Hundreds attend women's day marches, counter-protests in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: Hundreds of women rallied across Pakistan on Friday for International Women's Day, a movement that often draws criticism from right-wing religious groups for its alleged Western influence.

Known as Aurat March, women turned out in major cities to highlight issues such as street harassment, bonded labour and the lack of representation in parliament.

"We face all sorts of violence: physical, sexual, cultural violence where women are exchanged to settle disputes, child marriages, rape, harassment in the workplace, on the streets," said Farzana Bari, the lead organiser of Aurat March in Islamabad, where hundreds of women gathered to dance, chant and listen to speeches.

"People in Pakistan don't get punished, there's a culture of impunity."

In Pakistan, just 21 percent of women are in the workforce and less than 20 percent of girls in rural areas are enrolled in secondary school, according to the United Nations.

Only 12 women were directly elected into parliament out of 266 seats in last month's election.

Much of Pakistani society operates under a strict code of "honour", with women beholden to their male relatives over choices around education, employment and who they can marry.

Hundreds of women are killed by men in Pakistan every year for allegedly breaching this code.

The Aurat March dates back to 2018, when it was launched in Karachi but has since spread across most of the country.

The head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said it "commends the resilience of working women in the face of harmful misogynistic attitudes and unprecedented economic instability."

"However, it is gravely concerning that Pakistan continues to lag behind global economies in addressing chronic gender disparities," added Asad Iqbal Butt.

Women supporters from right-wing religious parties also staged small counter-protests, known as modesty rallies, in Lahore and Karachi, holding banners calling for the protection of Islamic values.

The Aurat March is seen by critics as supporting elitist and Western values in the Muslim country, with organisers accused of disrespecting religious and cultural sensitivities.

In previous years, Aurat March organisers have had to battle in the courts for permission to hold demonstrations, while doctored images of banners held up by women have circulated online leading to harassment and death threats.

In 2020, groups of hardline men turned up in vans and hurled stones at women participating in the Aurat March in Islamabad. — AFP

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