From Dawn Blogs
The campus of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) is famous for being a bubble environment where risqué fashion trends are explored and high-school soap operas come to life in the midst of hijab-clad women and the bearded folk from LUMS Religious Society. To an outsider visiting LUMS, or possibly visiting Pakistan for the first time, this campus might seem at first encounter like the ideal multicultural environment akin to an ancient city-state where all live in harmony with tolerance.
However, as anyone with a deeper relationship with the campus or its student body can tell you, things aren’t so rosy at LUMS. In fact, the campus often seems divided between conservative, retro-revisionists and ultra-modern, party-hopping, next-generation liberals. Recently, what was previously a silent divide, became verbose on the LUMS campus mail system following a mass message sent out by a conservative student fed up with all the on-campus indecency she’s had to deal with.
Sent on the notable date of September 11 to the ‘General Discussion Group,’ this mail with the subject line ‘To love or not to love’ was a real ’social suicide bomb.’ The mail hit the inboxes of LUMS students and exploded into a fiery debate on public displays of affection (PDA) and sleek clothing versus religious values and cultural traditions. Since its inception, the thread has branched out into several sub-discussions, and subsequent replies from charged respondents range from traditionalists and Islamic ideologists, to ‘Class A’ revisionist hippies and devout atheists – guys, girls, freshmen, seniors, class-clowns, serious academicians alike have freely expressed themselves. So much so that it has caused many LUMS students to complain about the clogged inbox resulting from the same thread.
So what exactly is in this mail that’s so inspiring and polarising? Well, the mail starts with a confessional disclaimer where the claimant says that the goings on of the last month (possibly Ramadan?) have left her no choice but to state her disgust in an open email. She denies any religious connotations of her views and claims to just be dishing out societal critique based on cultural norms. Then the mail leads into the explosive sub-heading: Public Display of Affection.
The complainant starts by pointing at freshmen and ‘some seniors’ who have to ‘seek physical consolation from the members of opposite sex many times in a day’ on campus premises and in public sight. Then she proceeds – like one would in any good paper assignment – to back her claims with examples as evidence:
Quoting few instances: (Readers’ Discretion is advised)
1) Standing at the main entrance, a girl stands on tip of her toes and kisses a boy good bye.
2) Lying in the lawn in front of the library, a boy rolls over the girl lying down beside him and remains in this posture.
3) Sitting in the academic block, a boy constantly rubs a girl’s leg, which are already half bare, with his hand inside her capris.
After doubly bolstering her claim with photographic evidence, she turns to the conflict this kind of social interaction has with her parent’s generation, and the awkwardness some LUMS students have to face when their parents witness this debacle. She also notes the ‘credibility’ of LUMS students and the institution has been put on the line by ‘aunties who spread rumors that doubt the chastity of girls studying in LUMS.’ Citing a personal example, she says even her parents were hesitant in sending her to a place with such a questionable environment.
She goes on to refute the ‘fake hypocritical’ tolerance and liberalism put forth by ‘irreligious and uncultured people’ and fiercely argues for the rights of ‘religious, cultured, and social people.’ Interestingly, she even takes the ‘us versus them’ stance at a point signifying the extent of this expansive cultural rift within this posh college campus.
Ending her diatribe against cultural degradation, she advises policy measures to be taken up by the LUMS administration and draws out rules that outline an inter-gender code of conduct on campus, outlawing on-campus PDA and idealising an innocent return to the ‘LUMS culture’ of the olden day when the lewd and the salacious used to be hidden behind closed doors and bushes.
This e-rant has generated quite the response, opening the floodgates to a debate across campus touching on topics such as freedom, liberation, censorship, social values, multiculturalism, and the clash of civilisations, all laced with witty remarks, outlandish statements, and hyper-polar opinions. Evidently, a lot of concerned LUMS students had opinions on the matter bottled up for as long as they’ve been witnessing this campus spectacle.
Like any hotly debated topic among a group of LUMS students, the debate also takes a very theoretical twist based on the current readings assigned to a given LUMS student trying to come up with an analytical response. While people have cited Plato, Max Weber, Karl Marx, Rumi, and Muhammad Iqbal, others have pointed to the flaws inherent in western schools of thought and how their adoption represents the deterioration of eastern societies.
