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Aurat (women) march in Karachi, Pakistan Image Credit: Twitter/@AuratMarch Image Credit:

Highlights

  • All my life I have seen women work the whole day in low-paying jobs after sending their children to school and husbands to their low-paying jobs.
  • All across different societal strata are stories of inadequacy of choices, different rules for different genders, subliminal suppression of individuality, blatant stereotyping, patriarchal delineation of female autonomy, stoic existence even amidst diurnal agony, soul-crushing compromises to maintain superficial acceptability, and safe normalcy scared of the happy unknown. Females learn to play many roles. Sometimes, that continues until life comes to an end.

She texted me two nights ago. She sent me photos. Her face and arms were bruised. A confrontation with her husband on the issue of his proven infidelity had her scream profanities at him. His retaliation was a series of slaps and punches. Educated, 25 years old, working in a promising field, loved and pampered by her family, the 5’8, stunning female who wears her confident femininity as her strength, looked at herself in the mirror and cried. Her femininity became her weakness. A physically superior person rearranged it with his fists. He tried.

In her mind the marriage is over. The red line has been crossed. Her innate strength reeled and recoiled, but it would never be broken. He has hit her before. The one who hits more than once will hit again. The protective, reassuring envelope of love and strength of her loved ones ensures her that she is not alone. That they are there for her whatever decision she takes next week, two months later, a year from now, never.

What if she had no one to go to, no one to confide in, no one to discuss things with, no one to weigh the do’s and don’ts’ of her immediate and long-term decisions? Her “aloneness” would have made her indistinguishable from millions of females of all backgrounds who are told to take it without reacting, that a husband hitting a wife is no big deal, that forgiveness is a virtue in a marriage that must last even if its structure is flimsy, that a verbal reprimand to her spouse would guarantee her future safety, that people would gossip in loud whispers at the break up of her marriage.

A lovely, very sweet girl, much loved by her parents, and specially her father, got married. She was sixteen. Living in another country a few weeks ago she had a baby. Her education continues, her husband dotes on her, she seems blissfully happy. What if she wasn’t? Nothing in her life would have changed. The main reason for her early marriage was her “protection” in a society where girls are not given many choices and are easily labelled. Her brother, a bit older than her, is doing what most males his age do: study abroad, have a great time, live “unprotected”, and not be questioned about anything. I have a feeling his wedding invitation wouldn’t be arriving any time soon.

Faces of pain

All around me are women whose carefully made-up faces hide the pain they have become as used to as the sound of the nonchalant laughter of their husbands chatting with their buddies. All my life I have seen women work the whole day in low-paying jobs after sending their children to school and husbands to their low-paying jobs. All across different societal strata are stories of inadequacy of choices, different rules for different genders, subliminal suppression of individuality, blatant stereotyping, patriarchal delineation of female autonomy, stoic existence even amidst diurnal agony, soul-crushing compromises to maintain superficial acceptability, and safe normalcy scared of the happy unknown. Females learn to play many roles. Sometimes, that continues until life comes to an end.

Once in a while, the discourse changes. The attention shifts. A voice pierces the staid monotony of living without any expectation of a change. Murmurs turn into a chatter. More people listen. Nuances are added to the monologue. It transforms into a discussion. A debate begins. Solutions are presented. Many are discarded. Some are embraced. The most important factor of the whole thing: it is being talked about.

Today it is “Mera Jism Meri Marzi.” My body, my will? My body, my rules? My body, my choice? Sometimes, Urdu plays peek-a-boo with the most suitable explanation. The March 8, 2019 Aurat March of Pakistan was a momentous event. Its significance was reduced to a few “vulgar” placards, one of them finding mainstream prominence and notoriety–in uneven measure–in March 2020. Much outrage is being voiced. Talk shows have turned into mud-wrestling matches. Sermons are being posted. Judgements abound on Twitter. In a world where attention to truth is transient and verdicts are hasty and long lasting, I’m not surprised at the rashness to repudiate the Aurat March slogan that has two words that sound like drum rolls of war for emancipation from patriarchal ethos, virtues of “decency” and “decorum”, and distancing from religious injunctions of modesty: mera (mine) and jism (body).

The intention is to change things for the better, to make every corner of the male-dominated universe safe for females and the weak and the oppressed, to list the grievances, to hold the perpetrators responsible, to demand accountability, to make immediate and long-term justice not a fight of genders but a fundamental human right. Not much will change without the sincere and full cooperation of those whose sensibilities, mindsets and attitudes manifest as the humiliation, harassment, abuse, violence, rape and murder countless females, children, and persons weaker physically or otherwise suffer all over Pakistan. Women issues are highlighted. The real solution is impossible without male acknowledgment of those issues, acceptance of responsibility, and inculcation of mental and behavioural changes to redress and rebuild. There are countless wonderful men. Standing with women, they will be instrumental in changing the undesirable sensibilities, attitudes and practices.

A perplexing reality is the existence of countless women who are so used to the status quo of covert and blatant discrimination and slow disintegration of their minds and hearts that they go into a tauba-tauba mode rallying against those females who dare to speak up. It is not us against them. It is not a fight of the good and the bad. It is not a revolution to break the family system. It is not a crusade to upend the culture. It is not meant as disrespect to injunctions of religion. The Aurat March is for those who cannot speak or protest when deprived of their rights, and are abused, beaten, raped or killed. The slogan Mera Jism Meri Marzi is for all those females who suffer in silence, live unnoticed, and die without answers.

Without confusing it with western “debauchery”, it is important to understand the meaning. It is not bra-burning of 1960s. It is not a reproduction of the 2012 free-the-nipple movement in the US. It is not a demand for a licence to wear “immodest” clothes or to have premarital sex. Before taking a stick to the western mores corrupting our females, exhale, pause, and think.

Read more from Mehr Tarar

“My body, my rules. My life, not yours” is the description of the 2018 artwork of Eliza Couslon, a 20-year-old Scot, who dealt with her ordeal of sexual harassment at the age of 17 in a way that empowered her to empower other survivors. Coulson said: “This isn't revenge. It’s not for him, it's for people that have been in similar situations. It’s for anyone that feels like their personal space has been infringed.”

My Body, My Rules is a three-minute British animation film, directed by Daniel Greaves. Highlighting the issue of female genital mutilation, the film is made “as a visual aid to help facilitate sessions on FGM in primary schools in the UK.”

Mera Jism Meri Marzi is a four-worded assertion to take control of what is already hers, mine, yours. The issue is agency. The purpose is to define authority. The goal is real autonomy. What it connotes: my body is mine. Not to be used for self-harm or to damage cultural ethos, but to empower. My body is not to be touched against my will. It is not a punching bag for fragile masculinity. My body is not a rag doll to be pummelled, punched, kicked. It is not a badge for brutal machismo. My body is not to be raped. Even my inaudible protestation through the resistance of my limbs must be the loudest NO in the world. My body is not a baby-making machine. The decision to have two children or four children must be my prerogative. My body is not a litmus test of my femininity. Size two or size twelve, my weight is not a topic for societal notions of acceptable attractiveness. My body is not my spouse’s personal property. The right to say no is always mine as it is his.

Mera jism, meri marzi. It is not an expletive. It is not meant as an insult. It is merely a reiteration of a God-given right strengthened by the best of human values. My body does not belong to anyone but me. Whose rules, whose marzi should be applicable to my body?

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