Protesting and Persisting


*Originally published in The News:

On the 4th of October 2015, the Democratic Students’ Alliance, an organization of left-leaning students, called for a protest in Lahore against the ban on student unions in Pakistan.

The protest was attended by students belonging to various chapters of DSA including LUMS, Government College University, Forman Christian College, Punjab University and Beaconhouse National University. They were also joined by young activists belonging to the Awami Workers’ Party, the Progressive Youth Alliance and Ali Aftab Saeed who came to show their support. The protest was one of the many follow-ups planned by DSA for their plea sent to the Chief Justice in August 2015 to take notice of the student union ban.

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Participating in this protest spurred a number of observations regarding the protest culture in Pakistan which require emphasis in view of public protest and assembly as two rights critical to any democratic dispensation.

One of the most important demands spelt by the situation in Pakistan today pertains to the idea of independent mobilization, divorced from politicization relating to political parties but not political issues, and the need for it to take root in Pakistan. And it is vital for any culture of civil society action here to be based on the belief that any ordinary, concerned person can independently take initiative both as his right and duty as a citizen of the state. The recent protests and rallies taken out by parents against a hike in fees of private schools and their success should only provide impetus to the idea of civil society organization and action operating within the scope of democratic liberties.

This particularly resonates when kept in view of the late Eric Hobsbawm’s emphasis: “Depoliticization of a great mass of citizens is a serious danger, because it could lead to their mobilization completely outside the modus operandi of all kinds of democratic politics.”

12122419_717662808377532_6688324537418922797_nThis is especially crucial for the youth in Pakistan, which forms a population bulge today and is increasingly faced with prospects of a future which appear bleak at best, that they know they can negotiate their present and future within the realm of democratic rights, expressions and possibilities.

However, for students several strands of difficulty confront them regarding the issue of mobilisation and action; one of which is the education vs. activism binary that pronounces an engagement in activism as a denouncement of commitment to education. In his book on Eqbal Ahmad, Stuart Schaar mentions that Ahmad argued in 1992: “The educational purpose is truly well-served when students are helped to develop a moral outlook…when they know that a primary purpose of learning is to elevate the quality not merely of one’s personal and family life but of the social environment.” And as an expression of awareness and action, student mobilization clearly complements the essence of education. This is a fact evidenced by numerous student movements which have dotted global histories including Pakistan’s, where students have constantly stood up since the very beginning; from the creation of the country, against Ayub’s ‘Decade of Decadence’, Zia-ul-Haq’s regime to Musharraf’s rule.

But the reason for this is association of activism with a lack of commitment to education also owes itself to the predominant attitude towards activism in Pakistan, which is not just of apathy but also of antipathy; seeing activism and civil society mobilization as futile activities that will yield nothing. Personal detachment from activism is coupled with looking down on those who are engaged in it. It is perhaps the prevalence of this mindset that has acquiesced with the deplorable conditions in Pakistan which have been perpetuated regimes after regime relying on public inaction as a prop to their own indifference regarding the country.

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Yet this perception towards protests and activism has been heightened and expanded into one that also demonizes them, while completely disregarding Pakistan’s rich history relating to them, as foreign cultural imports lapped up by the godless and west-loving ‘liberals’. Creative methods of keeping the people engaged, such as music, during events of protests and activisms are especially frowned upon in the country. Everyday Rebellion, a documentary ‘about creative forms of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience worldwide’, which was screened at the Karama Human Rights Film Festival 2015 in Gaza does much to particularly throw light on this aspect as not only something that is organic during moments of mobilization but often also critical to their success in sustaining the spirit of collective solidarity, action and unity.

However, a most alarming aspect related to the larger perception of activism and protests in Pakistan is the scandalization of female participation in them. This was a phenomenon that became notoriously prominent in the spate of attacks hurled at Imran Khan’s dharna last year, which disagreements aside, must be lauded for having created, encouraged and welcomed space for women. In a country where a woman is discouraged from having opinions of her own by society, their expression and demonstration in public spaces will naturally be a cultural anomaly to be condemned. This scandalization is but a part of the larger problem women here face regarding public spaces and places, which are designated as alien territories for women in which their presence and visibility are cultural anomalies. But for any culture of mobilization, protest and action to thrive to the benefit of progressive changes in Pakistan, the normalization and acceptance of female participation is imperative.

During the DSA protest we began clapping to provide greater rhythm to our chants and slogans and it was during this that two men on a motorcycle construing the act as some sort of celebration jokingly commented “anday sastay hogaye hain?”. But if this mobilization, scant for now, and collective expression of consciousness and conscience persists and grows as both a right and duty as citizens of a state, who knows, someday we might really be clapping for having achieved greater affordability of basic necessities of life for ordinary people, and of course, sastay anday.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

From Fascination To Inspiration : What Tunisia’s Revolt Signifies & Teaches Us



 
Seldom does the world get to witness nations standing up to take hold of their country from tyrannical heads and their atrocious hands.

