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October 1, 2020

Kids on the street

Opinion

October 1, 2020

We have a situation where men who claim piety speak out on all kinds of issues that should not involve them at all. Yet they remain silent when an incident of assault against a woman, boy or girl takes place in one of our cities, towns or villages.

It is therefore incredibly heartening to see people, in fact mere children, take to the streets to protest such outrages. This is especially true since at least six to seven such crimes take place each day in our land, despite the fact that we like to call ourselves pure and pious.

Pakistan has a high consumption of child pornography. There have been incidents like those reported again and again from Kasur. The worst of several major crimes involving children took place here in 2015, and still leaves behind unsolved aspects. The monitoring organization Sahil reports thousands of cases of child molestation each year.

Yet the hashtags that appear on social media begin to vanish within months or even weeks. Remarks such as those from the Lahore police chief about the woman assaulted on the motorway are far more common on every forum. The same senior law enforcer is now trying to convince us that the young woman who suffered the horrendous gang-rape had left Lahore without her husband's permission.

That is why the young boys, some girls and even school children who came out on the streets of Mansehra to protest the violent rape of a four-year-old girl who nearly died is so worthy of our attention and praise. The incident has received very little coverage on mainstream media.

Astonishingly, apparently, our law enforcers saw the peaceful protest by the few hundred college and school boys as a bigger threat to order than the kidnapping and assault of a small girl. And our fear of young people on the street showed up once again, just as it has in the past, when students drawing attention to various issues were dealt with through brutal force in Karachi, Lahore and other places. Clearly, the authorities that run the country are fearful of the younger generation and it’s determination to alter society.

Children aged merely 14 or 15 years old, alongside those a few years older have taken upon themselves a responsibility that should belong to adults. They have moved beyond WhatsApp and Twitter and out into the real world. In doing so, they have provided a small glimmer of hope. This first flame is important. It can lead to other places.

It is true that our younger generation, raised by parents who themselves survived the darkness of the Zia years by choosing to conform and accept the orthodox narrative thrust upon them, have largely imparted the same values and patterns of thinking to their children. We can see that everywhere. In the manner in which women are attacked and demonised over social media even by political leaders and in the continued obsession with religion which exceeds that seen in almost every other Muslim country. We have long ago abandoned Sufi traditions of tolerance and harmony, and engrained the dangerous lessons of the 1980s which taught us to obey but not to think. Assisted by schools and textbooks and exam systems as well as by parents, our children continue to follow this pattern.

But there are those who have broken away. These young people, from all kinds of class backgrounds have somehow learned to think, even in our stifling environment. It is these individuals, who like the ill-fated Mashal Khan, try to persuade others to reason and to use their voices for the sake of those who have been wronged in some way. It is also young people like these who march in demand of the right to form student associations and organisations that can collectively fight for students and for campuses to become places where everyone is able to make their opinions known without restrictions or barriers. We know that around the world students and young people have single-handedly changed the places where they live, but also the wider world. Greta Thunberg is an example. Malala Yousafzai is of course another. At the Aurat March each year dozens of young people walk to seek equal rights for women in society.

On YouTube and other forums in our country, some of which have been set up by young people themselves, singers, writers, public speakers and news show hosts broadcast content that breaks away from the norm. It is due to them that we now have at least some discussion on matters such as incest or even child abuse. For their parents and grandparents, who watched a single state-controlled television channel populated by unsmiling anchors this is a distinct change.

As the school and college students in Mansehra demonstrated, we do not stand all that far away from change. If the new single curriculum being planned by the government helped open up for children a vision of what a new order could be like, this would be a huge contribution towards building a different future for a country that sometimes seems to have none at all.

Many of us speak only of even greater darkness lying ahead. But we should not forget there are young people who could change this very easily – especially if they are equipped with the role models and tools that they need in the form of people to emulate and and material to read or view. What happened in a relatively small, conservative town, in a place without any encouragement and with open opposition from the authorities, is important. We should consider what could happen if there was greater support from persons in positions of power and a wider realization that change is essential.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]