Thursday, 26 September 2013

Its not Just the Jeans

Courtesy "Rants of a Pakistani Citizen" page on Facebook
Latest Notification from NUST, courtesy Syed Nadir El-Edroos from Twitter

The recent debate over the issue of NUST students getting fined for "wearing Jeans" or "Not wearing Dopatta" started with one blog and amalgamated into a critical mass that forced the Rector of NUST to actually come forward and clarify the stance of University Administration. On the social media front, that qualifies as a success of "new media" and how individual blogs can be powerful enough to influence opinion. Although it appeared on news pages of Dawn as well(and ET published a Blog on this issue), which was basically bad rep for the University and they had to do a face-saving exercise. 

Anyhow, this issue is just the tip of an iceberg. The concept of individual liberty, or the right to wear what you want to wear, without getting judged, is non-existent in Pakistan. While the right to choose does not mean running in the streets naked, as is usually considered, it does mean that within certain limits, everyone irrespective of gender should have the right to wear clothing that they like, without getting judged. 

While civilized societies have usually moved beyond this point, Pakistan is still lurking behind. Even in this day and age, women who dress a certain way are judged as being "immoral" or possessing "loose character". The Rector of NUST reportedly said, "What is wrong with giving you a culturally acceptable dress code?". He also mentioned security as one of the issue that caused increased surveillance "inside" the campus. 

What is a culturally acceptable dress when we don't even have a well-defined "culture". Hijab and Three piece suits are not part of "our" culture. If the erstwhile Rector wants to know what our "culture", he needs to visit rural areas of Punjab and Sindh, or even cities like Lahore, Karachi or Rawalpindi. If we go simply by "cultural dress", both men and women would all be dressed in Shalwar Kamees. 

But I can't argue about this, because people like me were specifically pointed out in the Rector's spiel as "outsiders" who have no stakes in the University and should mind their own business. Plus, the rules regarding dress code are present in the prospectus and students should know that before joining the University.(If the latest address by the Rector is being reported correctly, he is pointing fingers at foreign NGOS and CIA for all our problems. Thus proving my original point: Its not Just the Jeans)    

I should remind readers that NUST is not the only educational institute with dress code issues. I remember going to Government College University, Lahore, couple of years ago to participate in some competition when I was stopped at the gate. The guards informed me that I could not enter the premises because I was wearing Jeans. I was flabbergasted. I told them that I was not even a student at GCU and had only arrived to take part in a competition for which I had been invited. I had to call my hosts who ushered me in after some discussion with the guards. 

Most Universities in Pakistan do not welcome outsiders and one has to provide some form of identification for entry. Compare this with foreign Universities. I have been fortunate enough to visit Major Universities in the United States and in Turkey, and no such hassle was present there. I admit that the security situation of Pakistan is much worse than that in other countries but the feeling of "Intellectual Freedom" that I felt in those campuses is non-existent in Pakistan.  

In my own medical school(and reportedly in some others), teachers behaved differently with students who dressed "liberally" and who were seen with members of the other gender frequently. I recently had to explain this awkward situation to a foreigner and I could not enunciate the exact "setting". He kept questioning me about how it was possible to study with members of the other gender and still be expected to "not be seen together". I could not muster a clear answer. 

Sunday, 22 September 2013

On Social Media and Importance of Loneliness

I have not written a casual blog for a long time now. But a few things that I read/saw yesterday coupled with my current condition forced me to get back on the blogging chair. The article in question was titled Diary, by Rebecca Solnit ( and the video was an interview of Louis C.K ( Both of these items said the same thing, but in different ways. Rebecca Solnit wrote about how new technology makes us anxious and constantly-on-the-hooks. She wrote,

Another study found that students, when left to their own devices, are unable to focus on homework for more than two minutes without turning to web surfing or email. Adults in the workforce can make it to about 11 minutes.’

Nearly everyone I know feels that some quality of concentration they once possessed has been destroyed. Reading books has become hard; the mind keeps wanting to shift from whatever it is paying attention to pay attention to something else. A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing, or doing at least two things at once, or going to check some other medium. It’s an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind”.

