Policing women on campuses

Love is the way of life for human beings. And they love to acquire ways to express it on their own. People can’t be forcibly stopped from adopting lifestyles they like. University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, Vice Chancellor (VC) Zafar Iqbal Randhawa has simply ignored this simple reality while banning Valentine’s Day on campus.

Though appointed as head of a university dealing with research on agriculture, Randhawa has been acting like head of a body that deals with culture and religion. Valentine’s Day is to be marked on February 14 but he was so touchy about it that he announced a ban on it a month in advance.

There are multiple origin stories for the Valentine’s day, however, the UAF vice chancellor seems singularly concerned about policing interaction between male and female students on campus. He believes in a specific dress code that women are ought to follow for their protection. “Today the era of women empowerment is here, Western thinking is being promoted,” he told media, explaining his order.

Unfortunately, he is not alone in this thinking. A top ranking university in Islamabad had banned smoking for girls, while no such blanket ban was in place for boys. This gave a false impression that boys are stronger and can withstand harms of smoking while girls are weaker than them. Another university banned girls from going to all but one canteen on campus. It also ordered that a gap of at least six inches be maintained when male and female students are to sit together. No one has so far been able to explain the logic behind the six-inch distance.

Yet another university had banned two girl students from sharing hostel rooms. The list of absurdities goes on and on.

This is the state of affairs at universities that are supposed to turn out critical thinkers.

Universities in Pakistan generally lack rudimentary facilities for the specific needs of female students pertaining to public transport and healthcare among others.

Part of the job of a VC is to purge the campus of gender discrimination in such a way that female students are entitled to the same facilities as male students so that they are able to make meaningful addition to the body of knowledge. But VCs like Randhawa consolidate gender-driven social idiosyncrasies and taboos; hence, they push in the society their misplaced and unrealistic ideas. Of course, all boys and girls studying together are not, and cannot be, sisters and brothers. But Randhawa has ordered students to celebrate Sisters’ Day on the occasion of Valentine’s Day. He has also introduced a method for it – boys will give girls head scarves and veils as Sisters Day gifts. That’s it.

But the worthy VC of the agriculture university has forgotten that culture and norms are not adopted on the orders of men in authority. Valentine’s Day is globally seen as a symbol of human feelings of affection. Symbols are valued more than reality because they give a clear message while history speaks many languages. Boundaries and belief systems have never been able to confine human cultures. Randhawa and others heading our educational institutions would do well to pay attention to their immediate task: provision of quality education facilities. The students in our higher education institutions are mature adults who have been granted fundamental rights by the Constitution itself. Let them opt for themselves if they want to celebrate Valentine’s Day or not.  *

Published in Daily Times, January 18th 2019.