. According to the latest Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report over 1,000 young girls from other religious communities are forcibly converted to Islam every year – many of them underage.

The Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill, 2019 that aimed to fix the marriageable age for girls to 18 was rejected by the National Assembly Standing Committee on Law and Justice in August last year.

It is these and many other gory realities marring women’s rights in Pakistan that the Aurat March looks to bring to light. The Aurat March released its 15-point manifesto in the lead up to the rallies.

Observers noted that unlike the previous two years, when there had been backlash against the Aurat March in the aftermath of the rallies, this year saw the movement being targeted in the lead up to March 8.

Islamist groups threatened to attack the marchers in the buildup, in a bid to discourage participants from going out. But thousands across Pakistan braved the threats and rallied for women’s rights.

However, the Islamist groups followed through with their threats and assaulted the rally in Islamabad with bricks and sticks. The perpetrators were affiliated with Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) and Abdul Aziz – the notorious cleric who still runs the Lal Masjid, having defied the writ of the state on multiple occasions and announced his allegiance to terror group ISIS.

While the police and law enforcement agencies were criticised for the inaction while the Aurat March was being targeted, the leaders of the feminist movement and many analysts believe that for the Islamist groups to resort to violence underlines the growth of the Aurat March.

“The right wing groups went to the high court [to ban the Aurat March] and they were rejected. Then they resorted to violence. [However] it is a part of political activism. [But] making Aurat March controversial is criminal politics. The agenda for women’s freedom, progress and equality will be decided by no one but the Aurat March,” said Ismat Shahjahan, an organiser of Aurat March, and Deputy General Secretary of Women Democratic Front.

“This is a changing Pakistan, and that change is spearheaded by Pakistani women. You’ve seen the kind of tabdeeli [change] that has been brought by men over the past 70 years. This movement for women’s rights won’t just limit itself to women, it will liberal the entire society,” said senior activist Farzana Bari, former director of the Gender Studies Department at Quaid-e-Azam University.