|Participants holding ‘patriarchy’s funeral’ by covering a charpoy with white sheets and carrying it during Aurat March 2019. Photo Credit: Bismah Mughal|
Pakistani women have managed to raise their voices in the country’s patriarchal landscape through decades of protest action around a range of issues, and have met with mixed success. With our ongoing history of internecine conflicts and civilian mobilizations for their rights, contentious performance as a protest strategy can prove to be a useful tool.
Contentious performance is a “learned and historically grounded way of making claims on other people” (Tilly 2008). “People make claims with words such as condemn, oppose, resist, demand, beseech, support and reward. They also make claims with actions such as attacking, expelling, defacing, cursing, cheering, throwing flowers, singing songs, and carrying heroes on their shoulders” (Tilly 2008).These performances become a catalyst for conversation which helps to unify communities and demand justice from the authorities.
Rai (2015) defines political performance as a way to communicate meaning-making related to state institutions, policies, and discourses. Political performances have spurred several conversations in the local as well as global arena which has helped reduce the effects of state censorship against these protest actions.
At the Collective for Social Science Research, we are currently studying women’s leadership and contentious politics, which is the use of unruly and disruptive techniques to demand a change in government policy or to evolve people’s perspectives. This research is part of the “Action for Empowerment and Accountability” (A4EA) project, a multi-country research programme in collaboration with the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), focusing on how social and political action impact empowerment and accountability in fragile, conflict and violence-affected settings.
After analyzing several episodes of contentious politics and interviewing women involved in the protests, we found that women used performance as a protest strategy in different scenarios through various means. From holding patriarchy’s “janaza” (funeral procession) at the Aurat March to Hazara women not burying their loved ones, the spectrum of protest as performance has been wide and diverse. Art, values, culture, and symbolism have been a part of the range of contentious performances in a society where different forms of expression are increasingly restrained as civic space shrinks.
On 8th March 2019, several activist groups unified to chant slogans, and march together as a way to demand the rights of women and minorities residing in Pakistan. The Aurat March not only took place in metropolitan cities of Pakistan like Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad but also in smaller urban centres such as Hyderabad and Multan. Weeks before the march, these cities were covered with posters, and invitations were sent via social media portals. Non-government organizations like the Fisherfolk Forum, the Lady Health Workers Association, as well as groups representing the Hindu and the Christian communities were mobilized to attend the event.
Sheema Kirmani, a leading women’s rights activist, classical dancer and founder of the theatre group Tehreek-e-Niswan sang and danced under the open skies at Karachi’s Frere Hall along with at least three thousand women, non-binary individuals and people from the trans community, and some men. The slogans and chants at the March varied from highlighting domestic issues to ending militarization. Participants held ‘patriarchy’s funeral’ by covering a charpoy with white sheets and carrying it on their shoulders. In a country where women don’t feel free in civic spaces, becoming pallbearers to patriarchy’s funeral was used as a form of symbolic resistance. This visual repertoire challenging norms and gender discriminatory rules is a prime example of how performance is used as a way to protest.
Using performance as a part of protest action is not a recent strategy. Over a 100,000 Lady Health Workers (LHW) - women hired by the government of Pakistan to provide family planning and reproductive health services in communities across the country - had their salaries compromised for several years. Even though they began protesting in 2008 to force the government to ensure timely payment, the fractured system couldn’t meet their demands. In April 2012, after several small protests, some of the LHWs threatened to commit suicide by setting themselves on fire at a sit-in in Islamabad. The performative nature of this protest drew the attention of authorities to their demands and they began to be met.
In February 2013, ethnic Hazara women used performativity to demand justice for the lives that were lost due to sectarian violence. They refused to bury their loved ones because they were furious with the authorities that failed to capture members of the Sunni militant group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, who bombed a market, killing 89 people belonging to the minority community. Hazara women carried out a sit-in with the deceased for four days and received widespread media attention.
Moreover, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), which aims to end discrimination against Pashtuns, gained momentum when Naqeebullah Mehsud, an aspiring model from the Pashtun community was killed in a fake encounter in Karachi by then police senior superintendent Rao Anwar. In solidarity with the movement, Pashtuns began wearing the famous red and black cap which was dubbed the ‘Pashteen’ cap after the leader of the movement, Manzoor Pashteen. However, selling the cap is now banned and shopkeepers are being punished if they help promote this symbol of PTM. Anwar was arrested but subsequently released on bail.
Recently, at Karachi Biennale 2019, artist Adeela Suleman put up an installation of 444 concrete pillars, one for each life allegedly taken by Rao Anwar extrajudicially. Her installation, “The Killing Fields of Karachi” was sealed off and banned from public viewing two hours after it went on display. Men belonging to security forces blocked the video featuring Mehsud’s father that was part of the installation. Unknown men vandalized the installation the next day stating that they were simply following orders given from above. Moreover, the Biennale organizers justified the ban of her installation claiming that it did not honor this year’s thematic requirements. This episode spurred conversation, making civil society members eager to know more about Rao Anwar and PTM, indicating that the use of art is a robust form of protest action in the context of Pakistan’s politics.
Our research shows that women from different socio-economic backgrounds, religions, and ethnicities have come together to stage protest actions to grant them justice. Chanting, threatening to self-immolate and using visual aesthetics are ways in which Pakistani women have carried out creative resistance. Within a climate of shrinking civic space and censorship, women are coming up with increasingly innovative strategies to make their voices heard.