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Of moral policing on campus

Taj Nabi Khan

LOOKING at the pattern of notifications issued over the years by different varsities of the country makes manifestation of the fact that moral policing is ruling the roost – most of the universities of the country have placed restrictions on choice of female dress in their campuses. The recent event demonstrated that the trend is thriving as the University of Agriculture Faisalabad (UAF) has celebrated “Sisters’ Day” on February 14 by rebranding the ‘Valentine Day’. On the day, the university had distributed gifts of scarves and abayahs among the female students for promoting “eastern culture and Islamic tradition among the youth”. The February 14— traditionally celebrated as ‘Valentine Day’ all over the world — has been a subject of controversy in Pakistan for years, drawing a mixed response from citizens, with some celebrating and supporting it but others protesting against it. Like previous years, this year too, an amusing controversy has emerged after the UAF’s decision to celebrate it as ‘Sister’s’ Day’.
On social media, many have rejected the idea by saying that ‘Sister Day’ is more synonymous with Hindu festival of Raksha Bandhan, in which brothers vow to protect their sisters. Some of them have said that if the university is so concerned about the sisters, why don’t it pledges to work in allowing them to inherit equally in property. Others have said that the move is completely irrational by arguing that celebrating ‘Sister’s Day’ won’t stop people from doing what they want to do and creating an opposite event to the existing one will only increase its value. Another tweet raised the question that why the varsity can’t just gift them some money and let them decide whatever they want to buy. Some even tried to make the situation light by saying that ‘Sisters Day’ is a brilliant idea as who doesn’t want a new pair of abaya and scarf!? However, would that be possible to get and choose the colour and style? What if they get the wrong size? What about return and exchange policies? Will it be rude to forward it to a friend who actually wears it?
Nevertheless, this was not something new on part of the UAF to share the novel idea of serving the modest dressings among its female students. During the last few years, several other universities have also come up with a range of unique and innovative ideas focusing more on appearance of female students than the actual pursuit of academic excellence. Firstly, the Chief Proctor of the University of Swat issued a notification, barring all male and female students from sitting or walking together within the campuses or outside the campuses. Secondly, the Bahria University has said in a notification that male and female students to maintain a distance of six inches when together. Thirdly, the International Islamic University, Islamabad has issued a notification pertaining to ‘decent’ dress code on the campus that prohibit women from wearing deep necks, sleeveless, skinny jeans, tights, capri pants, makeup, heavy jewellery and high heels. Likewise, the MAJU, Iqra University, NUST, NUML, IoBM, Textile University in Faisalabad and Hyderabad’s Isra University have also issued more or less similar notifications to police the attire of female students in the campus. It is beyond understanding that how can in co-education environment students can avoid to sit together or how one can measure and maintain 6-inch distance. Most of the students were also found unhappy with the notifications of dress code by complaining that the university was enforcing a dress code which curbs the liberty of students in choice of dressing. Around the world, universities act as platforms for character-building and stimulating critical thinking abilities of students by preparing them for a world beyond the campus. Don’t you think the university students are mature enough to live their lives as per their choice – learning social interaction with the students of opposite gender, as in practical life, they have to work in mixed environment (male-female together). But it seems as if most universities in the country are treating students more like school children.
Likewise, most of the students coming from diverse backgrounds of religion, tradition and culture while representing unique peculiarities of their areas are also not feeling comfortable in an environment of so many restrictions. The argument of discipline is not correct one as most of the students in co-education universities are already conscious about their personality and dressing. For example, putting ban on “stylish sunglasses” and designer caps, t-shirts or any clothes carrying emblems, letters, art of slogans and pictures printed on them – the universities have exposed themselves to mockery. If the administrations of the institutions are truly concerned about their image, they should clearly lay-out and enforce policies against gender discrimination and sexual harassment on their campuses. Let the parents care about what the students are wearing. The need for a university to impose rules that only reinforce the culture of moral policing is quite saddening. It only feeds to the already conservative patriarchal society, acting as a hurdle to a progressive academic culture. It is hoped that universities would eventually focus on innovations, researches and quality education as an environment conducive to the development of free and independent thought which is one of the cornerstones of a meaningful university experience.
— The writer is freelance columnist, based in Islamabad.