The News – Aurat March: Women’s rights advocates rally across largely patriarchal Pakistan

Karachi/Islamabad, 08 March 2020. Tempers flared in the federal capital on Sunday as protesters marched to celebrate International Women’s Day in an ultra-conservative society where women are still put to death under ancient “honour” codes.

The Aurat March has sparked controversy in largely patriarchal Pakistan, and, at one point in the capital, right-wing counter-protesters hurled sticks and stones at women’s rights demonstrators, causing some injuries and forcing a crowd of people to seek cover before the police intervened.

The tensions follow on from last year’s Aurat march, which sparked a furious backlash when participants held placards with slogans such as “Mera jism, meri marzi [My body, my choice],” which was viciously attacked during the week leading up to the rally by a playwright who recently shot to fame.

In a society where women have been shot, stabbed, stoned, set alight, and strangled for damaging a family’s “honour”, such expressions have seen marchers accused of promoting Western, liberal values and disrespecting religious and cultural sensitivities.

In Islamabad, tensions rose when thousands of people gathered to call for greater reproductive and other rights. The march ended at a park alongside a separate “anti-feminist” rally, with the duelling protests separated only by a flimsy barrier and a line of police.

“The women in Pakistan are considered property by their male counterparts,” said Tahira Maryum, 55. “There is nothing vulgar in asking for your rights,” she added.

At the religious counter-protest, dozens of women in burqas held their own placards, including one saying “Anti-Feminist”, while shouting “Our bodies, God’s choice”. AFP saw several men throwing sticks and stones at the women’s march.

Ismat Khan, a 33-year-old woman, said women’s rights activists were “naive” and being exploited by non-government groups and a foreign “lobby”. “We are free and to live our lives are according to Sharia [Islamic law],” she told AFP.

In Lahore, a crowd of several hundred women and men took to the streets chanting slogans such as: “Give me what’s mine” and “We want freedom”, while countless more gathered in Karachi’s Frere Hall, chanting slogans, beating drums, and singing.

“We are not scared of the [religious leaders], let them be jealous of us,” said Anis Haroon, a veteran women’s right activist in Karachi.

Systemising oppression of women

The nationwide Aurat March also saw a group of women gather in the southern city of Sukkur near the Indus river, where the bodies of women who have been slain in “honour” killings are sometimes dumped.

This year, anti-march campaigners filed unsuccessful court petitions to try to ban Sunday’s events and a religious political party warned it would stop the march at “all costs”.

Much of Pakistani society operates under a strict code of “honour”, systemising the oppression of women in matters such as the right to choose who to marry, reproductive rights, and even the right to an education.

Social media on Sunday was filled with comments both for and against the march with, “HappyWomensDay2020” and “MeraHijabMeriMarzi [MyHijabMyChoice]” both in the top Twitter trends.

Rights activists have long fought against the patriarchal notion of “honour”, which remains prevalent across Pakistan. According to estimates, at least 1,000 women fall victim to honour killings in Pakistan every year.

A handful take to the streets in Afghanistan

In neighbouring Afghanistan, frequently rated one of the world’s worst places to be a woman, a handful of people took to the streets to mark Women’s Day.

University graduate Tahmina Ghoori explained that while urban Afghan women have seen some progress since the end of Taliban rule in 2001, they still face many challenges due to “gender inequality and the misogynistic views in our society”.

She was especially worried about the possibility of the insurgents returning to power on the back of a US-Taliban deal signed last month.

“We have left a dark era behind, my concern is that if they make a comeback, we will go through the same situation and women’s rights will be trampled again,” she told AFP.

BBC News – The couples on the run for love in India

Divya Arya

Gujarat – India, 14 April 2019. Most Indian families still prefer marriages arranged within their religion and caste. Marriages outside these rigid boundaries have often led to violent consequences, including “honour” killings. But some young Indians are still willing to defy their families and communities for love, reports the BBC’s Divya Arya.

Ravindra Parmar knew that pursuing a relationship with an upper-caste woman would be dangerous.

He is a Dalit (formerly known as “untouchable”), a caste that sits at the lowest rung of India’s social ladder. The woman he fell in love with, Shilpaba Upendrasinh Vala, is a Rajput, a Hindu warrior caste near the apex of the system.

The yawning gap between his position and hers is something rarely bridged in Indian society.

“We are not even allowed to walk past their area and I had dared to marry into their family,” he says.