I have felt this lack of concentration ever since I became active on twitter (almost two years ago) and since then; facebook and twitter have become an addiction for me. The first thing that I do on waking up daily, for the last many years, is to check my Gmail inbox, Facebook and Twitter. At times, when I wake up during the night, the same routine is repeated. I know that many of my friends and contemporaries face the same issue, day in day out. I can’t read a book for long, can’t focus on studies, can’t converse with someone without intermittent glances towards the phone. I did not have an iphone till this year, and having one has simply compounded the problem.

I remember being in Saudi Arabia two years ago, and due to my own stupidity, I didn’t take my Smartphone there, thus I had to pay 10 Saudi Riyals per hour(I can get internet on my phone for a whole month in Pakistan) at shady internet cafes in Mecca and it felt so horrible at that time. I remember going to Shandur,the highest polo ground in the world(located in North Western Pakistan) and feeling helpless because there were no signals there and I couldn’t post my facebook status or tweet about the marvelous surroundings. For me, ‘informing others about the moment’ had become more important than the ‘ moment’ itself.(I feel the same way about photo uploads. I think that these days, we are more interested in taking pictures of places that actually enjoying those places themselves. We capture the moments that we ourselves fail to live).

My first impulse after watching a great movie, or listening a great song, or having a tasty meal, or arriving at a beautiful location, is to ‘broadcast’ those impulses via social media. I believe that I am not the only one afflicted with this condition(the only thought that brings me any solace). The ‘anxiety’ of being always on the edge, of being always connected, is present around me. I don’t know how it crept on me and when it took over control. I tried to use twitter initially as a means to promote what I write and to keep informed. While both these objectives were achieved, I also became involved in twitter activism, primarily because of the doctors’ movement that I was a part of. During a major strike last year, when most doctors at public hospitals had resigned from work and didn’t show up at the hospitals for a week, I was busy confronting people on twitter and facebook, all the time(I had little sleep during that week, despite having nothing to do).

Now, I am supposed to study for my post-graduate exams but the lack of focus and concentration has made it almost impossible for me to resume my studies with the same fervor as two years ago. Despite being afflicted, I’m thankful at the same time to social media, for introducing me to some wonderful people(whom I met later, in “real life”). I gave up watching TV two years ago, because I can’t stand the non-stop Monkey business that Pakistan’s news channels have to present. I took refuge in Social Media to get away from the clutter and voila, twitter is awash with the same clutter now. I even introduced some of my relatives and friends to twitter, and they also noticed the addictive potential of twitter.

Regarding Louis C.K. and his dislike for smartphones, I agree wholeheartedly with him. Smartphones have deprived us from the feeling of ever being lonely. As long as the phone is connected to either Cellular service or Wi-Fi, we are not alone per se. And it’s not a good thing. As Louis C.K said and I’ve read somewhere else, loneliness is not an essentially bad thing. We can’t appreciate great art or music unless it is accompanied by the feeling of genuine loneliness. As if Facebook and Twitter were not enough, smartphones brought us Viber, Whatsapp, Kik and so on. All these services are there so that we don’t feel “alone”. And all this in the age of individualism.!!

I don’t know how I can get rid of the addiction of checking my phone after every five minutes, might I miss a “Like” on my latest Instagram photo, or a DM from someone asking me to retweet their work, or a whatsapp group message saying “Hi everyone”, or a missed call from some random number on Viber. In the days gone by, it never happened. I remember being in boarding school in early 2000s and the only two ways of communication with the outside world were; Letters and a phone booth that was supposed to be used to 500 people. I still get letters, but they are mostly cheques from the newspapers that I occasionally scribble for. The feeling of getting a letter, the excitement, the joy, in the early 2000s, can’t be explained in words (despite the fact that only my parents sent me any letters and nobody else).

At another boarding school, parents of around 80-100 people were supposed to call between 8 or 9 am and 5 pm, on Sundays. So, whenever someone got a call, his name was shouted by the person deputed to attend the call, until that person arrived. The “high” of listening your name being shouted, was more than actually talking to parents. The “high” of that shout, the joy of the received letter, was due to an element of surprise, due to the uncertainty. I believe that my generation has lost that surprise, that uncertainty, that joy, in communication. When Skype calls start replacing actual encounters and emoticons on Whatsapp replicate human emotions, something somewhere deep inside us, starts dying.