Institutions must not be allowed to die. And if they are institutions whose primary function is to educate, it is all the more important that they be kept alive.
But on the cards is the death of a centre that has educated 12,000 women in feminism and many more who have attended its short-term workshops. Lahore’s ASR [‘impact’, in Urdu] will run out of funds in October and its executive director, Nighat Said Khan, says she will pack up if no one comes to bail the institution out.
I have attended two workshops arranged by ASR and feel that they gave me an enormous understanding of feminism and its relevance to Pakistan’s society. ASR also taught me about gender, class, egalitarianism and empowerment. If we really want to reform Pakistani society, it is time ASR’s lessons were transmitted to more people.
Set up in 1983 as a non-profit non-governmental resource centre, ASR aimed at bringing about social transformation in the country. Those were hard times, when the country was under a military dictatorship and obscurantist, retrogressive and oppressive forces ruled the roost.
Paradoxically, extremism provokes a backlash that gives a boost to moderation and progressivism — that is if the reaction takes place in a paradigm that is educated and humanist in outlook. Ziaul Haq’s black laws, the Hudood ordinances being the blackest of the lot, were directed against the female section of the population, which became the victim of misogynist injustice and discrimination. As such, the resistance came preponderantly from women.
The decades that followed spurred on activists in the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and many other like-minded NGOs. Those heady times became the heyday of ASR and its focus appeared to be on providing a conceptual and ideological underpinning to the women’s movement that was gaining strength. Other social issues were also addressed, because many of the problems women faced were rooted in structural inequalities. There were many in search of answers to basic questions and ASR was a key institution filling in the knowledge gaps through the scholarship and intellectual discourses it sponsored.
In the absence of the Internet, knowledge was transmitted through bilateral/multilateral dialectical dialogues with teachers and academics. In due course ASR felt the need to expand and the Institute of Women’s Studies Lahore was launched in 1997; this enabled formal academic programmes to be initiated. Two years later came South Asia Women for Peace, which organised programmes on women and peace, war, security and justice.
Since these involved academic activities, a library was found to be indispensable. It is now housed in the building adjacent to the centre, the like of which is difficult to find in Pakistan. It is a treasure trove of material on the social sciences, especially women-oriented literature. All mediums have been preserved: 7,000 books, 1,000 bound periodicals, 2,000 volumes of newspaper clippings and 500 reports. Additionally audio and video resourced, digitalised material and films provide a wealth of information on the women’s movement, land rights, citizenship issues, minorities and peace concerns — anything pertaining to the social sciences. A publishing house was started which has 55 publications to its credit, with five more in the pipeline.
It is incredible that no use is now felt in Pakistan for all this knowledge. The tragedy of this country is that education and the academia have been totally fragmented and have now been rendered narrowly goal-oriented. This approach is flawed.
First, it denies the learner the grounding which a broad-based and multidisciplinary academic programme in the social sciences imparts to a student. Secondly, short cuts are sought to the goal of effective performance in specified areas with a donor-driven agenda. Catering to market forces, donors do not readily subscribe to the concepts of social justice, egalitarianism, and a rights-based approach to health and education. Small wonder, then, that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing.
With so much de-emphasis on learning and volunteerism a dead letter in the country, it is not strange that ASR faces a problem in developing a younger faculty. Trained in the post-‘end of history’ era, many younger scholars do not even agree with ASR’s strategy and demand for untiring academic work.
Nighat Said Khan is an academic in the classical sense of the term: she refuses to call herself a trainer of skills. The courses she teaches demand intellectual effort and call for much reading. She feels a demand for such courses continues to exist but no one wants to spend money on it. The donors — some European governments — that were previously happily funding the programme are now losing interest. Why?
Observers point to the changed donors’ scene in Islamabad. Aid is flowing in but is now mobilised by the World Bank and channelled through a dozen or so big hand-picked NGOs, contractors and consultants. ASR finds itself on the backburner as funds for academic research and the social sciences are drying up. Should one be surprised? I would say no. A country that cannot educate its own people and wants foreign agencies to fund its education sector will be constrained to follow the piper.
The foreign donors will decide whether there should be conceptual underpinnings to the courses taught, what should be the ideological direction and whether those taking the courses be given a holistic understanding of the historical, social, economic and political forces governed by race, gender and class that have shaped the evolution of a society. ASR’s approach is innovative. Combining activism with conceptualisation, the centre tries to link theory to action and then returns to theory to modify it according to its applicability. This is a continuous process that enriches activism as well as academic disciplines.
This is something Pakistan cannot afford to lose. Even taking the women’s movement to the grassroots requires analytical tools that the discipline of women’s studies provides, as pointed out by Uma Chakravarty, an academic from New Delhi, who also takes courses at ASR. “Women should not stop reading, writing, thinking and acting” was the unanimous vote and so ASR must go on. Anyone to help?