In one of the many replies morphing content and subject, a student addresses the newly admitted, still innocent freshmen who might be unsuspecting prey to dangerous theories and philosophies:
At LUMS, you will be bombarded with all sorts of atheistic and secular philosophies and ‘isms’. If you do not have the proper knowledge and conviction about Islam, you may fall prey to the untiring efforts of certain faculty members as well as your fellow students to misguide you.
Then the respondent conveniently takes the opportunity to steer this debate into an evangelical venture by diverting traffic to his Islamic website claimed to be providing a wealth of knowledge on religion.
‘I have sinned’ says a student in reply to the guiding light of the mail illuminated above, following with an open declaration of his disbelief:
I shave twice a week and my ‘painchas’ hang obstinately below my heels. I have a penchant for ties that resemble the Christian cross and my satanic dress code is causing me to stray far far away from the straight path. During the holy month, instead of attending Koranic recitals in the mosque, I was listening to the demonic sounds of Pink Floyd.
He follows by saying that he wasn’t like this until he ‘studied under the mischievous and deviant professors’ whose deviant theories made his moral-compass go all awry.
In an interesting turn of events, the Program Coordinator also issued a reply to the thread saying that they had been waiting for the issue to arise in public discourse so that they could take note of this and forward recommendations to the administration, prompting a possible laying down of rules that would prohibit such practices which are apparently not representative of the ‘LUMS culture.’
According to LUMS students, the administration hardly ever replies to the general comments thread. Students have apparently been complaining about malfunctioning campus utilities and the lack of certain essential facilities. A student in reply to the administration email expresses shock at the fact that this is one of the top priorities on the agenda of the LUMS administration.
With the LUMS administration now apparently bent on enforcing moral values, one wonders if an air-tight shariah-imposed zone is going to be the next ‘in-thing’ in LUMS. Perhaps the government will have to step in if public lashings are suddenly going to be enforceable on LUMS girls found with non-mehrams. And with people getting so high-headed and passionate about ‘LUMS culture,’ one is left wondering what exactly this culture is, and how you define a culture. LUMS students on the social-morality mailing thread are not far from the game, however, one LUMS student professes:
As Max Weber said, all social policy- tolerance or intolerance… from more ‘tolerant’ strands of ‘multi-culturalism’ to banning of PDAs to the banning of the Hijab (France: Liberté, égalité, fraternité)- always involves a preference of some values and rejection or relegation of others- even if pretensions are held otherwise.
So what are the guidelines that are supposed to define the parameters of this inter-campus cultural construct? Isn’t LUMS somewhat of a sample population of the country’s educated upper- and middle-class youth subsections? What is the morality of these vast spanning cultural-geographic subgroups influenced by a myriad of mass-media content ranging from cultural franchise to strict traditionalism? And, more importantly, whose job is it to determine that such and such should be the social-cultural ideals that should be respected by everyone?
LUMS must decide whether it is in fact a ‘liberal’ institution. Here, liberal does not mean the promotion of some strange brand of Bollywoodised consumer-culture. Rather, LUMS should ask whether it abides to a stance of universal cultural relativism, where all cultural behavior represents a social expression, promoting a tolerance and an intermingling of discourses to promote understanding through interaction. Or is the university in fact a ‘conservative’ institution, conservative not in the sense that it promotes the fashion of beards, rubber sandals, and high-cuffed trousers, but conservative in the sense that it wants to ‘conserve’ a certain cultural aesthetic, where it wants to shelter it from outside extravagances?
If there is actually an ‘us versus them’ situation brewing in LUMS, then this is probably true for outside of LUMS also. Perhaps instead of enforcing some crudely designed dictum to the word, the administration should take this as an opportunity to encourage debate and discussion on the topic, gather opinions of those involved or affected, and let the strength of ideas stand on their own weight like any academically responsible institution should. Perhaps a democratic path to this issue could help shed some light on the broader national, cultural and political dilemma as well.
Lahore-based Asif Akhtar is interested in critical social discourse as well as the expressive facets of reactive art. He is one of the schizophrenic narrators of a graphic novel and blogs at e_scape from nowher_e.