By Shehreen Umair
The past decade has seen a sharp spike in the number of populist leaders across the globe. Our own Prime Minister Imran Khan is often dubbed as a populist leader by analysts. While populism as a concept is oft-associated with reactionary right-wing politics, it won’t be an overstatement to say that the characteristics of a populist leader are noticeable across the spectrum. Since this kind of leader claims to represent the will of most people, they tend to be hyper-visible figures and sensationalist advocates of catch-all causes (like corruption in our case).
The populist narrative seems to have some influence. For most social causes and movements, gaining visibility is perceived as a positive and meaningful step towards impacting the collective consciousness of society. From this viewpoint, political invisibility is seen as a stressful constraint, and overcoming it is seen as naturally desirable. Moreover, in today’s world of hashtag-driven activism, social media visibility often takes centre stage in politics.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The recent online campaigns against forced eviction organized by Karachi Bachao Tehreek are a good example of using social media visibility to bring credibility and much-needed attention to a cause that was repeatedly being ignored by mainstream platforms. However, even the team of KBT acknowledges that their online visibility was backed by on-ground work to build linkages with the affected community – which is what ultimately made their campaigns a success.
But is visibility equally effective for all causes? Is it even necessary in some cases?
An inevitable caveat to visibility is that once it is successfully acquired, it can become a constraint of its own. It either ends up limiting what people can say openly as a consequence of being aware of having a larger audience or it forces people to dilute their stance to suit a more moderate audience. Another alarming consequence of visibility is the threat of violence that can accompany it.
Despite these limitations, visibility is often thought of as equivalent to impact. The point to ponder over is whether this conflation of visibility with impact leads to some blind spots in our understanding of meaningful social contributions?
As a woman in Pakistan, the idea of social invisibility won’t seem unfamiliar. A significant feature of this invisibility is exclusion – being denied a voice or having your opinions be disregarded as unimportant. From male-dominated talk shows and panels to the exclusion of women in drawing-room political conversations, this invisibility runs deep and exists in multitudes. It also extends to the role of women as stakeholders in political decision-making.
Selina Gallo-Cruz, a researcher of political sociology, has written extensively about the unexpectedly advantageous role political invisibility can play in mobilization, especially in the context of repressive states. She argues that there is subtle power to be found in groups that are often considered irrelevant and repeatedly dismissed in the realm of mainstream politics. At first glance, the irrelevance can appear damning and hopeless, but it can also have some latent benefits.
By using mobilization for the Aurat March as an example, we can attempt to tap into the theory of political invisibility, and the unseen opportunities it offers in a context where visibility can often come with a threat of violence, among other complications.
Aurat March – Navigating the Pitfalls of Visibility
In 2019, the “Mera Jism Meri Marzi” placard from Aurat March went viral on social media. It was subsequently discussed in great depth on prime time talk shows where, more often than not, it was misconstrued as a vulgar slogan. One of the most interesting aspects of Aurat March entering the popular discourse was that for a lot of people, this was their first encounter with a local version of feminism – a concept they had assumed was limited to a bunch of loud women on social media. The march was then, of course, confusing for them. The fact that a great number of people had shown up to Aurat March due to organic belief in the idea of gender equality did not occur to them. Surely, some sources of foreign funding were at play here.
In the aftermath of the 2019 and 2020 March, women battled a spike in online threats which included doctored images of participants of the march circulating the internet. Public personalities including the likes of Aamir Liaquat and Maulana Fazal ur Rehman encouraged action and “investigation” against the march with the latter going as far as to demand that the march should forcefully be stopped in the future. Lo and behold, the 2020 march in Islamabad was violently attacked by members of JUI-F who threw bricks and stones at the procession. Observers thought the backlash had reached its most sinister pinnacle after this incident but we were wrong.
The smear campaign reached a new high in 2021 with fabricated allegations of blasphemy levelled at the march. A video featuring charged chants against the patriarchy was doctored to make its content appear blasphemous. Moreover, the flag of WDF was deliberately misinterpreted as the flag of France. Despite clarifications from the organizers on social media, there was an immense backlash against the march. It was labelled anti-Islamic, and a source of Western propaganda and vulgarity.
The hue and cry led to petitions being registered against the march in Islamabad and Lahore. The latter was dismissed strongly citing questionable objections by the petitioner and settled in favour of the march.
In August 2021, a Twitter space that lasted for more than 12 hours was dedicated to lamenting how feminism was destroying the social fabric of the country. With victim-blaming rampant, the male-dominated venting made little space for the women on Twitter who tried articulating why the space’s discussion against feminism was deeply flawed.
Why has Aurat March caused such widespread panic for people, one might ask? And that too, to the point where certain groups are willing to doctor videos to incite mob violence against feminists?
