Thousands of women rallied across Pakistan on International Women’s Day this year and demanded an end to violence against women and gender minorities. In the days since, Pakistan’s Taliban movement has escalated the threats facing the women who marched. Opponents of women’s rights doctored a video of the rally to suggest that the women had committed blasphemy—an accusation that has been frequently weaponized against minorities in Pakistan and has resulted in vigilantes killing those who are targeted.

Women rally at the 2021 Aurat March in Islamabad with a banner memorializing Asma Jahangir, a long-prominent human rights activist. (Hassan Turi/Aurat Azadi March)
Women rally at the 2021 Aurat March in Islamabad with a banner memorializing Asma Jahangir, a long-prominent human rights activist. (Hassan Turi/Aurat Azadi March)

To celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day, Pakistani women held what they call the Aurat (Women)’s March—an annual series of rallies that began in Karachi in 2018. This year’s Aurat March—held in at least seven cities nationwide—included demands for safety from endemic violence, accessible health care in a nation where nearly half of women are malnourished, and the basic economic justice of safe working environments and equal opportunities for women. In Pakistan, as in other countries where women already were most vulnerable, the COVID pandemic has exacerbated their crises, including gender-based violence.

But the extremist backlash—including street protests, a Taliban condemnation of the women for “actively spreading obscenity and vulgarity,” and an organized social media disinformation campaign against the organizers and supporters of Aurat March—underscores how exclusionary, unjust, unsafe and violent Pakistan remains for most of its 101 million women. In the most recent Women, Peace and Security Index—a measure of women's well-being and their empowerment in homes, communities, and societies—Pakistan was ranked among the world’s 12 worst performing countries. The latest Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey estimated that 28 percent of women in Pakistan have “experienced physical violence” by the age of 50. Still, with no real national data, the full scale of Pakistan’s violence against women remains murky. The escalated backlash against women’s activism emphasizes not only the need for their movement but also the need to overcome the dominant patriarchal narrative about religion that falsely portrays feminism as inimical to Islam.

While the suffering of Pakistan’s women is anguishing, this extreme inequity in the world’s fifth most populous nation should concern moralists as well as foreign policy realists for the simple reason that greater inclusion and equality of women make the world more peaceful for all. States with greater gender equality behave less violently amid international disputes, research studies find. Overwhelming evidence also shows that inclusion of women in peace processes makes these processes more sustainable. In Pakistan’s case, achieving gender equality is critical for the country’s long-term evolution as a resilient democracy that can meet its people’s needs, adequately confront violent extremism, resolve its conflicts non-violently and help stabilize a region that poses constant international security threats.

Response to Violence: Reaction, Not Prevention

Recent violence in Pakistan lent particular poignancy to last week’s women’s rights rallies. In September, when a mother ran out of gas while driving her two young children on a highway, two men raped her—and one of Pakistan’s most powerful police officers blamed her for inviting the crime by having driven at night. A storm of protest erupted, focusing national attention on gender-based violence, including a spate of attacks against transgender women.

The highway attack was the latest in atrocities over decades to re-ignite a national discourse on gender-based violence that remains largely reactive in nature. The government passed a new anti-rape ordinance in December, promising harsher punishments like chemical castration for perpetrators and speedier trial of rape cases through special courts. Similarly, the spike in violent attacks on women during COVID has produced demands for measures like national helplines, shelters, legal aid and psycho-social support for victims. As vital as these measures can be, the nation’s response still fails to move to prevention by addressing the causes of violence against women.

Leading Pakistani scholars and advocates on women’s rights assessed those causes last month in a new USIP working group on gender issues in Pakistan. They described the exclusion of women in Pakistan’s social, political and economic institutions as a structural cause of inequity that renders women more vulnerable to violence. The literacy rate among girls and women is 22 percent lower than men. Women are 49 percent of Pakistanis, yet form only about 22 percent of the country’s labor force and receive only 18 percent of its labor income. Women hold only 5 percent of senior leadership positions in the economy. Women vote much less often in both rural and urban areas, and women form only 20 percent of the parliament. Women are less than 2 percent of the police force and are severely under-represented in the country’s superior courts.

