KARACHI -- Defying violence and threats from banned militant outfits, thousands of Pakistani women March 8 took to the streets to raise their voice for women's rights.
Abridging women's rights was a major part of the agenda of extremist groups that terrorised Pakistan for years.
Thousands of women and men attended the Aurat March (Women's March) in Karachi, Sukkur, Lahore, Islamabad, Multan and other cities to mark International Women's Day.
Federal and provincial governments provided security for the participants of the marches across the country.
In Karachi, hundreds of women took part in the women's march, holding placards and chanting slogans for women's rights, an end to violence against women and equal opportunities for education, health and employment.
The marches across the country were organised by the collective fronts of women from different walks of life, including women's rights activists, transgender and non-binary persons and religious minority members, said Qurrat Mirza, one of the march's organisers in Karachi.
"All of us stand against the patriarchal structures that result in the sexual, economic and structural exploitation of women, and the atrocities of militant outfits, including the Taliban," Mirza said.
During a march in Islamabad, Islamist counter-protesters hurled sticks and stones at the women's rights demonstrators, causing some injuries and forcing a crowd to seek cover before the police intervened, AFP reported.
Amnesty International South Asia called on Pakistani authorities to hold accountable those who attacked the women's rights marchers.
"The horrific attack on the #AuratMarch, which includes stones being hurled at peaceful protesters, represents the very violence women are protesting against today," Amnesty tweeted.
"Local Administration is taking actions against those who attacked the peaceful protesters with stones, sticks etc violating the law," Pakistani Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari said in a tweet.
This year, the marches took place for the first time in Sukkur and Multan -- cities in northern Sindh and southern Punjab. The regions are notorious not only for tribal clashes and "honour killings" but also as the heartland of proscribed militant outfits.
In Sukkur city, religious parties vowed to forcibly stop the march.
However, women the night of March 7 organised a vigil in the city, and the next day a large number of women from Sukkur and neighbouring districts, including Ghotki, Shikarpur, Jacobabad and Kashmore, attended the march.
In Multan, men and women from the poorest communities participated, said Laiba Zainab, a march organiser.
"This is the first women's march in Multan where a large number of women had gathered ... to demand a more accessible and tolerant Pakistan," she said.
Taliban atrocities against women
The World Economic Forum ranked Pakistan as the third worst in the world in its 2020 Global Gender Gap report, which gauges economic opportunity, education, health and political empowerment.
However, the shattering of militant networks across the country has caused a rise in women's empowerment, including activities such as the Aurat March, say observers.
In recent months, several women's initiatives, including the Women on Wheels (WoW) campaign and sports programmes, have taken off in the country, illustrating the dramatic progress in security in the country since 2013.
More women are voting and running in elections, rights forcibly denied by the Taliban in the past.
After the weakening of militant outfits including the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), new challenges to women include violence on the baseless pretext of punishing "blasphemy", as well as the forced conversion of minority girls to Islam, said Sana Gill, a Christian college student.
Gill's uncle was killed in a TTP suicide bombing in March 2016 of a park in Lahore where the local Christian community was celebrating Easter. More than 70 people, including women and children, were killed.
"Women and children were key victims of Taliban violence," said Gill, adding that the bombing made her politically conscious and resilient in the face of every kind of oppression.
The TTP in the past ran a violent campaign to stop girls from going to school and bombed and attacked dozens of schools in various parts of the country.
Its anti-girl education campaign gained international attention in 2012 when gunmen in the Swat Valley, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, shot and critically wounded education activist Malala Yousafzai.
There were 867 attacks on educational institutions in Pakistan from 2007 to 2015, resulting in 392 deaths and 724 injuries, according to the Global Terrorism Database maintained by researchers at the University of Maryland. Taliban militants committed most of those crimes.
The TTP and other militant outfits across the country lashed out at schools, teachers and students for various reasons, said Syed Latif, a school principal in the Katti Pahari area of Karachi.
His school was attacked by TTP militants three times in 2012 and 2013 and reopened only after six years last October.
"The TTP threatened and targeted schools simply for educating girls," he said. "The main objective was to hamper efforts to improve education in Pakistan, which has one of the worst literacy rates in the world."