by Claire Chambers
The current volatile state of global higher education raises urgent questions. Student protests broke out at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, in March 2015. These demonstrations initially called to remove the statue of the racist imperialist Cecil Rhodes from campus.
As Rachael Gilmour explains, the ejection of Rhodes's statue was rapidly achieved. Then a broader student protest movement spread across universities in South Africa under the banners of #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall. Led, in large part, by an inspiring cohort of young black women activists and feminists, the movements aim to decolonize teaching methods and recruitment. Their influence is being felt outside South Africa in the #RhodesMustFall campaign at Oxford University in the UK, and on US university campuses such as UC Berkeley.
Similarly, in the United States and beyond, Black Lives Matter is gaining traction. It combats systematic racism and discrimination as well as police killings of black people. The movement emerged in response to the lack of justice for the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin. There has been a vicious backlash against the group around the slogan “All Lives Matter,” whose participants attempt to paint Black Lives Matter as violent Marxists.
This July Patricia Leary, a professor at Whittier Law School, wrote an incisive rejoinder to a student letter criticizing her decision to wear a Black Lives Matter t-shirt on campus. In this reply, Leary dismantles the assumption that the motto “Black Lives Matter” is preceded by a silent “only”:
There are some implicit words that precede “Black Lives Matter,” and they go something like this:
Because of the brutalizing and killing of black people at the hands of the police and the indifference of society in general and the criminal justice system in particular, it is important that we say that…
This is, of course, far too long to fit on a shirt.
In India, Narendra Modi's BJP government has taken an increasingly sadistic stance towards artists, intellectuals, dissenters, and minorities. The killing of activists and writers Govind Pansare and Professor M. M. Kalburgi in 2015 led to many authors returning awards in protest.
At the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, a Dalit study circle was banned in May 2015. Earlier this year Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, took his life. Vemula had been stripped of his stipend as punishment for demonstrating against governmental reprisals for the 1993 Mumbai bombings.
Finally, the BJP pursued Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and its proud tradition of radical scholarship. In February 2016, several JNU students were arrested and beaten for holding a meeting to mark the third anniversary of the death penalty accorded to Kashmiri Mohammed Afzal Guru, accused of the Indian Parliament attacks.
Some commentators compare this situation to Mrs Gandhi's dictatorial mid-1970s Emergency. Arundhati Roy writes of the BJP's “instinctive hostility towards intellectual activity.” The BJP's flinging around of the terms “anti-national” and “sedition” stifles critique and is reminiscent of 1950s McCarthyism, or the way the Blasphemy Laws are used to settle vendettas in present-day Pakistan.
Over here, British-Pakistani feminist theorist Sara Ahmed resigned her professorship at Goldsmiths, University of London, in June because of the thorny issue of sexual harassment. Rather than seeing her move as passivity – resigning and therefore being resigned to the status quo – she urged people to view it as “an act of feminist protest and an act of feminist self-care.” Ahmed claims that sexual misconduct is “normalized and generalized,” when it is actually an institutional problem. She describes the silence that envelops sexual harassment in higher education, especially as most cases end with confidentiality clauses. Yet Ahmed argues that speaking out against the issue and building up an archive of evidence is crucial. At the time of writing this article, Ahmed's position that sexual harassment is endemic in academia was fortified by the case of media studies lecturer Lee Salter. He was convicted of beating, stamping on, and throwing salt at his student girlfriend Allison Smith. And yet his employer, the University of Sussex, did not see fit to suspend him from work until the media furore apparently forced the institution's hand.
Following what appears to have been a failed coup attempt against President Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has entered a three-month state of emergency with a drastic impact on academia. Lecturers and researchers are currently prohibited from leaving the country and their annual leave has been cancelled. Over a thousand university staff members have been made to resign in Erdogan's purges, and more expect to be forced out in the coming months.
In 2014, Mushtaq Bilal, author of Writing Pakistan, wrote an article for Dawn entitled “Of Doctors and Quacks.” In it he lambasted Pakistani universities' postgraduate provision, lack of critical thinking and paucity of genuine research. Fearing reprisals from his university, he published the piece under a pseudonym.
Bilal's broader point is that in Pakistani scholarship (and society at large) there is little freedom of expression or thought. Protests such as those described earlier do not even get off the ground in Pakistan. Thinking back to Professor Leary's Black Lives Matter t-shirt controversy, many universities in Pakistan police what is worn by students through dress codes. At Bahria University, for example, male students are never supposed to wear sandals and rarely shalwar kameez, while women must wear scarves and only “light” makeup. These rules are not always enforced at Bahria, but there was outcry a few years ago when security staff at the National University of Modern Languages in Islamabad turned away students dressed in chappals and sportswear. So much for freedom of expression.
In relation to freedom of thought, the “Unsilencing Balochistan” seminar was due to take place at the Lahore University of Management Sciences last April. According to a senior official, the university was told to cancel the event “on the orders of the government.” LUMS complied, and the rearranged seminar took place at Karachi's T2F. Venue owner Sabeen Mahmud was killed soon after this seminar.
US-based security studies expert C. Christine Fair writes in the Huffington Post about a “nasty war” being waged against herself and other American academics who interrogate Pakistan's army and intelligence agencies. As the author of Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War, Fair was attacked by online trolls and smeared in fallacious articles, suffering frightening, graphic threats.
In April a few, mostly female students at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore, displayed sanitary napkins on walls. They were inspired by a similar stand taken at Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University in 2015. Seeking, albeit crudely, to challenge the stigma around menstruation, these students faced a social media backlash so damaging that they were forced offline.
All this is not to suggest that no critical thinking happens on Pakistani university campuses. On the contrary, there are many brilliant scholars in the country, pockets of excellence still exist, and Pakistani universities once had a strong leftist tradition. However, since Zia-ul-Haq's regime, Pakistani higher education institutions, particularly their arts departments, have faced restrictions and a lack of funding which limit research. In the climate of fear that has worsened in recent years, universities have been cleansed more than ever.
Strands we need to draw out from this exploration include that the influence of social media as both a positive and negative force in protests can hardly be overstated. Additionally, there is a pressing need to divest universities of racism, casteism, classism, sexism, and other oppressive forces. Education is part of the problem but it can also spearhead the solution. As Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o argues in a 1986 book, we need to decolonize our minds.