About 2,000 women have rallied in the Pakistani city of Lahore despite efforts by authorities to bar the protest and withdraw security for an event frequently the target of violence.
Rallies on International Women’s Day have received fierce backlash since they were embraced four years ago in deeply conservative and patriarchal Pakistan.
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In a society where women have been shot, stabbed, stoned, set alight and strangled for damaging family “honour”, critics accuse rights activists of promoting liberal Western values and disrespecting religious and cultural mores.
On Tuesday, dozens of events marking International Women’s Day – known as the Aurat March in Pakistan – were held across the country.
Non-violent counterprotests, dubbed “hijab marches”, were also staged by women from conservative religious groups in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad where participants called for the preservation of Islamic values.
In the eastern city of Lahore, city authorities urged organisers to cancel the rally over safety concerns, threatening security would not be provided.
However, following a legal challenge, the Lahore High Court ruled the event could go ahead and authorities agreed to provide protection.
The women marched through the streets in a jovial atmosphere, chanting slogans such as “Give respect to women” and “End the patriarchy”.
They were guarded by riot police – and greeted by a small band of men chanting “end this obscenity”.
Student Sairah Khan, 23, cited recent high-profile cases of brutal violence against women “without consequences” for her attendance.
In Karachi – Pakistan’s largest city – about 1,000 women gathered in a festive atmosphere, with organisers conducting security checks as police stood by idly.
“We have only one slogan: ‘Equal wages, protection and peace’,” one woman chanted from a stage.
In the capital city of Islamabad, about 200 women rallied outside the city’s press club.
“We have come to raise our voices and highlight our issues,” said student Fatima Shahzad.
They were outmatched by more than 400 counter-protesters from conservative religious parties.
But organiser Farzana Bari pledged, “We will continue to assert ourselves.”
“These are the women who refused to bow down,” she told the AFP news agency.
In 2020, groups of men turned up in vans and hurled stones at women as they marched through Islamabad.
Doctored videos and photos of last year’s events were spread online that even appeared on popular television shows, falsely accusing women of chanting or carrying blasphemous slogans – an act which carries the death penalty in Pakistan.