Can a song or posters at Women’s Day marches impact the deeply ingrained gender roles and toxic masculinity which most women in Pakistan navigate daily, at times at risk to their lives?

Aurat March, an umbrella group, has been organising rallies in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad for International Women's Day in 2019 as can been seen in the poster in Lahore.
Aurat March, an umbrella group, has been organising rallies in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad for International Women's Day in 2019 as can been seen in the poster in Lahore. (Instagram/progressive_students_collectiv)

There are two types of soundscapes in Pakistan —  the one you hear before you learn how to curse in Urdu, and the one after.

Once you know what the words mean, it’s like someone has finally turned the volume up; in the streets, schools, with your friends and your elders caught in unguarded moments. 

You realise everything from brotherly love, toxic masculinity and anger to frustration, humour and even affection is expressed in expletives prefixed with the Urdu words for mother and sister:  'maa' or 'behn'. 

Female identities and the anatomy are used daily to insult and provoke, to reduce women from a sum to parts. Just drop any iteration of the Urdu words for mother or sister and it’s an insult but not in Garam Anday’s punk single Maa behn ka danda.

Which is why the song and video are worth queuing up on your playlist in time for International Women’s Day on March 8, whether you participate in any of the day’s events or not. 

While working Pakistani women have been organising on March 8 for years, those considered privileged, apolitical and apathetic have also joined in since 2018, grappling with many of the same suffocating patriarchal dynamics seen in the grungy punk song video. 

(Spoiler alert, the patriarchy gets a hilarious whopping and women reclaim the public sphere in the video).

Garam Anday is Areeb Kishwar Usmani on vocals and guitar and Anam Abbas on vocals. The two young women met by chance in Karachi in 2017 and eventually Usmani, 23, ended up singing on Abbas’ YouTube series, Ladies Only.

“A group of women, friends and feminists would get together in my tiny apartment and for hours we would generate ridiculous lyrics, fantasize about scenes for music videos laugh and unleash our angst while Areeb riffed on her guitar,” Abbas, 33, said in a series of conversations with Garam Anday over email and WhatsApp with TRT World.

“The band that was to be, created a space of behenchara [sisterhood] and radical imaginings and catharsis which gradually morphed into actual music!” 

The song has the undeniable markings of foot-thumping punk and grunge forever iconised by the Converse in the opening scene of Smells like teen spirit

Screen grab from Garam Anday band's
Screen grab from Garam Anday band's "Maa behn ka danda". The song was released in 2018, a punk anthem in the making about women reclaiming public spaces in Pakistan. (Garam Anday)

“Having listened to some of their influences and what I understood of the punk movement, we decided to keep it simple and true to the philosophy of the movement. Distorted guitars, grungy bass and angry drums were what the song needed, to keep the emotion true and raw,” Haniya Aslam, who produced the track, said. 

Aslam, who packs an arsenal of musical skills, took the song on after she moved back from Toronto in 2017 where she was performing and focusing on various aspects of sound production, design and engineering.

“I loved the concept behind the band, and when I heard demos of their songs I was sold. Coming back from Canada, I’m very conscious of how important it is to be proactive about nurturing your industry,” Aslam said, “As a woman, I also want to make sure I help other female musicians and audio technicians as much as I can.”

The video features parallel sketches each depicting “all pretty humdrum run of the mill South Asian experiences", which of course are steeped in sexism and harassment of women. From being eyeballed on the streets while reading a book, to your brother being given the choicest and biggest cuts of meat at the dining table, the norm for women in Pakistan is 'men first'. 

“A lot of the scenarios were supposed to show women reclaiming public spaces and we were actually doing that while filming the video. We drew huge crowds of jeering onlookers while we were filming and that initially made me nervous, 

“But a friend told me that I should consider this as a dialogue that we’re all engaging in,” she wrote.

“...I love to mix humour with rage and that was a mood I have kept with, keeping many of the visuals campy and mixing angst with our flex,” Abbas said. 

“The video allows us to play out revenge fantasies but also in this moment most importantly it expresses in no unclear terms our absolute intolerance of so-called mullahs who are spreading fitna (incitement) in our communities and the spineless institutions that allow these devils to play free.” 

The song has, of course, triggered a reaction, as most expressions of female emancipation tend to; “We still get called the Illuminati and chased down with #notallmen,” said Abbas. 

One poster at an International Women's Day march in Karachi drew male outrage on social media as it read:
One poster at an International Women's Day march in Karachi drew male outrage on social media as it read: "heat your own food". (www.parhlo.com)

‘Men only’

The problem goes back to the male-dominated public space, where even simple expressions of equality land women in trouble.

One poster at the first Aurat (woman) March organised in Karachi last year telling men in big bold text to “heat your own food” provoked male outrage. 