The beauty of Aurat March’s controversial seep into the mainstream lies in the overall assumption of feminism’s irrelevance for the average Pakistani woman. According to the opinions rampant on Pakistani Twitter, women either don’t need feminism because their religion grants them all the rights they could ever aspire for or they shouldn’t need feminism because asking for more than what they already have is a Western intervention against our family values. Groups that further this view are convinced that a group of 10 women belonging to “mom batti mafia” are brainwashing young people into attending the march, deliberately ignoring the love and labour each participant brings to the march with their own placard, their own chants.
One must wonder why the Aurat March’s cause still remains an enigma for so many people in a country that is accustomed to hyper-analysis in anticipation of a planned political event. We have no trouble keeping up with the disarray of PDM jalsas but AM remains inexplicable. Every year, the same questions are asked about why it happens at all despite the answers being given repeatedly.
The more important question to ask in the context of political visibility is how Aurat March not only navigates this backlash successfully every year but strengthens its mobilization to come out stronger each year. More specifically, it is worth exploring the extent to which AM incorporates the tools of political invisibility to further its cause while circumventing the limitations and threats that are tied to visibility.
Invisibility for Safety
According to Ajwah, the practice of political invisibility has always been subconsciously present in Aurat March to some extent and more consciously recently. Ajwah has been deeply involved in organizing the Aurat March (Lahore chapter) since 2019. She notes that though all AM chapters in different cities are relatively autonomous, a commonality between them is a recognition that political visibility for non-men is often accompanied by a very real threat of violence. This means that the safety of the organizers as well as participants becomes a key consideration when discussing strategies of mobilization, especially in light of the incidents outlined above.
Some specific ways in which AM ensures safety is by consciously using the word “volunteers” instead of “organizers” and by having a rotating group every year to lead the mobilization activities. They also ensure safety by encouraging group interviews to avoid media scrutiny, and subsequent backlash, falling on one individual. Even the pictures and videos uploaded after the march are cautiously compiled in order to avoid focusing on individual faces unless explicit consent has been given.
The propensity of people in power corridors to react to successes of new movements with repression is well-documented; new ideas threaten the status quo due to their powerful ability to give people alternative imaginations of the world around them, as demonstrated by the violent response the march gets. This, coupled with societal and familial constraints, forces feminist groups to seek out tools of invisible mobilization out of necessity. The advantageous dimension of this, however, is that the practice of political invisibility also allows groups some respite from being under constant threat from both the state and the society at large, which can often include their own families as well.
Though the concern for safety seems to be the prime reason that makes the practice of political invisibility necessary, there can be some other subtle benefits to this approach as well.
Invisibility as a Political Strategy
Another unexpected advantage of avoiding visibility during mobilization is to circumvent the development of hierarchies within a collective. As discussed earlier, visibility has the power to turn personalities into populist leaders but Aurat March has successfully avoided falling prey to the cult of personality.
Some tools that, consciously or unconsciously, appear to do this include the decision of most core organizers to not appear on TV and avoid media appearances in general. Most core organizers aren’t visible on social media in relation to the march. The march is not associated with any fixed faces. Rather, it is most commonly associated with dynamic placards which allow each participant to bring their own politics to the march. Aurat March is arguably the most democratic movement in recent times, with its leaderless nature giving participants community ownership of the march.
Ajwah notes that another organizational practice that AM tries to adopt consistently is the fluidity and flexibility of roles within the collective. This means that any content produced is collectively owned without a single individual taking full responsibility, and subsequently the credit, of the work being done. This only prevents the march from being too dependent on a few people and ensures its continuity in the long run.
Political invisibility as a mobilization strategy seems to not only promote an amplified sense of community via collective credit for work, but it also becomes a useful strategy to minimize power hierarchies.
Aurat March shows us that a re-imagining of effective mobilization is possible: a new approach that looks beyond the focus on visibility in order to value the social contributions of those for whom visibility comes with a threat to their safety. By adopting tools of political invisibility, AM effectively navigates the fear of violence during mobilization. This allows the march to benefit from the input of those for whom publicly organizing is not a safe option. It also prevents the personal baggage of individuals from impacting the politics of the march in any drastic way.
Moreover, avoidance of visibility also prevents power hierarchies from developing and ensures that the movement is not limited to a single face. Lastly, the practice of relative invisibility means that the movement has no need to strive to be catch-all and to dilute its politics as a cost of visibility.
In a world where alternatives to populism seem difficult to imagine, tools of invisible mobilization help us reimagine how politics can be done in the context of a country where visibility comes with a price.
Political Invisibility and Mobilization by Selina Gallo-Cruz
In-depth interview with an organizer of Aurat March