Pakistan Bulletin

An up-to-date and informed analyses of key issues of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Women’s March Redefines Leisure as a Political Act

March 2024

The Women’s March, popularly known as Aurat March in Pakistan, emerged as a response to challenging patriarchal power dynamics in Pakistan

Politics, inherently linked to power dynamics, is an integral part of any society. Arguably, one of the most significant aspects of societal power dynamics is gender. Gender has defined rules of social and private life for centuries, reinforcing patriarchal norms in both public and private domains. Private patriarchy confines women to the household under a man’s control, while public patriarchy allows women into various areas but keeps them subordinate to men. In Pakistan, interestingly, private and public patriarchy manifests in similar ways. The woman’s identity is most often reduced to in relation with a male figure, stripping her of individual autonomy within both the private and public sphere.
This way, the Pakistani woman is primarily defined by her relationships — as a “mother,” “wife,” or “daughter”, alienating the concepts of personal choice and public freedom. To combat this reductive definition, limiting the rights and autonomy of millions of Pakistani women, ‘Aurat March’ emerged as a response to these patriarchal structures that are held up in Pakistan. The movement called for women’s bodily autonomy and an equal sharing of domestic responsibilities. In the most recent March in 2024, the movement highlighted a simple concept that is often overlooked in the discourse of resistance and women’s empowerment: leisure.

The theme for the 2024 Aurat March underscored the notion that fun is political, especially highlighting the limited leisure opportunities for Pakistani women.

It is common to think of leisure as a personal endeavor, that carries little significance in the larger context of resisting power structures. However, in Pakistan, women’s leisure time is often more constrained by family duties and safety concerns than men’s, leading them to prioritize the leisure needs of their husbands and children over their own. Academicians (Shaw, S. M ) observe that when leisure is conceptualized as resistance, it renders its traditional definition of ‘autonomy, individual choice, self-expression, and satisfaction’ as inadequate by positing it as a form of political practice that challenges how power is exercised. The 2024 Aurat March in Karachi, deployed this seemingly simple concept of leisure and renamed their yearly event to ‘Ehtijaaji Mela aur March’ (Protest Carnival and March). The term “Protest Carnival” is strategically chosen to blend the leisurely connotations of a carnival with the serious objectives of protest and resistance within the movement, challenging the larger power dynamic enforced by patriarchy.
Organizers of the march revealed that the theme for this year underscored the notion that fun is political, especially highlighting the limited leisure opportunities for Pakistani women. This name reflected the movement’s endeavor to not only create a space where women and children could enjoy themselves freely thereby, challenging the scarcity of affordable, accessible, and inclusive leisure spaces in Pakistan for women, but also emphasizing leisure’s role as a political and feminist act. The Aurat March effectively used leisure as a form of resistance by organizing discussion circles, offering spaces for loud chanting, and playing games, thus challenging traditional views that confine women solely to domestic spaces.
A key feature of the carnival was performing artist Sheema Kirmani’s dance class that welcomed women to reconnect with their bodies. A mixture of breathing exercises and power moves coupled with the rhythm of the classical ‘tabla’ proved that the class wasn’t just an ordinary dance session meant for leisurely pleasure; it was another way of showcasing resistance. Pakistani society places a huge emphasis on controlling women’s bodies, particularly by infringing on their reproductive rights, as well as imposing rules of modesty wherever deemed fit. The dance, at the Aurat March symbolized the liberation and reclamation of bodily autonomy for these women, embodying a form of liberation.
The mela also exhibited art installations such as ‘The Graveyard of Patriarchy’, which showcased the graves of numerous women murdered in the name of defying societal expectations, forced conversions, and sexual exploitation. Another installation showcased a statue named ‘Patriarch’ symbolically representing the barriers that restricted women’s rights. By establishing such visual mediums in public spaces, Aurat March was able to achieve two objectives: Firstly, it made art accessible across social classes, allowing women to enjoy leisure time away from traditional, less accessible spaces like museums and art exhibitions, particularly for women belonging to lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The movement called for women’s bodily autonomy and an equal sharing of domestic responsibilities.

Secondly, and majorly, the artistic practice made “invisible violence visible”. This means that the art was able to generate discourse centered on the widespread issue of sexualized violence and other forms of exploitation against women that often remain hidden from the public eye, particularly emphasized within patriarchal cultures globally and specifically in Pakistan. This, in itself, was an act of resistance.

Overall, the event was designed to curate leisure time for women, enabling them to enjoy themselves during the carnival and subsequently highlight the political nature of the said leisurely acts. At the end of the march, the accumulated political energies were released through a public spectacle of burning the ‘Patriarch’ statue. Thus, through their curated event, the Aurat March successfully fostered greater discourse on how leisure should be perceived and valued for women in Pakistan, as well as its significance in women’s resistance.

Laiba Khan Zai


Laiba Khan Zai is an Associate Producer at Express Tribune.

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