By 2020, I had dedicated six years of my life to understand the relationship between dharnas (Urdu for sit-ins) and media. I had interviewed key informants including campaign planners of various local political parties, dived into news archives, analysing bulletins and media texts, and of course looked at what scholars have said on the subject.
Yet I was struggling to convince my advisor and other notable media scholars on Pakistan about my thesis. Has politics in Pakistan really changed due in part to news media? Because at first glance, and through any study of the political economy of a repressive state, nothing seems to have changed.
They say that Pakistanis are stuck in a perpetual time loop. Has media liberalisation brought something new in this equation?
In the last two years I had barred myself to the confines of my bedroom-study-prison at my parents place determined to find a decent answer.
See Thesis Whisperer’s: Leaving the PhD Valley of Shit
Now it was crunch time. The University was not willing to provide another study extension.
The World turned bleaker still as COVID19 disruptions finally arrived in Pakistan.
Then something snapped in my head.
Aurat March, my obsession after PTI party
This was my context as the controversial Women’s Right demonstration took place on 8th March 2020.
Pakistani media coverage had zero-ed in on the posters of young women marching for their rights. And it appeared every Pakistani was triggered; many were offended, speechless or angry.
Some even hurled death and rape threats to what they saw as ‘foreign funded immoral women in a profoundly religious society’.
A very small number of Pakistanis however sympathised with the movement organisers and participants.
I was one such person.
Moved by the messages and well thought out advocacy of these brave womxn I participated to learn more.
What I found was so simple that it was startling. The controversy surrounding these posters was in fact their… impact !
How can a few posters raised once a year in major urban centres, since 2018 on 8th March, by a tiny group of hapless womxn volunteers shake the very foundations of the militarised Islamic Republic of Pakistan?
Words, symbolism, discursive and the medias
This is where media-centric explanations for creating political advantage in an authoritarian context offer some guidance.
Firstly, it’s important to see Aurat March posters as political slogans; they resonate with certain people, a constituency, taking action against perceived injustice by raising awareness in public.
Aurat March slogans like Mera Jism Meri Marzi (Urdu for My Body My Consent) resonate with many people of similar values systems.
Just as slogan like Kafir (Urdu for Infidel), or Tabdeeli (Urdu for Change) resonates with others. Although, the latter two slogans resonate with many more people than any poster/slogan of Aurat March.
In fact, the latter two slogans are so powerful and unite so many people that they have utility for any political actor in Pakistan with national aspirations. Such as the PTI party.
But the effect is same in both instances. These slogans bring people together against perceived injustice. In other words, they operate in the hearts and minds of the people. In the realm of the symbolic and discursive where movement-media interaction takes places. Although, the eventual outcome of deploying these collective action frames may be different.
Secondly, the battle against patriarchy in a deeply conservative society untempered by civic norms means that reaction or backlash is swift. The controversy compounded by mainstream and social media coverage.
But while detractors of Aurat March may focus on the controversy they inadvertently open up fresh and sensitive conversations among bystanders. Conversations that a fossilised status-quo finds nearly impossible to handle without banning a peaceful demonstration altogether.
In the end, the outcome of the movement doesn’t really matter. It’s about extracting political advantage through agitation and leveraging the power of the media. The agitation builds on the advocacy and work of women’s right defenders in the government and society.
In a landmark judgement recently, the Supreme Court of Pakistan declared that women victims of sexual abuse are entitled to protection of the law irrespective of their ‘reputation’. Furthermore, it declared the ghastly ‘two-finger virginity test’ as irrelevant for such cases. The implications of these judgements will likely be profound and the fact that it took the state 70 years, since independence, to officially ban these colonial era practices at this time cannot be isolated from the feminist wave in Muslim Pakistan.
The activists are ok with what they can get. They are here for the long-game.
These posters and images continue to engage in discursive battles with mainstream representation of marginalised groups in Pakistan, South Asia and globally long after activists disperse from site. Posters are available online for any citizen to engage.
With this realisation everything has changed. I have a better idea of future direction of my work and have an unofficial book offer. My thesis framework looks more coherent and I passed my viva recently. I am now working on a presentation of these ideas for everyone’s benefit.
Please stay tune to learn more.