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Women's rights advocates rally across patriarchal Pakistan

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Islamabad (AFP)

Protesters marched in Pakistani cities Sunday to mark International Women's Day in an ultra-conservative society where women are still put to death under ancient "honour" codes.

Such events are garnering controversy in the patriarchal country, and last year's march sparked a furious backlash when participants held placards with slogans such as: "Keep your dick pics to yourself", and "My body, my choice".

In a society where women have been shot, stabbed, stoned, set alight and strangled for damaging a family's "honour", such expressions have seen marchers accused of promoting Western, liberal values and disrespecting religious and cultural sensitivities.

In Islamabad on Sunday, about 1,000 women and men gathered to call for greater reproductive and other rights.

The march ended at a park alongside a separate "anti-feminist" Islamist rally, with the duelling protests separated only by a flimsy barrier and a line of police.

"The women in Pakistan are considered property by their male counterparts," said Tahira Maryum, 55. "There is nothing vulgar in asking for your rights," she added.

At the Islamist counter-protest, dozens of women in burqas held their own placards including one saying "Anti-Feminist", while shouting "Our bodies, Allah's choice".

Ismat Khan, a 33-year-old woman, said women's rights activists were "naive" and being exploited by non-government groups and "the Jewish lobby".

"We are free and to live our lives are according to Sharia," she told AFP.

In Lahore, a crowd of several hundred women and men took to the streets chanting slogans such as: "Give me what's mine" and "We want freedom", while more than 1,000 people gathered in a park in Karachi, chanting slogans and beating drums.

- My Hijab, My Choice -

The nationwide event, known as the Aurat march, from the Urdu word for women, also saw a group of women gather in the southern city of Sukkur near the Indus river.

The iconic waterway is where the bodies of women who have been slain in "honour" killings are sometimes dumped.

This year, anti-march campaigners filed unsuccessful court petitions to try to ban Sunday's events, and a religious political party warned it would stop the march at "all costs".

Much of Pakistani society operates under a strict code of "honour", systemising the oppression of women in matters such as the right to choose who to marry, reproductive rights and even the right to an education.

Pakistani social media on Sunday was filled with comments both for and against the march with, "HappyWomensDay2020" and "MeraHijabMeriMarzi" (MyHijabMyChoice) both in the top Twitter trends.

Rights activists have long fought against the patriarchal notion of "honour" which remains prevalent across Pakistan. According to estimates, at least 1,000 women fall victim to honour killings in Pakistan each year.

In neighbouring Afghanistan, frequently rated one of the world's worst places to be a woman, a handful of people took to the streets to mark Women's Day.

University graduate Tahmina Ghoori said that while urban Afghan women have seen some progress since the end of Taliban rule in 2001, they still face many challenges due to "gender inequality and the misogynistic views in our society".

She was especially worried about the possibility of the insurgents returning to power on the back of a US-Taliban deal signed last month.

"We have left a dark era behind, my concern is that if they make a comeback, we will go through the same situation, and women's rights will be trampled again," she told AFP.

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