Among other issues highlighted by the Student Solidarity march held on the 29th of November, the need to lift the ban on student unions that started in the Zia era was one of the main demands. The march brought many issues faced by the students studying in public and private sector universities to the forefront.
Thousands of students took to streets for the second Student Solidarity march, raising their voice against fee hikes, harassment of students, enforced disappearances and under-representation of minorities.
The overwhelming participation of students from the public sector pointed towards an issue that needs to be highlighted: the systemic silencing of public sector students, especially in universities.
According to my own personal interactions with many individuals from public and private sector universities in Lahore, I gathered that there are some critical issues that need to be addressed in both sectors. The only difference is that in private university spaces, students can still hold private protests inside university space-whereas in public universities and colleges, students are often silenced.
For instance, when the public was made aware of the Facebook group “Dankpuna at Lums” which consisted of mostly male students and alumni of LUMS-the page posted sexist and offensive memes of on campus students. In response the FEMSOC society at LUMS raised this issue to the dean of student affairs and after a detailed dialogue it was agreed that there should be gender sensitivity awareness on campus and the admin further encouraged students to address these issues.
While speaking to another female student from a private sector, all girls university-Kinnaird College, it brought to my attention that many issues concerning harassment and bullying were still left unaddressed. A final year student told me that there is a strict policy on the dress code and that it is heavily policed by the teachers; it is compulsory for females to wear a ‘dupatta’ with anything that they wear and that they are refrained from wearing tights at all cost. However, the students do not strictly follow the dress code but the policy is there and that is what makes it highly problematic.
A few head of the departments even resort to passing comments on their bodies using this policy as an excuse, leading to “fat shaming” and “slut shaming” as said by the student. She further professed her agitation about students being bullied over their body weight and expressed her concern over teachers being prejudiced and humiliating their students for not wearing dupattas. In most cases these were Islamiat study professors.
Another student from Government College, a public university, shared that there is still some sort of representation of students in private sector universities compared to the universities in the public sector.
While volunteering for the Students Solidarity march, a students from Government College stated that at the time of Aurat March, a few of the extracurricular societies, such as the Dramatics society in their university scheduled meetings or workshops at the time of the march–to make it impossible for students to participate in any such spaces that provide a platform for marginalised voices.
A professor at LUMS, teaching at the Business Institute, shared there are student committees where the students and the faculty get together and the students can raise all their concerns, related to academics and even sexual harassment. So in a way students do not feel that their voice will go unheard.
Ultimately the public sector university students do not get any space to voice their concerns.
In the private sector there are student committees and the students do not feel as hopeless as the one’s in the public sector about their voices going into oblivion. However, all female universities such as Kinnaird still have critical issues that are not taken into consideration and many students are being bullied by not only their fellow students but their teachers aswell.
The systemic silencing of students in the public sector is criminal-students have a right to have their voice heard and rights protected.