THE project of dismantling arts and culture by a 1,000 cuts continues this week in the form of a ban on dance announced by the Punjab School Education Department.

When a similar attempt was floated in Sindh in 2016, Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah reacted swiftly to quash it. The provincial government, he said, believed in preserving and promoting culture. “It will not be dictated [to] by isolated extremist elements and will not allow its progressive agenda to be hijacked at any cost. Dance and music are integral parts of a liberal society.”

Over the decades, similar attempts to narrowly redefine our identity have been made. None have fully succeeded because, inevitably, we show our true stripes: diverse, tolerant and defiantly joyous. This is reflected in our shared kinetic energy, whether through the boisterous bhangra, the elegant Kathak or the transcendental Sufi raqs. Yet, each time, the habitually out-of-step fringe concocts a new straw man, such as the selective fear of ‘alien culture’, to exploit society’s existential anxieties.

While not explicitly stated, it seems that the proscription du jour is a cynical, misguided appropriation of a pressing issue, recently foregrounded by the rape-murder of little Zainab and all the abuse allegations that have since followed: how do we keep our children safe?

As is regrettably the case with systemic violence, a particularly unproductive response emerges. Sexual abuse, it is argued, is something that can be rationalised and avoided provided a potential victim behaves appropriately — dress and act just right, and you won’t be a target, the logic goes — stopping just short of suggesting that victims, even children, are morally responsible for being abused.

Such thinking should be resisted at all costs. Surrounded by poverty and violence, Pakistani children are already forced to grow up too soon. They won’t be better off, or safer, for being forced to forgo simple, earnest displays of expression. We should be holding perpetrators accountable, not abetting in the broader crime of stealing childhoods.

Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2018

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