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April 26, 2018

A tear in the canvas

Opinion

April 26, 2018

We like to see ourselves as a harmonious, perhaps almost perfect, society. Some amongst us at least imagine that religion and tradition drive our lives, keeping us and our youth safe from the ‘decadence’ that they believe has taken over the West and its communities. The result is a society within which little changes, and where there seems to be less and less room to express dissent or break away from the prevailing schools of thought.

But we have seen how young people in particular are reclaiming space for themselves, creating a different picture, changing the canvas. In Punjab University, where controversy prevails over the dismissal of a young teacher who returned from the West and attempted to encourage his students to think critically and read beyond their textbooks, students have agitated for him to be permitted to resume his duties. Students, including girls, many from middle-class backgrounds, said it was for the first time they learnt to question the chains that seemed to bind them to particular kinds of lives. Very quickly, they were able to question these notions, and it is these questions that the authorities at PU, and other places, fear most of all.

The fact that a ‘set of ideas’ prevails in our society was recently laid bare on a television show when parliamentarian Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, currently affiliated with the PTI, while arguing with cyber security activist Nighat Daad, said that women wouldn’t be harassed if they didn’t allow themselves to be harassed. This obviously makes very little sense. Women who are pinched, groped or face sexual innuendos at their workplace, in educational institutions or in public spaces do not ask to be treated in this fashion. The problem is that they have not been able to fight back as hard as they should have in the past. The fact that they are attempting to do so now is a positive sign.

We need this campaign to spread and to reach women of the lower-income sections, who are still unable to effectively speak out against the harassment they inevitably face. They too need to be empowered like the women in cities, mainly those in the higher echelons of society who have claimed a space for themselves and have torn the narrative that we like to present.

Actor Hamza Ali Abbasi, who likes to speak out on social issues, and, of course, many others spotted on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms, still attempt to hang on to this narrative; to prevent the canvas from being painted over, changed or ripped completely. Abbasi said that perhaps the gap that ‘Islam’ teaches men and women to observe, should be retained. This opens up many questions on both a practical and theological level. The question is not about separating the genders, but of ensuring respect and empowerment for women in society. The response of young women to efforts such as those of the PU professor is extraordinarily encouraging.

It is the same willingness of the younger generation to take charge of their lives that has brought more young women out on the streets, riding motorbikes or bicycles. This used to be an extremely rare happening in the past. It is becoming more common and indicates that there is a rise in the number of women who are willing to go against societal pressure in order to change their lives and change the space in which they live.

It is not women alone who are attempting to alter the picture of our society and paint new images onto it. Social media groups also willingly present alternative views about what Pakistan should be about, and are even ready to address issues which were once completely taboo. The hiring of a transgender news anchor adds to the creation of what we hope will be a different, more open society. Other forces are, of course, also agitating for this. The regressive hold of orthodoxy on people for so many decades, with pressures coming in on various occasions, has perhaps brought about a reaction. The rules of physics apply here – when there is an action, there is invariably a reaction. This is what we are seeing today.

However, the question is: where will it lead us? Who will win in the end? Certainly, people’s increased exposure, particularly the young generation, to think around the world through the social media and the mainstream media, has created new ideas and thinking. People within their communities are also taking this forward. Mashal Khan attempted to do so at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, before he was so tragically killed in April last year. He spoke out about new ideas, as a practicing Muslim, he discussed socialist thoughts and urged students to fight harder for their rights. He died for this. But there are others ready to take the same course of action and come together in groups which can make a real difference.

In newspaper articles, young writers are urging dissidents from Pakistan who are scattered around the globe, to return home and help form what they hope can be the critical mass needed to turn back a system that has for decades opposed alternative voices and different ideas. The increased effort to suppress opinions that deviate from the canvas that we have so painstakingly painted to depict only one dimension of reality, or indeed to delude people into believing that this is the reality, is encouraging such responses from people who essentially feel they have no choice.

Throughout our history, repression has usually succeeded. The student movements that pushed Ayub Khan out of power were able to hold themselves together only for a limited period of time, in terms of a country that has a 70-year history. But now there is evidence of voices being raised from a greater variety of places, including college and university campuses. Simply, the action taken by some academics to take up positions in public-sector universities, and by doing so reaching out to the mass of young people rather than merely the elite, is important in itself.

Of course, we will face opposition to this; of course, there will be crackdowns. Even groups such as the autonomous HRCP, that has always refused to conform to prevailing ideas, appears to be facing new threats. But if people remain adamant that change is to come, if young women and young men take forward new ideas about the manner in which society should operate, then perhaps change will come.

There is certainly a rise in the feeling of having been wronged by those who have forced specific pictures on all of us. Even the actions of young women who take up sports or other pursuits, the drama serials being aired on television which are produced with the backing of groups seeking change in society, and the rebellious vlogs and music produced by the young, even if limited to channels such as YouTube, are already having an impact. We seem to be standing at one of the most critical junctures in our history. What happens from now on will determine our future.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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