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Police try to stop International Women's Day protests in Pakistan. Protesters persist

Policemen try to stop activists during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Islamabad on March 8 — and demand equal rights for women in Pakistan. Thousands of women took part in rallies across the country despite efforts by authorities in several cities to block the marches.
Aamir Qureshi/ AFP via Getty Images
Policemen try to stop activists during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Islamabad on March 8 — and demand equal rights for women in Pakistan. Thousands of women took part in rallies across the country despite efforts by authorities in several cities to block the marches.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The police did their best to keep women from demonstrating on International Women's Day.

They used shipping containers to cordon off the road leading to the meet-up point for the demonstrators in Islamabad. Then they created another smaller cordon around the field where the protesters intended to gather.

That didn't stop the women.

Dozens made it to the demonstration, singing, clapping and chanting: "Women have woken up!"

They knew all the back routes to get to the protest. Because this wasn't the first time the police have tried to prevent the march. A police crackdown has happened, to some degree, every March 8 for the past five years, when Pakistani feminists across the country first began holding protest marches on International Women's Day to demand equal rights.

But their slogans, like "my body, my choice," are red meat for conservatives – including state institutions like the police. They see the protesters as un-Islamic.

And nearly every year, there are counter-protests by other women.

The women's day march in Islamabad this year attracted members of leftist parties, cisgender women and trans women.

"It's the clerics," said one trans woman, Dua Aly, who linked arms with a friend at the march. "They don't want to give us equal rights, even though Islam calls for women to have equal rights."

Activists hold placards and chant slogans during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Islamabad.
/ Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images
/
Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images
Activists hold placards and chant slogans during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Islamabad.

Aly said she wanted women to have the right to feel safe. She has worked as a dancer – trans women struggle to find jobs owing to widespread discrimination against them. But she says that her job left her vulnerable to violence, rape and even murder.

One 19-year-old cisgender woman, who only gave her name as Fatima, fearing retribution if she were to be fully identified, said she too, wanted to feel safe on the streets. "I do not want to be catcalled, I do not want to be harassed. I want to live and have a ... normal walk in this city, in this country."

An Afghan presence

Also at the protest were women who had fled neighboring Afghanistan. They said they were grieving for their sisters back home, who live under Taliban rule. Under the Taliban, most women and girls have been trapped in their homes, denied the right to work or go to school or travel freely.

One of the protesters was Wesa Saadi, a former Afghan civil servant. "I can't accept this situation for Afghan women," she said. "Our girls can't have education, can't go to university." She burst into tears. "The world – why [is it] just looking at us? We are women, and we have rights."

Later, the protesters tried to march down the street, but the police responded harshly. One officer fought with the women. In a scene filmed by activists, he shouted, "Don't touch me!" Other police beat the women with sticks. Later, the Pakistani interior minister, Rana Sanaullah, said on Twitter that the officers involved were suspended.

Women protesting women who march

It wasn't just the police opposed to the women's day marches. Half a mile down the road from the Islamabad protest there was a demonstration held against women's day – by women. It was a reminder that the demand for equality remains divisive in Pakistan.

As women gathered to call for equal rights in Islamabad, conservative women demonstrated against the protesters.
/ Farooq Naeem/AFP via Getty Images
/
Farooq Naeem/AFP via Getty Images
As women gathered to call for equal rights in Islamabad, conservative women demonstrated against the protesters.

The demonstration was populated by dozens of women waving the blue-and-green flag of a powerful religious group in Pakistan known as Jamaat-e-Islami. The women included Shanza Khurshid, a 20-year-old university student.

"Islam has already given women all the rights they need," Khurshid said. She gestured to the women around her, wearing face veils. "Look at us and look at them," she said, referring to the protesters at the women's day march. "They have no honor. They're shameless. They're Westernized."

As the protesters and counter-protesters dispersed, news of more protests erupted. These are tumultuous times in Pakistan, and loyalists of former prime minister Imran Khan were trying to march onto the streets of Lahore, the country's second largest city. Khan and his followers demand early elections – but the current government, which is deeply unpopular, refuses to go to the polls.

The police cracked down on those protests too – and Khan's followers said at least one demonstrator was killed.

And Pakistan ended March 8, International Women's Day, as divided as it began.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
Abdul Sattar
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