Painting Pakistani towns red with women's harrowing stories of fear, abuse and survival

Painting Pakistani towns red with women's harrowing stories of fear, abuse and survival
Women across Pakistan are sharing their #MeToo stories on colourful fabrics lined up on the busy streets to bring attention to the harrowing incidents that are often silenced.
5 min read
08 March, 2021
The Pakistan Aurat March began life in 2018
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As cars and motorbikes rev their engines and fruit vendors sell their wares on one of the busiest roads in Lahore in one of the biggest and most vibrant cities in Pakistan, an orange scarf flutters in the breeze.

Daubed with paint, you can see the words on the scarf on closer inspection. It is one of a row of clothes hanging on a washing line on which women have painted their own #MeToo stories for the country's Aurat March to mark International Women's Day on March 8.

The stories make harrowing reading and the bleak words of fear and abuse are at odds with the brightly coloured fabrics embroidered with gold.

One describes how a girl was sexually assaulted by an older cousin when she was just nine-years-old. Another describes how a college student was told she would get a job if she offered the employer sexual favours.

In a country where such issues are rarely spoken about within families, let alone in public and a misplaced selfie can lead to an honour killing, it is a startling sight.

The washing line was created by artist and activist Leena Ghani, who is the organiser of the Lahore branch of the Aurat March. She set up a series of workshops in the run up to the march where women had a safe space where they could share their experiences.

As part of the healing process, each woman was given an item of clothing to write their story down on to be displaced during the march.

"The idea behind it is that women are constantly silenced by this idea that we should protect our family honour even at the expense of ourselves. We are told we should not air our dirty laundry in public," said Ghani.

"So the installation is a representation of those things."

When women are assaulted, the first thing people will ask is, what was she wearing, what did she do to provoke it

For many, the workshops were the first time they had spoken out about their experiences. Among those was Maniza*, a 19-year-old student who wrote about being sexually abused by her uncle as a child.

"I was really scared about taking part in the workshop, but once I got there, everybody was welcoming and non-judgmental and it felt like a safe space. One of the things that hit me was how many women had been through similar experiences to me. I always thought I was the only one.

"Being with a group of women who had been through similar experiences and understood how I felt was very cathartic, especially after keeping the memories and emotions hidden inside for so long. All my life I was ashamed of what happened to me. Now I am proud that my story will be on the line with all the other brave women who have survived."

The Aurat March takes place across the main cities of Pakistan and unites women from all classes and background

The Pakistan Aurat March began life in 2018, when a small group of women's rights activists decided to hold a protest in the port city of Karachi for International Women's Day and has since evolved into a nationwide event.

The event which takes place across the main cities of Pakistan unites women from all classes and background from farm workers to celebrities, women in niqabs to students in jeans, transgender women and survivors of acid attacks, who march together to protest against a catalogue of abuses including domestic violence, sexual abuse and disparities in healthcare for women.

This is our one day to have a space for women to express themselves and feel a part of something that belongs to them and they can own it

"This is our one day to have a space for women to express themselves and feel a part of something that belongs to them and they can own it. It was the one day when women don't need to worry about what people thought," said Ghani.

Perhaps it was inevitable that any women led event which challenged the patriarchy would attract a backlash, but last year the level of vitriol took everyone by surprise as the slogan 'Mere Jism, Meri Maarzi' (my body, my choice) was seized upon by conservatives who accused the organisers of promoting prostitution and of being financed by the West to undermine the country's Muslim values.

"What the slogan meant was we have a right not to be raped and murder. People were more angry that women carried placards saying 'don't send me dick pics', than about the fact that men were sending them dirty pictures," said Ghani.

"Everyone said using that word is not Islamic and not our culture. So is saying it not our culture , but sending pics is okay? It shows the entitlement of Pakistani men that they think they shouldn't be called out on this."

Ghani and the other organisers faced death threats and marchers were relentlessly harassed on social media and had their placards doctored and spread online.

"We were expecting a backlash but the level of backlash we got was shocking. We had a 16-year-old girl who was sent rape threats and death threats and placards have been photoshopped and gone viral so the women have been targeted as a result. I myself have received death threats. This just shows why it is important for us to take a stand."

However, as thousands of women take to the streets across Pakistan, for this year's Aurat March, it shows that the battle for women's rights shows no sign of being deterred.

And for those who have been silenced, they will be finding a voice through a line of colourful fabrics hanging on a piece of string as their supporters walk past.

Alia Waheed is a freelance journalist specialising in writing about issues affecting Muslim women.

Follow Alia Waheed on Twitter: @AliaWaheed