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LAHORE/ISLAMABAD: With girls huddled at the back and boys at the front, a chemistry lab class is in full swing at Lahore’s historic Punjab University (PU) — ranked second in Pakistan. For Urooj, this kind of segregation is quite common. “As long as we can hear the lab attendant’s voice, we have to stand at the back of the class,” she says while talking to

The kind of gender segregation she is referring to extends well beyond the classrooms. “Even outside the classrooms there are different spaces for girls and boys. There are a number of canteens where girls aren’t allowed. And in the ones they are allowed, curtains are drawn to separate them from the boys,” says Urooj.

According to the 2015 fact book of the university, there are only two per cent more boys than girls studying at the institution. With the population almost evenly divided, segregation on logistical grounds is a flimsy argument. Rather, it appears to be a moralistic pursuit based on one of Pakistan’s widely accepted and deeply problematic social constructs: the belief that interaction between girls and boys leads to immorality, and the disintegration of society.

Moral policing and gender segregation seem to have become the norm on university campuses, manifesting a kind of intolerance that is deeply uncharacteristic of a progressive academic culture.

Bizarre codes of conduct enforced at many universities

Late in October, a group of agitated, club-wielding students marched through a part of the PU campus. They were looking for a boy who they had found sitting with a girl in the vicinity of the sociology department.

“Some of them stormed the [department’s] building, broke the gate and tortured the guard. They slammed doors and shattered the windows. All this hooliganism lasted more than an hour or two,” recalls Hanain Afridi, a student who witnessed the events that took place at the university’s Institute of Communication Studies (ICS).

Calling the shots

The student activists were believed to be part of the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba (IJT), a rightwing organisation that acts as the unofficial student wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami. Elements of the IJT are notorious, students say, for using aggression to assert power.

Today it seems that the IJT is behind much of the moral policing that happens at one of the country’s largest public universities. How do they command such a position of authority? Some say the IJT owes its success to the consistency and organisational ability it has embodied over the years. Others feel that factions in the university administration are complicit in nurturing and facilitating the organisation.

Urooj feels that at times students do resist the student organisations but the administration remains silent. “It seems that the administration is also following an unwritten agenda of moral policing.”

When asked how the organisation justifies its stance on gender segregation, a representative of the IJT, Furqan Khalil, says they have always protested against co-education. “We demand that the government should establish separate educational institutions for boys and girls,” he says. “Local culture demands that young girls and boys should not sit as couples. We never discourage girls and boys in groups.”

Codes of separation

While the PU has its segregation ‘code’ enforced by the activists of the IJT, in other universities the administrations ensure ‘morality’ on campus.

Gender segregation is enforced through codes of conduct, policies, notices and fines. The ‘code of conduct’, usually found on an institution’s website, vary greatly from explicit to ambiguous rules leaning towards the bizarre.

At one of Comsats university’s colleges, the university seeks to implement a rule barring “entering entryway of opposite sex on campus or allowing the same”, leaving much room for imaginative interpretation.

Muhammad, a student at Comsats’ Abbottabad campus, feels that the regulations are merely meant to pay lip service. “We don’t have many restrictions but couples are fined if they’re found sitting together. The fine is Rs5,000 for each individual,” he says.

Not quite concerned over the restrictions, he adds: “People in Punjab have a relatively freer mind; but here in Abbottabad, boys and girls don’t interact that much anyway.”

The National University of Science and Technology (Nust) has a regulation in its policy and procedures document that encapsulates a profoundly ambiguous moral compass.

Nust, it states, opposes “indecent behaviour exhibited on the campus including classes, cafeteria [and] laboratories, defying the norms of decency, morality and religious/cultural/social values by a single or group of students”.

The moral settlement embedded in the Nust’s ‘code’ falls squarely in the realm of fluid and arbitrary notions of morality. To that degree, it casts a wider net on unsuspecting students who could at any point find themselves in trouble over having violated the university’s norms of decency, morality or religion.

The Nust’s website states: “Undue intimacy and unacceptable proximity, openly or in isolated areas, will not be tolerated. The tendency of taking advantage of common places like cafeteria and shops is objectionable and undesirable. Also, students are advised to avoid movement in mix groups on the campus after sunset.”

Sara Ansari, a student at Nust, argues that such rules are rarely implemented, but when they are it is done arbitrarily. “For example, girls and boys are not allowed to play football together but they can play squash and table tennis. Similarly, while the rules for both genders are the same, girls bear the brunt of these restrictions. If a boy is caught smoking on campus he is given a warning but if a girl is smoking, she is reported to the department and official action is taken,” she explains.

Under the umbrella of an academic culture, moral policing is bound to be problematic. Until more tolerant guidelines built from socially progressive values are introduced, a student who wishes to have friends outside his or her own gender may need to keep a spare Rs5,000 note in the pocket to pay the impending fine.

Published in Dawn January 28th, 2017