“Those who marry inter-caste are seen as aliens. The perception is that they are terrorists who revolt in society.”

Ravindra and Shilpaba were born and brought up in two villages separated by more than 100km (62 miles) in the western state of Gujarat.

They met on Facebook and would spend hours taking digs at each other.

But all that friendly banter had a deep impact on Shilpaba.

“I was like any other village girl limited to home and college, but he broadened my horizon, made me realise that my life has more meaning,” she says.

Social media has opened a space that did not exist a few decades ago. Rigid caste and religious divides meant that the possibility of meeting, interacting and striking friendships in public places was neither possible nor encouraged.

The caste system is hereditary, and the practice of marrying within the caste ensures that the hierarchy is perpetuated. Caste divisions have deep roots in history and Dalit men who have married women from upper castes have been killed.

Marriages across caste or religion in India are uncommon. According to the India Human Development Survey, only about 5% of Indian marriages are inter-caste.

The onus of upholding tradition, culture and “purity” falls on the woman and if she marries outside traditional boundaries, she is seen as besmirching the honour of the community and her family.

The anger and backlash can lead to violent attacks and killings.

Shilpaba had to flee from her village to marry Ravindra. But the threat of violence has continued to hang over them: they have moved between houses and cities a dozen times in the past three years. Ravindra is a trained engineer but had to leave his job and has had to do daily-wage labour wherever they have lived to make ends meet.

Shilpaba says the stress became unbearable. They started blaming each other for their situation and she even contemplated taking her own life.

“Ravindra convinced me out of it, as that was no solution,” she says. “Now we are both studying law with a vision to take up human rights cases and make our parents proud through our work.

“Maybe then they will see that we didn’t take this decision to just have fun and they will accept us.”

‘Shocking’ level of prejudice’

The latest data available from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that 77 murder cases in 2016 were reported with “honour killing” as the motive.

Such violence is highly under-reported and these numbers do not accurately reflect social attitudes that may be growing more conservative.

A 2016 survey, Social Attitudes Research for India (Sari), conducted across Delhi, Mumbai, and the states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan found the majority of respondents opposed to inter-caste and inter-religious marriages.

In fact they were in favour of a law banning such marriages.

“It is quite shocking that despite rising levels of literacy and education, prejudicial beliefs do not reduce. In fact, they are worryingly high,” says Professor Amit Thorat of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who worked on the Sari survey.

“Religious and traditional values around hierarchies, around the notion of purity and pollution seem to be more sacrosanct and valuable than human rights, the right to live or the right to marry by choice.”

Feeling unsafe

Bibi Ayisha and Aditya Verma were 17 years old when they fell in love. They too found each other on Facebook. That they were born into different religions, she is Muslim, he is Hindu, did not matter to them. But their families fiercely opposed the relationship.

Aditya was born and grew up in Delhi. After finishing school, he enrolled in a college in the southern Indian city of Bangalore only because Ayisha lived there. But that sign of his dedication couldn’t win her parents over: he was still a Hindu.

Madly in love, and after waiting for two years, Ayisha ran away with Aditya. They moved to Delhi but, like Ravindra and Shilpaba, they still did not feel safe.

“We were so scared that for five months we stayed in a room. Neither of us was working at that time. I thought if I stepped out, I would be killed, because I was Muslim and he was Hindu,” says Ayisha.

In February 2018, 23-year old Ankit Saxena was murdered in broad daylight in the capital Delhi for having a relationship with a Muslim woman.

The woman’s parents and two others were arrested and the trial is ongoing.

Ayisha says that after that incident, the fear of a possible honour killing started feeling very real.

“Even if we went out briefly, I was constantly looking around and if I saw anyone with a beard, I thought that they were members of my family coming to kill me.”

Spreading awareness

Her fears have been set against the backdrop of an India where religious polarisation is increasing. A Hindu nationalist government has been in power since 2014 and is accused of normalising anti-Muslim sentiment.

“I think the present environment is such that rather than bringing people and religions together, it is trying to fan the fires of division,” says Prof Thorat.

He is quick to point to the violent partition of India to underscore that such beliefs have existed for more than half a century, but believes that efforts to bridge divides are lacking.

Ayisha’s parents like Aditya but are not ready to accept him into their family unless he converts to Islam. Aditya’s parents are equally unwilling for the marriage unless Ayisha adopts Hinduism.

