Written on International Women’s Day, this op-ed piece is essentially a notice of the round-table discussion at which the newly-established ‘Pakistan Women’s Coalition against Extremism’ launched its activities two days earlier in Islamabad. The event challenged several academics from universities and the Coalition members from all provinces of Pakistan to define a shared interface of theoretical and activist opposition to intolerance, extremism and violence in the Pakistani body politic.
The interaction was a welcome reiteration of the fact that the state cannot fight this growing menace alone. There are very good reasons why the women of Pakistan should assert a particular interest in and commitment to the struggle against intolerance and extremism. Women are historically liable to be the major victims of conflicts. The violence that accompanied the fragmentation of Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda is not the only example in recent history of women being targeted in a sordid strategy to demoralise and terrorise a rival community. Ironically, the armies that made great sacrifices to defeat the evil of fascism in 1945 were, in some cases, tarnished by staggering crimes against the women of the vanquished enemies. Again, in the post-war world, women have continued to be a disproportionately large component of large swathes of people uprooted and displaced by internal and externally imposed conflicts.
Pakistan’s own experience illustrates that women suffer grievously not just because of inter-state wars. The dice gets heavily loaded against them by an exacerbation of internal societal contestations, a darkening of ideological, religious and ethnic passions. Insecurities generated by increasing encounters with modernity and its post-modern sequel have exacerbated gender-based biases; there are few categories of social change that are resisted so vociferously as women’s emancipation. This, alone, justifies their mobilisation though the larger interest of society also warrants that they act not merely to enhance self-protection but also to become an instrument of progress across the board. Women have a crucial role to play in promoting social harmony and in building peace across national frontiers.
Asked to wind up the debate at this first round-table of the Coalition, I felt a trifle disappointed by flawed communication –– between the activists and academics –– that visibly led to the latter holding back spontaneous cooperation in devising a framework of understanding and a shared public discourse to meet an otherwise well-defined challenge. One of the possible reasons for this seeming disconnect is the trajectory followed by the perceived purposes of the seats of higher learning in Pakistan. In the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of a university was shaped in no small a measure by a larger paradigm of social responsibility. This was partly rooted in the momentum of the South Asian independence movements and partly in the prevailing anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and assorted left-of-the centre ideas of social engineering. In literature and arts, the ethos of the Progressive Writers Movement coloured the emerging patterns of thought.
Scared alike, the state and its newly found foreign partners in military alliances acted to contain the trend favouring social engagement. Colleges and universities were incrementally depoliticised through coercive measures and inducements. In arts, social realism lost its pre-eminence. Several ardent leftist intellectuals journeyed to an equally strong commitment to the U.S-led western projects. The vacant space was often taken up by quasi-religious student organisations that could count on support from the state and outside powers, at least till 9/11. The senior common room faced threats to jobs and advancement and was no less potently seduced by the siren call of foreign scholarships, travel grants and conferences. There were honourable exceptions where academics continued to apply their knowledge to social and political issues but the main new trend was to leave the task to the lesser beings in NGOs, media analysis and advocacy groups. More than one academic voice at the roundtable meeting seemed to come from the loftiness of an ivory tower.
There is a vast agenda for orderly change but a preliminary need is for a coalition to strengthen the constituency. On one hand, to rid Pakistan of its bad laws and conventions such as the blasphemy law, the laws skewed against minorities, the tribal practises against women, and on the other hand, to devise affirmative action to empower disadvantaged groups. A proactively engaged academic community can make an outstanding contribution to this two-tier task, especially by tapping into critical support from concerned students.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 12th, 2012.