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November 26, 2018

‘The young in Pakistan are an opportunity to be nurtured’


November 26, 2018

The second day of the first Parwaaz: Aga Khan University Congress of Student Experience saw a session titled ‘Gender Equity in University Design’, which was held at the AKUH auditorium on Saturday.

Moderated by Dr Saad Shafqat, professor of neurology, AKU, the panelists in the discussion included journalist and academic Raza Rumi, author Bina Shah and Kanza Azeemi, who is a management consultant.

Speaking on the need to focus on gender equity on and off university campuses, Rumi said the reality of patriarchy, which could be witnessed globally, must be known to understand the greater need for gender equality.

He said the universities or any other academic institution must be safe and inclusive for women. He said the responsibility to ensure this did not solely lie on the administration and faculty but also on students, and that students needed to unlearn behaviours as well.

“As we can see that more and more women are speaking up against all kinds of harassment, the time has come to show that toxic behaviours would not be tolerated anymore. Gender roles are deeply rooted in the social conditioning of all genders through family and other institutions, so those who come here must not just learn new skills but also challenge the foundations of many concepts,” he said.

Rumi also said that apart from genders, institutions must also celebrate diversity by making minorities feel welcomed and not alienated. Bina Shah felt that a lot of lip service was done in the name of gender equity, but the acceptance of the idea was yet to be seen.

Speaking about the differences used by men to consider women inferior, she said doctors who witnessed childbirth could attest if women were weaklings. “Just look at women who work in the fields plucking cotton under scorching temperatures only to go home and look after their families while their men just lie on charpoys watching television.”

Shah said the lives of Pakistani women were a battlefield where the women constantly apologise for merely existing and by constantly trying to appear acceptable to appease society and get accepted.

Referring to the numerous women who do not practise after becoming doctors, Bina said that it wasn’t because the women didn’t choose to, rather the society forced women to let go of their careers for marriages.

Kanza Azeemi spoke about her own experience in the corporate world as someone who was leading a team of 54 men in the distribution sector, an area dubbed as a male-dominated space. She said she looked for inspiration but could not find any because certain fields were yet to be tapped by women.

“There are many men who have problems with quotas and feel that whenever a woman ascends to a powerful position, it is because of her gender and not because of her merit. Due to such attitudes, even women start believing that they are not deserving of such positions. I reinstate and assure such women to believe in their skills and capabilities, and I strongly feel that universities need to incorporate these values so men learn to accept women as their leaders too,” she said.

Rumi further said that the faculty must focus on the classrooms to impart teachings which would eradicate the gender bias, and institutions must form unbiased committees to deal with cases of harassment to ensure a safe space for women and men, who could speak up against any untoward incidents.

News Desk adds: Students are at the core of every university but are often excluded from decisions on campus life, teaching and learning initiatives, and gender equity programmes, according to students, teaching faculty and public intellectuals who addressed the AKU’s three-day conference on student experience.

“Higher education is often portrayed as being a journey of discovery that is unique to each student,” said Yasira Hussain, a final-year nursing student and part of the conference’s organising committee. “But students rarely have a chance to influence what goes on around them and are often the last to know about ideas that impact the campus. We would like to encourage all higher education institutions to think of students as partners and co-creators of the university experience.”

A prominent theme at the conference was the impact of the design of academic spaces on student engagement. Haider Saleem, a medical student and student lead for the conference, highlighted the importance of open spaces on campus to bring students together.

He also noted that campuses that maximised the number of auditoriums and classrooms rarely felt welcoming to students. “Moving lectures online enables students to learn on their own time and to keep class time for engaged discussion rather than note-taking,” said Saleem. “Today’s youth has grown up in the information age and are used to getting immediate answers. That’s why multimedia facilities that display the latest updates should be at the centre of the classroom experience instead of textbooks with yesterday’s knowledge.”

Safdar Abidi, a well-known international architect who has designed a number of universities in Canada such as Ryerson University and campuses of the University of Toronto, said: “Analysis, critical thinking, collaboration and testing of ideas requires student-centered spaces where people can gather in a wide variety of configurations to jointly convert information into learning and knowledge.”

Students stated that universities could impart a truly, meaningful education by focusing on developing lively minds rather than lucrative careers. “Most universities encourage students to look outward by exposing them to the expertise of others through books, lectures and seminars that will help them in their chosen career,” said Dr Aisha Sanober, a fellow in psychiatry and a co-chair of the conference.

“A truly wholesome student experience encourages them to also look inwards and to develop their potential and character by stepping outside their comfort zone. This approach widens a student’s perspective and makes them think about how to make an impact beyond their chosen profession.”

In his keynote speech ‘Being Young in Pakistan”, Adil Najam, founding dean of the Pardee School of Global Affairs in Boston and former vice-chancellor of LUMS, also spoke about the measures needed to help students achieve their potential.

He noted that most of Pakistan’s youth lacked access to sports facilities, libraries and adequate public transport that enabled them to develop all aspects of their personality.

Najam emphasised that Pakistan’s “youth bulge” presented it with enormous opportunities as he urged decision-makers to listen to the voices of the young and to engage with them.

“The fact of the matter is that the youth of Pakistan are heard shouting so often because they do not feel that their voice is being heard,” Najam explained. “The young in Pakistan are not a problem to be solved. They are an opportunity to be nurtured. Give them three things: quality education, gainful employment and meaningful engagement and they will give you the world.”

Aimen Lakhani, an MPhil student and part of the conference organising committee, said: “Universities need to think about creating safe, inclusive spaces where all learners – regardless of their gender, age or ethnicity – can engage in interdisciplinary activities.

These activities foster teamwork, creativity, critical thinking and social responsibility and enable students to think beyond their professional goals and to focus on the big picture.” Saleem added that the longstanding emphasis on academics in higher education institutions meant that society was producing subject-experts rather than robust citizens.

“You go through university obsessed about a single statistic: your GPA,” he shared. “But in the real world you need a variety of abilities to succeed such as financial literacy, communication skills and a well-rounded personality. Students need to exit university with more than a degree; they need a student experience that prepares them to make a difference no matter what life throws at them.”

Conference Chair Dr Ayesha Mian, Dean of Students at the AKU, said: “The goal of Parwaaz was to catalyse the conversation around student experience in higher education. Students should be seen as co-creators of this crucial period of their lives and we must empower them now so that they are confident about shaping our country’s future.”

The conference consisted of a hackathon, workshops on enhancing campus experience, and a festival that saw participants interact with youth leaders and influencers to jointly design initiatives for a student-centered university experience.