And once again, simply pointing out entrenched sexism left male —  and some female — keyboard warriors flummoxed. After all, how could forcing women to be the main undertakers of uncompensated household work be an actual problem?  

The “heat your own food” poster served as a reminder of the millions of women entrenched in servitude at home, often physically abused and even killed for serving cold food to the man of the house. 

“It is almost a taboo; ‘how can a man work in a kitchen, the kitchen is where women belong’. Changing language means you will reclaim these spaces,” Nighat Dad, Digital Rights Foundation Executive Director, said from Lahore. 

“There are several issues the organisers of the Women’s Day march are thinking of talking about, like ‘why is honour linked to women’s bodies?'" 

The new posters challenging language we have been hearing for so long will be very powerful. Of course, there will be a backlash, that’s how movements grow,” Dad said. 

Haseem ur Rehman, one of the Aurat March organisers, who identified as genderfluid, embraces direct resistance to oppression, but advised caution, saying: “One must be careful of the backlash. Often, the reaction is too strong to contain/counter and ends up messier than intended.” 

Cover art from the band Garam Anday. The band's name translates into
Cover art from the band Garam Anday. The band's name translates into "hot eggs", a local version of Scotch eggs sold in Pakistani train stations. (GARAM ANDAY PROJECT)

The band’s name, also plays on the role a Pakistani woman is meant to fulfil. Garam Anday literally means “hot eggs”, a local version of Scotch eggs sold at Pakistani train stations. 

“I remember coming to Anam’s apartment from my obs/gynaecology rotation and I was explaining and laughing about how ovaries were referred to as andey-daanis (egg-holders),” Usmani said. 

“[Eggs] and their symbology are meant to repeatedly reference women’s characterisation as strictly reproductive beings with only childbearing and child rearing potential,” she said, “So it’s fun to play with that especially with the bad egg idioms,” referring to the bit in the song poking fun at the traditionally spoilt Pakistani man. 

When women do the unthinkable in Pakistan and leave the kitchen and the singular identity of child bearer to enter the public sphere —  whether they just choose to study, work, or attend protests or engage online, male logic dictates they are open for violation. 

“For women [...] it’s an everyday battle to access public spaces, from their works places to the roads and parks to anywhere public. The same goes for women online, they have to reclaim it every time they go online,” Dad said. 

“When women are trolled [online], their body is targeted, or how they look, their skin colour, their features, how they speak [...] Fat shaming is very common,” she added. 

“When men are trolled, it’s not because of how they look or their bodies. No, they are trolled because of their work or behaviour.

Women end up getting rape threats, men don’t. Women are threatened with acid attacks, not men,” she said. 

“Reclaiming language definitely helps us reclaim public spaces and private spaces,” she added. 

There is hope more songs like Maa behn or Aslam’s Main Irada combined with women simply just taking more space, both online and offline, will somehow breakdown the patriarchy over time.

“The toxicity of some cishet (cisgender heterosexual) men has gone through the roof and, frankly, needs to be challenged,” Rehman said.

Maa Behn has all the markings of an anthem, an anthem for women who are sick of the patriarchy and everyday sexism, an anthem for a generation struggling and fighting to reclaim space and language in a country where both have been male domains,” Aslam who is no stranger to feminist anthems (here, here and even here) told TRT World.

“In terms of the song, I am not sure how much of an impact it had … but I think the more such efforts there are, the more conversations will happen and ideas will change,” Nida Kirmani, Associate Professor of Sociology at LUMS, said. 

The class hangovers of British colonisation

#Metoo and #Timesup also encounter a formidable language and class divide in Pakistan.

In a country of 204 million people, 200 million cannot afford the internet where the fight for equal rights is being mobilised. 

Those who are connected mostly interact in English or a mix of Urdu and English, leaving most of the population outside of the debate, as less than 10 percent of Pakistanis speak either language. 

Nonetheless, since Urdu is the national language, framing the fight against the patriarchy in its words is still a massive leap in a country badly divided along class and ethnic lines.

“The annual march is meant to do a lot of things...mark public space for women, raise a series of pressing issues related to the struggle for gender equality, create linkages between women (and non cis-gender men) from all walks of life and work towards building a movement for gender equality across the country,” Kirmani said.

“The organisers of Aurat March are largely (though not all) from the English-speaking middle and upper classes, and this certainly colours the language that is used, but there is also an awareness about this and efforts being made to reach out to women from diverse backgrounds,” Kirmani said.

“Certainly language is an issue and reflects the class divides in our society,” Kirmani added. 

“Many people didn't know the Urdu word for 'patriarchy' for example (it's pidarshahee by the way). We are learning, but there is a need to reach out even more across both class and ethnic lines.

It's a long journey, but at least we are making a start.”

Source: TRT World