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Pakistani Women’s Rights Activist Sees Victory

FILE: Pakistani women activists during a rally for women rights on International Women's Day in Lahore on March 8, 2019.
FILE: Pakistani women activists during a rally for women rights on International Women's Day in Lahore on March 8, 2019.

“Mera Jism, Meri Marzi,” Urdu for “My Body My Choice,” has become a rallying cry for feminists, women, and rights activists in Pakistan ahead of planned protests marking International Women’s Day on March 8. But the activism has rattled the Muslim nation’s conservatives, with two leading Islamist parties threatening counter protests.

Journalist Marvi Sirmed, a leading Pakistani rights campaigner, says extremists, fanatics, and mobsters cannot stop their peaceful protests. Now a fellow at Washington’s National Endowment for Democracy think tank, Sirmed’s recent altercation with a leading screenwriter on nighttime TV attracted a lot of attention to the March 8 protest. For Sirmed, the controversy presents another opportunity to highlight the plight of women in her country.

Radio Mashaal: Could you explain what the slogan “My Body, My Choice” means? And why such a slogan?

Marvi Sirmed: “My body, my choice,” means that no society can wage their wars at the expense of a woman’s body. We ask the men not to use our bodies for their ghairat or honor. We ask them to stop killing us in the name of honor and give us the right to say no because we have the right to say no to anything that we don’t feel comfortable with.

We must have the right to say that we can’t tolerate sexual harassment and to say no to decisions regarding our marriages by other [family members]. Our religion gives us the right to choose our life partner, so why not society?

Further, we have the right not to be judged on the basis of our physical appearance. “My body, my choice” means not to tell our girls that being fair will get them married and if they are dark-skinned, they will never get married.

Radio Mashaal: Some groups and people have threatened to stop the march by force.

Journalist Marvi Sirmed
Journalist Marvi Sirmed

Sirmed: We continued holding this annual event even during the times of military dictators. We are not afraid of guns or the use of force. We are not afraid of extremists or fanatics. We continued the march when the region was wracked by terrorism. How can a few mobsters scare us now? Yes, we will always stay peaceful.

Radio Mashaal: Why does so much controversy surround this year‘s march?

Sirmed: One main reason for the controversy is our bold slogans. And this is because we are living in a patriarchal society that does not accept such slogans. In fact, by chanting such slogans, we want to challenge the patriarchal thinking of society. We have turned those slogans as the foundation of our campaign to challenge the traditional [subservient] status of women. And it is natural that whenever you challenge a set tradition, there is a reaction.

Radio Mashaal: Why are you calling your protests Aurat Azadi March, or Women’s Freedom March?

Sirmed: Like rest of the world, we are holding this march on March 8 to raise a voice for women’s rights. With this march, we use the opportunity to highlight the problems faced by women [in Pakistan]. Unfortunately, over the past two years, some people have raised controversies about this march. We are not scared of controversies because we believe they generate a debate in society about social issues. And we believe this kind of debate will lead us toward a solution.

Radio Mashaal: If the slogans are the main reason, as you mention, then why don’t you change them?

Sirmed: We believe it is because of our bold slogans that the Women’s Freedom March has become the center of attention. This has enabled us to prove our presence. Otherwise, we had been passively observing March 8 over the past 25 years and there was no debate and no media coverage. Now that we pinched the patriarchal thinking with these slogans, we feel we are being listened to and discussed. And this provides us a chance to bring change.

Radio Mashaal: The Women’s Freedom March is led by urban and affluent women. What about many women living in rural areas and those from uneducated and impoverished backgrounds?

Sirmed: This is not the campaign of urban and upper class women. Social behavior is the same everywhere. For example, honor killing, acid attacks on women, and domestic violence. Women from every walk of life are joining the march. Many women are educated, and many others are less educated or uneducated.

Radio Mashaal: In objection to your protest, some religious groups have announced parallel marches on the same day to speak up for women’s rights. Why don’t you join them to put an end to the controversy?

Sirmed: I don’t think those groups are interested in upholding the values that we stand for. We want gender equality. Do you think they will agree? And they are the ones who raised objections against our slogans. We have held this march for the past 25 years. Why haven’t they joined us before?

Radio Mashaal: Are you happy with the behavior of the mainstream political parties toward your campaign?

Sirmed: The religious parties in the Senate, the Jamiat Ulam-e Islam in particular, have raised objections. I was disappointed with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) Senator Mushahid Ullah Khan’s recent speech in the Senate. There are many others who are against this march and it is very disappointing for us.

Still, many in the mainstream political parties are our allies. For example, Shireen Mazari of the ruling Tehrik-e-Insaf party has always been very supportive. Likewise, Maryam Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Auragzeb of the opposition PML-N have voiced support for us. We hope that we can slowly win our support in all the political parties.

Radio Mashaal: What future do you see for gender equality in Pakistan?

Sirmed: I can say we will have a society where justice is valued, and everybody will be equal. This is the teaching of all religions, especially the religion of Islam.