Punjab women stand up against the Taliban


By Farooq Sulheria

LAHORE, Pakistan — The young women of Punjab University have launched a movement against the Islam Jamiat Talaba (IJT), the largest student organisation of fundamentalists in Pakistan, which has links to Afghanistan's brutal Taliban.

The women organised demonstrations against the IJT on May 2 and then on May 5, in response to an IJT assault on philosophy student Ijaz Butt for talking to a female classmate.

The incident followed a long list of provocations and assaults by the IJT on students for such "crimes" as males and females watching a cricket match together and the English department attempting to hold a co-educational farewell party for students at a hotel.

The IJT is trying to turn Punjab University into a mini-Afghanistan. Male students cannot talk to female students, and the IJT does not allow mixed groups to sit in libraries, canteens or cafes, backing up its threats with force, even guns.

In the late 1960s and 1970s Punjab University had a strong left tradition. The National Students' Federation was the main left force not only at Punjab University but throughout Pakistan.

But since the institution of military dictatorship in 1977, left-wing political parties, unions and student organisations have become the main targets of the regime. Thugs of the IJT were used by the military to attack, kill and remove socialists from campuses. The IJT attempted to turn the campuses into nurseries for the recruitment of so-called mujahideen to be sent into Afghanistan.

When democracy was restored in 1988, elections were held on campuses. But again in 1990, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif banned student unions and union activities. In practice, the ban applies only to those who do not have guns.

The IJT uses Islamic values to justify its hold on campus life. At Punjab University, the IJT is hated, yet the entire administration is in its control. Since 1977, 90% of teachers recruited by the university have been members of the IJT. The organisation even has cells on campus where anybody daring to violate their so-called "code of ethics" is tortured.

On May 2 about 60 young women students from the departments of English, philosophy, education, geography and history marched to the office of the vice-chancellor. In the recent history of Punjab University, nobody has dared to challenge the IJT's gun-toting thugs in this way. It infuriated the IJT, and the next day IJT members beat up male students from the philosophy department.

On May 5 the IJT thugs held a demonstration outside the philosophy department building chanting "Long live the IJT". The women students walked out of class and started chanting, "Down with the IJT".

It won't be easy to fight the IJT, but the women will not sit idle. "We will not tolerate the Talibanisation of Punjab University", said a female history student.

The women's immediate demands are: free campus of arms and torture cells, provision of security against the IJT, restoration of personal liberty, an end to religious intervention into personal affairs and protection of the women launching this movement.

Stopping the Talibanisation of Punjab University would be a big step forward for Pakistan, and women in particular because it is women who would suffer most at the hands of religious fanatics. The struggle and success of the Punjab University women will show a way forward to the women of Pakistan.

Youth and student organisations around the world are requested to fax solidarity messages to the women at 0011 9242 630 1685.

[Farooq Sulheria is a leading member of the National Students' Federation and the Labour Party Pakistan. He will be speaking at the Resistance national conference in Melbourne, July 8 to July 11.]