Both of them are opposed to adopting the other’s religion, and losing their own.

“When we fell in love, I knew she was a Muslim and she knew I was Hindu. We don’t want that any of us should lose our identity,” Aditya says.

India passed a law in 1872 that enables legal registration of a marriage between a man and woman of different religions or caste without any conversion.

Aditya found out about the Special Marriage Act through Asif Iqbal and Ranu Kulshreshtha, a couple who married inter-faith back in 2000.

Soon after their marriage, in the aftermath of the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, they witnessed targeting of couples like themselves and a lack of any support mechanisms.

They set up an organisation called Dhanak, which spreads legal awareness and provides counselling as well as safe houses to couples who want to marry inter-faith or inter-caste.

But awareness about the Special Marriage Act is very low. It also has a rule that requires a notice about the intended marriage to be displayed at a public place for a month, giving opportunity to anyone to place an objection.

“This provision is often misused by fanatic Hindu groups like Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and Muslim organisations like Nizam-e-Mustafa, who would approach the families and pressure them to stop their daughters as daughters are easy targets,” explains Asif Iqbal.

According to him, the local police also do not encourage such marriages and instead play an active role in stopping them, especially in smaller towns.

Rekha Sharma, chairperson of the government’s advisory body, the National Commission for Women, agrees.

“The government needs to do more in sensitising the police and legal officers about this, as the law helps in stopping conversion yet still enabling inter-faith marriage,” she says.

But she adds that lasting change cannot come only by enforcing laws, but by changing social mindsets.

Acceptance is key for the survival of such couples as they deal with severe social and economic isolation.

‘Trust and love’

The Dhanak network has helped Ayisha feel safe. She has now met many couples like her and Aditya, and it gives her immense hope.

“If you trust your partner and love them very much, then nothing else should matter. You should not waste time worrying about family and society. They will come around eventually,” she says.

After their marriage, Ravindra and Shilpaba decided to change their surname to Bharatiya, which means Indian.

They decided to drop their original surname since it revealed their respective castes.

Ravindra is an idealist, he believes that more inter-caste marriages will lead to a future in India where caste divisions will cease to be an issue.

507.Guru’s concept of marriage

In this column I am going to disagree with many of my fellow Sikhs, because their conservative Panjabi instincts prevent them understanding Guru’s enlightened vision.

Somebody wrote some time ago that God is male, as Purkh (as in Akál Purkh) comes from Purusha, which means man. Going by the dictionary this correct, but following this logic would mean that God is a male human being.

Guru teaches that God is my Mother and Father, but that also does not mean that God is a male or female human. Creator Being is a sensible interpretation of Akál Purkh. This ‘Purkh’ is many facetted and has both female and male aspects.

Somebody wrote that marriage is the most important Sikh institution. This article is not concerned with the Rehat Maryada, but with God’s word as found in the Guru Granth, the Guru that brings light in our spiritual darkness. Marriage in the Guru Granth is not an institution.

In our eternal Guru God is the Groom of all human beings. Marriage to this Groom is a spiritual bond, and playing on the couch with God is a metaphor for having spiritual intercourse with God. All humans, male and female, are God’s brides.

The beautiful Shabads that we call the Lavans and that are sung and recited during the Anand Karaj ceremony are NOT about the marriage of two humans, but about the spiritual union with God as described above.

The essence of this marriage is neither sexuality nor procreation, but getting closer and closer to the God-Groom. Each verse represents a step in this process. This nearness to the God-Groom results in anand, bliss.

This is what we share with a Sufi like Farid, a Bhagat like Ravidas and with medieval European mystics like Julian of Norwich, Hadewijch or Meister Eckhart.

Even where Guru writes about the human marriage he writes about being two bodies and one soul. Otherwise we are warned not to get attached to wife and children, as you cannot take them with you to the next life.

I see no reason to narrow down the spiritual idea of marriage to something that can only happen between a male and a female, as this is not based on Gurmat.

On the practical side I think that the state should not get involved in marrying people. There should be a model or models for long term relationships between people, regulating things like joint ownership, inheritance etc. The spiritual side cannot be institutionalised; it is not the state’s business.

What God thinks of homosexuality ? I do not think that God thinks or has opinions, ‘God is’, She/He is not human. But I would expect that Dharm Raj will look at the whole picture without being obsessed with sexuality as social conservatives are. Some Sikhs who are against homosexuality would condone honour-killings…