Recently it did, watching in fascination as Tunisians came out on the streets to revolt against the corrupt and autocratic government of Ben Ali, their President in power since 1987.
 


What eventuated this uprising in opposition of unemployment, inflation and for civil liberties that lead to Ben Ali absconding the country just after 29 days of unrest as a young, jobless man Muhammad Bouazizi.
 
International Business Times writes about him under the title  ‘The Story of Mohammed Bouazizi, The Man Who Toppled Tunisia’ :
 
“Mohamed Bouazizi was a 26-year-old Tunisian with a computer science degree.

Like millions of angry and desperate Tunisians, he faced the unpleasant combination of poor employment prospects and food inflation. Moreover, the Tunisian government was seen as corrupt and authoritarian.
By December 17, resentment against authorities has been brewing for a while.
To make ends meet, the unemployed Bouazizi sold fruits and vegetables from a cart in his rural town of Sidi Bouzid, located 160 miles from the country’s capital Tunis. He did not have a license to sell, but it was his sole source of income.

On December 17, authorities confiscated his produce and allegedly slapped his face.
Bouazizi became incensed.
                                                                                                                                                          

He then drenched himself in gasoline and set himself on fire outside the governor’s office. Bouazizi survived his initial suicide attempt. After being transported to a hospital near Tunis, he was visited by President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali before passing away on January 4.

 

 

After his suicide attempt, unrest broke out in Sidi Bouzid. The police cracked down on the protestors, which only fueled the movement. The revolt eventually spread to the capital city.”
 
For decades, many a nations under totalitarian regimes have eagerly fancied the idea of a revolution – waiting for the ‘right time’ and a leader to take them forward to actualize it but Tunisians have shown that when it comes to taking back the ownership of their country, no nation needs a leader rather their actions have asserted the reality that nations are their own leaders.
 
Those who had been following the unfolding of events in the Arab country since December had their thoughts about the marches, protests and riots dangling between doubts over their success yet the citizens of Tunisia proved that it is people like them who deserve a country and freedom – for they value and fight for it and in the end, the power and will of the people is what will always surface to reign high.


 
Award-winning columnist and an international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues, Mona El-Tahawy has penned-down a notable piece on the happening in The Washington Post:
                                                                                                                                                              

For decades, a host of Arab dictators have justified their endless terms in office by pointing to Islamists waiting in the wings. Having both inflated the egos and power of Islamists and scared Western allies into accepting stability over democracy, those leaders were left to comfortably sweep “elections.”
                                                                                                                                                      

Ben Ali was elected to a fifth term with 89.62 percent of the vote in 2009.


All around him is a depressingly familiar pattern. Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi (68 years old) has been in power since 1969; Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh (64) has ruled since 1978 and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (82) since 1981. Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika (73) is a relative newcomer, having been in power only since 1999. Not so much fathers as grandfathers of their nations, these autocrats cling to office – and are increasingly out of touch with their young populaces.

No doubt, every Arab leader has watched Tunisia’s revolt in fear while citizens across the Arab world watch in solidarity, elated at that rarity: open revolution.”

This is not only a matter of much relevance and significance for Arabs but also countries like Pakistan, which today staggers towards the precipice of danger finding it hard to balance the burden of terrorism, inflation, poverty, rife corruption, institutional dysfunctions etc – hoisted on its back by years of military rule and political tug of wars for control of the state.
                                                                                                                                                           

One hopes that the result of the Tunisian rebellion and revolt is a domino effect. Are Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Syria or Pakistan next? After all, the nations of these countries do possess simmering feelings of frustration and have been forced to swallow too many bitter pills over the years.
                                                                                                                                                              

Every population is as capable as that of Tunisia to kick start a movement of dissent yet what most of them lack currently is the will, unity and valor of the Tunisians to exercise this, for which they must be saluted.
  
An Egyptian friend and youth pertinently comments on the whole situation:
                                                                                                                                                             

All we lack is the start. What started it in Tunisia is one of the most commonly incidents that you can see daily, a simple man burning himself up protesting for being unemployed, which led to one of the biggest protests in the Tunisian history…

We also need to realize that its our own countries not theirs (rulers), so every right in these countries is ours, not them being so ‘kind’ giving them to us. We should be the feared side.

While it may be too soon or facile to term this revolt a complete success, it has come to symbolize what can be labeled as an inspiration for countless countries and future order of events.
 

 Vive Le Tunisia!

 

– Hafsa Khawaja