A significant source of women’s vulnerability to violence is their financial dependence on their fathers, brothers or husbands. Tradition assigns women all household chores and discourages them from working outside the home. Work environments and public spaces that are hostile to women obstruct them from both the formal and informal economy. The few women who do participate in the workforce largely constitute the informal economy, where wages are abysmally low and economic vulnerability to external shocks like the pandemic is higher. Men’s monopoly over household income and assets, combined with a belief that women should tolerate violence to keep the family together, leaves women not only more vulnerable to violence but also incapable of escape.

Pakistani society’s patriarchal mindsets reinforce these gender disparities, noted the discussants in USIP’s gender working group. Inevitably, these mindsets extend to political and state institutions. The police official’s blaming of the woman raped on the highway reflects the systemic misogyny embedded throughout state institutions and the political environment. Thus, even though federal and provincial legislatures have passed laws to bar child marriage, workplace harassment, domestic violence, “honor” killings and acid attacks against women, they remain largely unenforced.

Way Forward: Reconciling Feminism and Islam

A broader change in gender mindsets is therefore imperative in Pakistan—and is a goal for which the Aurat March has been mobilizing men and women since 2018. While the Aurat March has focused on mobilizing people from marginalized segments of society such as low socio-economic groups and religious minorities, the campaign has remained restricted to select cities. It has yet to gain momentum in rural areas, where gender inequalities are worse.

This month’s backlash by the Taliban and others amplifies intense criticism of the movement from among Pakistan’s news media, religious scholars, established politicians and the public. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly last year formally condemned the Aurat March and politicians have filed complaints against it with police and courts. Critics of the movement accuse it of serving a “western agenda” and of being “un-Islamic.”

The criticism against the Aurat March stems from a simplistic dichotomy that sees feminism and Islam as irreconcilably opposed ideas. This false dichotomy has been cemented by mainstream interpretations of Islam that use a patriarchal cultural lens and systematically exclude feminist narratives available in Islamic traditions. The religious narrative in Pakistan has so fully absorbed patriarchal cultural ideas that those who challenge patriarchy are accused of being irreligious. Such allegations are hard to dismiss when they resonate with the majority of Pakistanis, for whom religion is central to personal and collective identity. Women’s rights movements like the Aurat March are, therefore, likely to remain polarizing, misunderstood and ineffective unless they integrate feminism, modernity and Islam in their narrative, and engage progressive religious scholars. A continued disconnect with religion will hamper the Aurat March from creating a critical mass for gender justice in Pakistan.

This disconnect applies not only to social movements but also to wider advocacy and development efforts. USIP’s initial roundtable discussion on gender inequality and violence also failed to explore religion as a contributor to gender injustice, and more importantly, as a potential tool for reform.

Muslim women in Pakistan and across the globe have been trying to build the bridge between women’s rights and Islam for generations. In Pakistan, Dr. Riffat Hassan and Asma Barlas have made significant contributions to the reinterpretation of Qur’anic texts from a non-patriarchal perspective and have laid down a strong foundation for Islamic feminism in the country. And the story of Afghanistan’s teacher, Islamic scholar and women’s rights activist, Ayesha Aziz, is instructive. Aziz’s successes in advocating women’s rights with Taliban officials by finding common ground in religious values and building relationships of trust underscores the promise that Islamic feminism holds for women’s empowerment in Pakistan.

An immediate next step in fostering gender justice in Pakistan is to build on the work of scholars like Hassan and Barlas, and to publicize feminist narratives about Islam. The longer-term challenge is to systematically address the ever-widening gap between those who understand Islam but do not understand modernity and those who understand modernity but do not understand Islam, as noted by Pakistani-American scholar Fazlur Rahman. Islamic feminism can serve as a starting point by offering a common ground of engagement to both groups, and can help propel the Islamic Republic of Pakistan on its journey to become more gender-equal and, ultimately, peaceful for all.

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