October 11, 2015
Two months ago, outrage, shock, and horror were the only words that could be used to describe the response to the news that the model Ayyan Ali had been invited to attend an event hosted by a student society at Karachi University. Given that Ayyan Ali was on bail at the time, having been accused of involvement in a case of money laundering, the university’s administration, as well as some student groups, objected to Ali’s presence on campus, arguing that it damaged the reputation of the institution. As a result, two of the students involved in inviting Ali to the university were expelled earlier this week.
There are a number of issues that can be raised with regards to Karachi University’s handling of this entire saga. For example, it illustrates the ongoing problems most universities in Pakistan continue to have with facilitating free expression and debate. Putting to one side questions pertaining to her merits as a speaker, the suggestion that Ayyan Ali should have been prevented from visiting Karachi University, or that students should not have the right to invite guests of their choosing to events held by their societies, smacks of arbitrary and unwarranted censorship. This is particularly true when considering the fact that Ali has yet to be convicted of a crime, and that she can hardly be accused of engaging in acts of speech a violent or sectarian nature that might arguably warrant restrictions on her right to speak.
The University’s punitive response to its students is also indicative of an unfortunately widespread mindset that treats adult students like children, emphasizing rigid discipline and punishment over engagement and discussion.
As has been pointed out by others writing on this issue, Karachi University’s actions this past week are all the more puzzling when considering how the institution has previously been willing to accommodate speakers with decidedly shadier backgrounds and more inflammatory opinions than Ayyan Ali’s. Furthermore, the university’s policy towards overt violence and the possession of weapons on campus seems, if anything, to be softer than its now declared opposition to celebrity guests. As such, perhaps there is some insight to be gleaned from exactly how and why Ayyan Ali’s visit became so problematic; on the day that she appeared at the University, students affiliated with the Jamaat-i-Islami picketed the event, brandishing placards (photos of which are available on the party’s Facebook page) decrying the model’s presence and stating that they wanted, ‘prosperity, not vulgarity’. When the university administration decided to expel the students who had invited Ali, it allegedly did so at the behest of an unnamed student group (no prizes for guessing who) that had been demanding strict action.
Unsurprisingly, it appears Ayyan Ali’s vilification by Karachi University, and the campaign against her by some of its students, has nothing to do with her alleged money laundering and lack of scholarly standing, and everything to do with her gender and profession. Once again, outrage in the Land of the Pure manifests itself most stridently and visibly when confronted by yet another perceived threat to the moral fabric of society. Once again, the bogey of ‘vulgarity’ has been invoked to suppress and silence a woman in the public sphere, perpetuating the ever-present insinuation that women who refuse to conform to parochial norms regarding ‘acceptable’ behavior automatically lack probity, becoming morally suspect agents of corruption possessing the capacity to fundamentally undermine society. What happened at Karachi University has more than a whiff of patriarchy about it, with a dash of misogyny thrown in for good measure.
Contrast the widespread wailing and gnashing of teeth around Ayyan Ali’s visit with the lack of outrage that has accompanied an event of immeasurably greater importance. Much has been said about the tragedy at Mina that left hundreds of pilgrims dead, and opinion from around the world concurs with the view that Saudi Arabia bears some responsibility for what happened, both in terms of presiding over a Hajj administration plagued by incompetence and inefficiency, and for continuously and insensitively refusing to offer any apologies, condolences, or even sympathy for the victims and their families. Yet, despite the fact that dozens of Pakistanis were citizens killed or are missing as a result of the stampede, the government has yet to even provide a full tally of the victims, let alone undertake comprehensive steps to help the survivors and the families of those whose loved ones were caught up in the tragedy. Indeed, the government has also been loath to permit even the most superficial and passing criticism of Saudi Arabia in this context; following the tragedy, PEMRA sent out an official directive urging the media to refrain from criticizing a ‘friendly’ state like Saudi Arabia, and the same logic was invoked by the Ministry for Religious Affairs when it called for the dismissal of a petition in the Lahore High Court that sought more information about the missing.
On television screens across the country, religious ‘scholars’ and leaders who have otherwise been at the forefront of the usual attempts to lambast the promiscuity and obscenity that they (and only they, apparently) see at every turn in Pakistan, have been left spluttering and uncharacteristically incoherent every time they have been pressed to utter a single word of criticism against their Saudi patrons. It seems clear that the outrage that is so effortlessly manufactured every time a woman bares an ankle in public seems to dissipate completely and utterly when Pakistanis are killed and callously treated in Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the outrage that has led masses of people to bay for the blood of the wrongly implicated, the disabled and those suffering from mental illness, all in the name of fighting terrorism, seems to suddenly disappear when it comes to Mumtaz Qadri, whose possible execution has unearthed previously unknown reserves of mercy and opposition to capital punishment.
There is something inherently disturbing about a worldview that fixates on the female form as an existential threat to society while simultaneously ignoring acts of extreme injustice and cruelty that leave people dead and families shattered. There is something ugly going on when children are ‘convicted’ of terrorism and hanged amidst rapturous applause while killers who publicly and unabashedly admit to their crimes are feted and celebrated in the name of religion. That Pakistan is home to contradictory attitudes and opinions is not surprising; what is more disconcerting is what our selective outrage continues to tell us about ourselves.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS