Alia Amirali is a leading left activist, general secretary of the National Student Federation (Punjab) and a member of the new united left party Awami Workers' Party who will be visiting Australia in January 2013 to be the international guest speaker at the 9th national conference of the Socialist Alliance. She is also a researcher on the Baloch National Movement and a lecturer at Quaid-e-Azam University.
On the heels of the recent merger conference of the Awami Worker Party, Amirali was interviewed by Sher Ali Khan for the online magazine Viewpointwhere she discussed the state of left-wing student activism, politics and feminism in Pakistan today. This interviewed is republished by Green Left Weekly with permission from Viewpoint
* * *
What is the state of progressive student politics in Pakistan?
Compared to the past, meaning the 50s, 60s and the 70s, certainly the state of progressive student politics today is dismal. But over the last decade we have seen considerable improvement in terms of where we stand and where the National Student Federation stands. Over the last three to four years we have been rebuilding our student organisations from scratch.
Obviously these organisations take a long time to come back into existence and develop sustainable structures. So these three, four or five years are critical for any organisation. Looking back when to when we had nothing we are in a much better state than we were five years ago.
How have you dealt with issues within educational institutions such as the dramatic increase of private universities, keeping in mind that the overall environment within public and private schools has been to frown upon student politics?
Well you know the tendency to privatise has crept into every realm. This includes a sort of privatisation of politics, where politics has become a profession, at least in the ways students perceive it. The average student considers him or herself to be apolitical and has absolutely nothing to do with politics. They view politics as something done by people with double-cabin cars, lots of money and the means to spend crores [one crore = 10 million] of rupees on election campaigns. This is not to say that the politics of the ruling class didn’t prevail in the past. The difference between then and now is that in the past there were also alternative models of politics, alternative political cultures and left-wing political organisations that spoke a different language and represented a different way of doing politics. When that was systematically crushed, the only kind of politics that the younger generation considers now is party politics. Politics is construed as something individuals do for their own self-interest and gain. This perception of politics reflects the ethos of capitalism and liberalism in the same way they are reflected economically.
What have been some of the biggest things in bringing young people together? What has the strategy been for the NSF in terms of study circles and other awareness initiatives?
The biggest challenges in bringing people together are feelings of disillusionment and helplessness, that it’s not possible to change things. There is this feeling that we are camped in front of the system, that there is this "matter of factness" about how the educational system works in the larger context of how the larger political, economic and social systems work. The feeling is that there is not much space to conceive of or develop alternatives.
Other than that, even for kids experiencing day to day problems, student politics and student political organisations are seen as synonymous with violence, gangs, and the disruption of student life on campuses. Organised political activities on campuses are perceived as serving the interest of “x, y or z” mainstream political party. So there is a fundamental distrust or mistrust that students have towards student organisations. They are convinced that they will be used if they come into any of these organisations.
The perception that we can have our own organisations without all kinds of contacts and lots of money is absent. The idea that we can sit down together and try to build something is becoming increasingly rare, especially when it comes to politics.
Students find it very hard to believe or take seriously any student organisation that says its political but also independent, not the wing of a mainstream party.
Across the world, there have been several movements launched out of educational institutions as seen in Chile and more recently in Chicago. If one compared these situations to Pakistan, where several of the underlying factors such as privatisation, economic inequality are prevalent do you think a movement like these could occur?
I don’t want to be too pessimistic about this but I think there is a lot of work that needs to be done here. I am not sure what form the student movement will take when it re-emerges here. I am not saying it will never happen. The context here in Pakistan is so different and in some ways so intensely politicised and ethnicised that the political behavior of students is emerging as overt and robust.
For instance in Balochistan, where the Balochistan Student Organisation is known as one of the nurseries for the nationalist parties there, student organisations are very active and are playing a very critical role. A unified student movement that presses collectively for student issues is needed. Because the political situations are different in different areas of Pakistan, I do not see that happening at the national level.
The creation of the new left party Awami Workers Party has been widely talked about in left activist circles. Do you feel that the merger will help the NSF and how do you envision the role of students or the youth in the party?
I think it’s great for students and the NSF applauds this merger whole-heartedly. The entire reason for building this left-wing student organisation is to be a part of a larger project to rebuild the left in Pakistan. We consider ourselves just one part of this larger left. Obviously if the NSF is going to have a positive impact on the process of rebuilding the left there has to be strong, viable and visible left-wing parties. The young people in this country need to be able to see that there are an alternatives and that there are alternative political parties – that there is a different narrative and it not just something that existed in the past but exists today.
For the NSF it’s very important for students to see that once they cease to be students they have to continue their role as political workers in different shapes and forms. We need organisations in which these conscious and politically motivated students can find a place to contribute their efforts. Otherwise the NSF in of itself will not be able to contribute anything in this larger process of rebuilding the left. So we are really happy.
As for the role of the students, the party requires young people, just like a plant needs water. Without new people, without new ideas, new analyses and new energy no organisation , particularly a political party, can survive. These are things the left in the last three-four decades has been lacking.
So definitely, I feel there is a huge role for young people who are inclined towards the left. That’s precisely the type of people the NSF is trying to develop. We bring in young people, we introduce the ideas, the program, the ideology and all of the things the left brings with it to young people, in order to draw them into a larger left narrative. That’s as much as we can do.
Now it’s up to the political parties to build themselves, to prove they are viable and willing to work hard to attract the young people we are bringing into our organisation and training. I am sure if we are able to build a strong political party there is no reason young people would not flock to it. They are certainly searching for an alternative.
Shifting gears, being involved in activism at a grassroots level in Pakistan. What do you think are some of the societal dynamics, which play into a feminist movement in Pakistan? What have some the difficulties been in involving females in the NSF and the greater left?
One of the main problems at the moment is that the ideas of women’s’ liberation and feminism have been distorted and misconstrued both within the left and outside of it. There is this perception that speaking about women or women’s rights and male domination is somehow a liberal agenda. This is to a degree understandable because this narrative has been taken over by NGOs and a liberal agenda.
But part of the blame and responsibility lies with the left itself because we have not taken up that narrative. NGOs and multi-national capital moved into that space and took up the narrative. So that’s one of the problems within leftist or left-wing organisations regarding feminism.
In terms of working with women and bringing them into NSF or left-wing organisations, it’s a huge challenge, because the society in which we live is very deeply patriarchal, more so in some areas and less-so in others, but generally it’s a very deeply patriarchal society. It is very difficult to even gain access to women in a way that allows us to talk freely about all kinds of things.
We have made this part of our strategy. Our strategy up till now was not always the best. Perhaps what we need to do today is to build women’s organisations . Theoretically it is frowned on to segregate women in any way. But given the circumstances and the environment in which we work, the women we are trying to reach out to do not feel comfortable in a mixed environment. We have to adapt ourselves to their needs instead of expecting them to jump on ours immediately.
We have to be more culturally and politically sensitive. This does not mean that we give up our ideas.
Looking forward what do you feel is the most heartening part of the recent AWP merger for female activists who want to get involved with the party? Do you think that space will be better this time around, under the circumstances?
Well, I think it depends on how much time and effort we put into it. I think in terms of narratives, rhetoric and to some extent the political programme there are a few things which could have been more pronounced in the program with regards to women.
But the fact that this party has announced that gender issues need to incorporated into our politics and that we need to reach out to women signals a good beginning. It’s good to know. But the test will be how hard we have to work to make that happen. That depends on the party and political workers like me and you and anyone who works with the left. Will we effectively use the space we have created?
What is the current status of the women’s movement in Pakistan? How has the NGO-isation role worked in when it comes gender issues?
I may be wrong since I have not been involved in women’s organisations but I do not see any movement here. There is no feminist movement here. There are NGOs who work on gender issues and obviously work on liberal agendas. I would put that in the category of an indigenous Pakistan feminist movement.
These things need to be very clearly separated and that is part of the difficulty that we face when we try to convince new people on the left, that calling yourself a feminist and working on women’s issues does not mean you are a liberal.
The liberalisation of feminism over the last few decades parallels the liberalization of everything and the corporatisation of poverty. It ties in to the mushrooming of NGOs. This liberalisation has also captured the narratives that used to belong the left.
As well, many people who were associated with the left in the past and who self-identify as being on the left, have also started working in NGOs. This confuses matters as well.
What is the current state of women, today in Pakistan?
It depends on whether you are talking about girls, students or women in the government sector or corporate sector. Each has its distinct challenges . "Women" is a huge category.
If there is one way to sum it up, it would be to say that women are human beings, we are extremely dynamic and the issue is extremely complicated. There are immense differences based on class , ethnicity and other social categories. To assume homogeneity in this huge group would be wrong.
Certainly, we can say that things are changing. The category of woman is not constant and neither are the categories within which women live constant. There all kinds of heartening changes happening in terms of how women are living their lives. There are new avenues that we are exploring as well as new opportunities- for a host of different reasons.
But there also new forms of violence that are being unleashed , primarily due to the proliferation of capital and capital accumulation. The fact that so many working class women are pushed out of the home to find jobs. There is an increased feeling of desperation among males because the unemployment statistics for men is increasing substantially. When men are frustrated and don’t have jobs, can’t make ends meet, women are going out to work. This makes men feel insecure. The fact that women are bringing in the money while the men are unemployed often means that they are unable to maintain the control they are accustomed to. This creates a whole lot of complicated and challenging issues, and it often results increasing incidents of domestic violence.
This is a consequence of increasing uncertainty and helplessness among the proletariat which is at the whim of increasingly fast moving capital.
Again, it’s complicated. Women go out because we are forced to, even though working outside the home means our workload is doubled. Just the fact that we have entered the public sphere changes our consciousness in a way that is irreversible. Now there are many more aspects to the way we see ourselves and our place in the world, both in our personal lives and economic public lives. This we can celebrate. It is a very complicated matter.
Alia Amirali with be the international guest speaker at the Socialist Alliance 9th national conference at Geelong Trades Hall on January 18-20, 2013. She will be speaking at a January 18 conference public meeting (7pm) on the topic "Global inequality, war and the refugee crisis" along Sue Bolton and other Australian activists in the refugee & civil rights movements. She will also give a public guest lecture on "The Progressive Student Movement and Developments in Left Unity in Pakistan" on January 19 (5pm-6.30pm), which will be followed by the Green Left Weekly 2013 Fighting Fund launch and dinner. The Socialist Alliance national conference is open to Socialist Alliance members and invited guests. To register or for more information about this conference email: firstname.lastname@example.org