Pakistan’s Aurat March held on March 8 to coincide with Women’s Day, always manages to make headlines, and this year it was a heated debate between Pakistani poet Khalil ur Rehman and journalist Marvi Sirmed, on national television, that got everyone’s attention. Not so much for what the women were demanding – economic justice for women – but for Rehman’s malicious personal attacks on his co-panellist and women’s right activist Sirmed, who called him out for opposing the Aurat March slogan “Mera jism, meri marzi”. The rallying cry drew much attention at last year’s Aurat March – a chant meant to raise awareness about the violence on womxn’s bodies. The demand for control over one’s choices was viewed by critics as obscene and undesirable.
While the lack of acceptance and understanding when we chant slogans like ‘My body, my rules’ or ‘My body, my choice’ baffles us, to you it might be the usage of the term ‘womxn’ – which to the untrained eye may look like a typo. A more inclusive and progressive alternative to the word ‘women’, ‘womxn’ also includes non-cisgender women and also gets away from patriarchal language. Now that we’ve cleared the air around our usage of inclusive language, let’s get back to discussing our rights to reclaiming our bodies.
Slogans like these, also help us call out the inadequacy of choices, the different rules for different genders, the subliminal suppression of individuality, the blatant stereotyping and the patriarchal delineation of female autonomy. As Aurat March's Instagram account puts it: It means an enforcement of a human right every individual is born with, but women, trans, and non-binary persons are robbed of.
For years, womxn have made soul-crushing compromises to be contained and accepted by society. But the discourse is changing. It is gathering strength, and the message is loud and clear.
Take for example, pop-singer and actor Lady Gaga, otherwise known for her wacky, bold, and often radical, dressing choices. Openly identifying as a bisexual from the beginning of her career, Gaga has been an outspoken proponent of LGBTQIA+ rights and also instrumental in starting a conversation about bisexual exclusion.
As much as she loves sashaying around town in wigs and costumes, she doesn't shy away from posting pictures of herself - sans makeup, sans platinum tresses - in her underwear online. Posting photos on her social media website, LittleMonsters.com, under the caption "Bulimia and Anorexia since I was 15,' she invited her enormous fan base to join her in body positivity project called #TheBodyRevolution, and also show the world what their bodies really look like.
Not to forget the time the Born This Way singer also took to her Instagram to to turn away body shamers: “I heard my body is a topic of conversation so I wanted to say, I’m proud of my body and you should be proud of yours too,”
In her Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two she reveals that her unorthodox fashion choices are not simply to embody courage in the face of criticism, but “a desire for control in an industry that loves to take control away from its artists.”
And part of reclaiming that power, as an artist and a sexual assault survivor had to do with what she wore. Showing up in an oversized, shoulder-padded suit to collect her honorary Elle’s Women in Hollywood award, she delivered a powerful speech. “We (women) are not simply images to bring smiles or grimaces to people’s faces. We are not members of a giant beauty pageant meant to be pitted against one another for the pleasure of the public. We women in Hollywood, we are voices,” she said. Opening up about her assault and mental illness she said, “… as a woman who was conditioned at a very young age to listen to what men told me to do, I decided today I wanted to take the power back. Today, I wear the pants.”
Like Gaga, another powerful voice is that of the witty and uncensored British-Indian-Pakistani actor and activist Jameela Jamil. She speaks of the damage social media can have on one’s body-image and self-worth, and also the dehumanising intentions of the consumerist culture.
As someone who’s part of the system and has worked as a model, this cause was too personal to her, considering she too identifies as a queer, is a cancer survivor, womxn of colour, and has been battling mental health issues and eating disorders.
This self-acclaimed feminist-in-progress, therefore, uses her platform as a duty to do more for others – speaking against airbrushing, detox teas, body shaming, and calling out celebrities such as the Kadarshians for selling us low self-esteem, among other topics.
With her ‘I Weigh’ movement which was started in 2018, she’s provided a platform for others to openly celebrate their accomplishments transcending the societal confines of physical size, gender, race, and age, and is also showing us the way forward.
In times when Instagram’s influencers and the weight-loss industry urge womxn to flatten that tummy bulge, and when sales of fairness creams and wrinkle-removers continue to increase, women like Gaga and Jamil are challenging these patterns. They are inspiration enough to rally other such body-positive advocates, especially womxn who have put their bodies on the line in order for us to begin accepting and freeing ours.
In this three-part #BodyPositivity series, we will be celebrating such women, institutions and initiatives that are smashing tired body and beauty stereotypes and are helping cultivate a healthy relationship not just with our bodies, but also our lives.