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November 2, 2018

Let them dance


November 2, 2018

The vitriol and vilification spewed through social media against female students of Karakoram International University (KIU) for performing a local dance in the morning show of a private TV channel is alarming.

This week, moral crusaders on social media were full of filth against those students who were nominated for the morning show by the KIU management. The more disturbing fact of this episode is about the KUI administration jumping into the fray and condemning the dance as if these girls had committed an unforgiveable sin.

The KIU administration, the local government, religious extremists and political forums, such the Awami Action Committee, joined hands in a venomous campaign to turn a simple dance performance into a sacrilegious act to jeopardise our faith and culture. The desperate followers of a misogynistic culture are perhaps fighting a last-ditch battle in the face of a rapidly emerging global culture beyond religious and geographical boundaries.

Having said that, this form of desperation has its own dangers of squeezing secular and progressive spaces, with a possible outcome of stifling sane voices. The officials of the KIU administration, religious institutions and hate-mongers left no stone unturned to vilify students who didn’t know that their passion to represent Gilgit-Baltistan would turn into a life-threatening situation for them.

We can expect this from bigots and moral goons in this land of the pure. But when institutions of higher education condemn creativity and the performing arts as immoral acts, we are destined to be a failed nation. This indicates our imminent downfall where the impending dark ages are knocking at our doors. I hope HEC Chairperson Dr Tariq Banuri will take notice of the partisan role of the KIU to appease the dark forces of our society.

The good news is that members of the Accountability Forum along with a number of civil society activists have shown interest in taking legal and political action against the vilification of these KIU students. What has gone wrong with our society? We must come up with a cogent explanation to address the menace of staggering extremism and cultural chauvinism.

There are various interpretations of the increasing intolerance and polarisation in society, but one particular reductionist brand of thinking holds sways on social media. The liberal supporters of dance reduce the debate only to an act of individual choice rather than the representation of a particular culture.

There is another brand of thinkers – cultural revivalists – who have asserted that meaningful substance rather than mere symbolism, like dance, embodies cultures. They point towards deep-rooted social issues, accumulated frustrations, and the melting-down of cohesive bonds of traditions, culture and social imagery without producing a viable alternative to sublimate the sense of lost glory. This interpretation tends to promote some nostalgic fantasies of a golden age of cultural purity and an unrealistic worldview of reversion to some magnificent past.

Even highly educated middle-class intellectuals propagate such cyclical views, which inadvertently give legitimacy to actions directed to impose a strict regime of a puritan and unadulterated culture. This cultural orthodoxy attracts a vast majority of disgruntled educated youth in GB. These young people are in search of an identity in the face of failing political and economic institutions, and a weak and docile civil society that doesn’t represent their aspirations. These two perspectives present only half-truths about increasing cultural chauvinism and patriarchy. What follows perhaps makes more sense of our dismal state of affairs, but I leave it to the reader to decide. .

The closet tribalism and moral piety make a deadly combination in holding back the natural progression of human societies. The historical trajectory upon which social evolution, traditions and human intellect intersect isn’t a smooth confluence of multiple perspectives or pluralistic ideals. It is always confusing, vague, uncertain and unpredictable as long as the agents of this change are disengaged from the very historical process of the advancement of human society.

Keeping the agents of change disengaged and marginalising transformative potential is the most commonly used tool of the forces of the status quo. There has always been conflict between competing ideologies and material interests to expand and shrink the spaces of expression in human society. The victor imposes order and the vanquished ones simply comply with it till they rise again.

Contrary to cyclical views, there are always strong material reasons like economic inequality, social injustice, unequal resource distribution, political victimisation, and lack of access to basic needs that lead to social conflict and political turmoil. When the fissures of divisions widen and political faultlines become prominent, they indicate an impending social conflict and political upheavals to produce a qualitatively new order.

The forces of the status quo strive to preempt and diffuse the likelihood of conflict by diverting it from real issues to some parochial, superficial and moral matters of mundane life. Social backwardness is a great bounty because it allows politically and intellectually uncontested control over the economic, social and cultural lives of people.

All that is needed is to foment tribal and religious sentiments against those who can potentially challenge the very foundations of traditional power and its cultural and moral facade. The moral police of tribal and religious piety strive to consolidate their power by reasserting their authority as custodians of culture and faith.

Beneath this moral façade there lies the struggle between the crumbling old system and an emerging new reality, which manifests itself in the form of social and political conflicts for alternatives. The emerging new reality has to undergo the travails of the birth of a new system, but the old isn’t supplanted without the reconstitution of social, political and economic relations.

The history of social conflicts is not only about the difference of viewpoints, as the proponents of pluralism would have us believe, but it is also about a constant struggle to control the social and political spaces of expression. The suppression, oppression, assertion and expression of certain worldviews is part of a larger historical process that shapes human society as a domain of the permanent struggle of competing interests for supremacy. The disruption of order isn’t negative. It is the vital force of social and political transformation for the advancement of human civilisation.

This is exactly what is going on in rapidly transitioning societies like Gilgit-Baltistan where the fraying of traditional social fabric is producing the possibility of an advanced socio-cultural order. But the question that arises is: whose culture matters? Is it a stagnant set of customs and practices or is it a dynamic and changing societal domain of creativity and progress? Those who dare to deviate from this imposition of morality and social norms are stigmatised as anarchists, anti-culture, anti-religion, etc.

The social venues of self-expression are reduced to officially permissible and morally appropriate spaces, which exclude women from participating in social, cultural, economic and political life as equal partners of men. The exclusion of women is not only an intrigue by some well-poised men at the helm of affairs, but it is also an accumulated social and political consciousness cultivated through the institutions that shape our social life.

Do we really care about the preservation of culture and tradition or it is about controlling the social space of expression? What is culture and who is authorised to define its social and political contours? These are some tough questions that we must ask today. To me, defending these young students is not only a matter of individual choice, but it is also about defending my own social space of expression.

The writer is a senior socialdevelopment and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AmirHussain76

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