Harassment and marginalisation of women is a touchy topic in Pakistan, let alone the country’s academic circles. We discover how two young students are taking the issue head on.
All Mohiba wanted to do the first time she walked through the gates of Government College University was to study literature at one of the most prestigious institutes in the country. After all, it happens to be the seat of learning for revered Ravians like Patras Bukhari, Faiz Ahmd Faiz, Wasif Ali Wasif, Ashfaq Ahmed, Sufi Tabassum and Allama Muhammad Iqbal, all giants of occupations they engaged themselves in. But little did she know that experiences during study circles in Shahab Garden and observations in the brick-lined corridors of the Main Block would lead her to a profound societal disease she thought GCU’s studious air had not been plagued by.
Mohiba was first exposed to issues of on-campus harassment of female students during one of the numerous study circles she has been a keen participant of. “There were a number study groups being organised, but they were always dominated by boys. Girls hardly got a chance to express their views. It was then that we decided to form a study circle exclusively for female students where they could speak their mind and gain confidence to voice their opinions,” says Mohiba Ahmed, who is pursuing an English literature bachelors at GCU.
But the study circle that was to provide confidence to girls soon turned into a confidant of sorts, as participants started opening up about experiences of on-campus harassment during their sessions. The deliberation during these sessions unearthed how several girls had been subject to routine cat-calling and discomforting behaviour on part of some boys enrolled at the varsity.
It was time to put things into order. Mohiba and about 15 other girls joined hands to stand up for each other. Collectively, they complained to the administration about harassment of girls by some misguided students. An inquiry was initiated and the GCU administration eventually expelled the male students involved in marring the university’s otherwise peaceful environment. GCU’s prompt action was a befitting reply to those who thought they could get away with impudence and disrespect towards females, and one that was worthy of a premier educational institute working diligently for the cause of education for well over a century.
United They Stand
It was a great win for Mohiba and her trusted friend Maria Arshad, also a GCU student, and together they were moved enough to lay the foundations for Womens’ Collective – a support group devoted to protecting vulnerable girls from harassment inside the varsity. According to Maria, silence is a major part of the harassment problem. “Nobody talks about it. There is a complete lack of awareness. Many girls suffer harassment and are treated marginally on basis of gender, but they do not realise that such prejudiced treatment and harassment is neither normal, nor acceptable,” she opines.
The Department of Psychology student says some teachers she interacted with over the course of her student life also thought little of female students. “During a lecture once, a teacher only explained a concept to boys sitting in the class, saying it was for those who ‘had the time to think and understand it’ and girls were just ‘going to get married’.”
Statements as such are just enough to shatter the confidence of many girls and reinforce the stereotypical intellectual boundaries defined for women in Pakistan. Many women in Pakistan who head out of home for study or work often face resistance to their pursuits from some of the closest family members, even in this age. To add fuel to fire, statements like Maria’s instructor’s in an educational setting supposed to open minds only reiterate the limitations many uninformed souls think women’s potential has.
Mohiba and Maria – and Women’s Collective – are on and about to empower fellow girls and help them realise the possibilities. “Women’s Collective is striving to help girls deal with harassment, marginalization and biased treatment on campus,” Maria adds. “So far, we have tried to give courage to our friends in the collective. We have arranged Women’s Week at GCU, several seminars, talks and meetings to counteract the unhealthy environment, which seeks to marginalize women over petty issues.” They add that the support they received from fellow students, as well as the varsity administration has been encouraging.
Since its inception, the group has organised several study circles, seminars, talks, panel discussions and lectures at GCU focusing on the rights and responsibilities of women and their importance for true progress of the Pakistani society. Members also arranged a peaceful protest outside the Punjab Assembly recently against the rising violence and extremism on university campuses following the January clashes at Punjab University.
The girls’ sheer will to give voice to girls at universities has won them many friends. They are spreading the word about their activities to other institutions, social and institutional groups, journalists, lawyers, teachers, and psychologists and the response has been welcoming. They now have chapters in other institutions such as Punjab University, Kinnaird College and FAST to name a few. “We are trying to ensure our presence at every campus,” Maria says that with a resolve. “Apart from spreading awareness, we are also contacting mental health specialists who can help girls overcome the agony and trauma of harassment and return to normal activities.”
So does this progressive movement to win rights for women at universities has an intellectual source? Mohiba says it does indeed. “Our collective is progressive and employs leftist readings to understand and analyze various social problems. We incorporate the socialist framework to understand the ground realities of our society. But we also invite Islamic scholars and doctors to talk about Islamic feminism.”
Both Mohiba and Maria reckon that women must not be seen separate from rest of the society. “We are trying to connect the problems of women with every relevant political issue. Every social problem and political issue is as relevant for women as it is for men,” the two agree.
We do too. But it might be a long battle before the few that do not also understand the importance of women and their value to a society. Until then, Godspeed, girls.