Children of Dictatorship
By Afiya Shehrbano

As part of a generation that grew up in General Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorial 1980s, I have always referred to my contemporaries as Zia’s children. During these formative years, we became apoliticised, deprived of any democratic education, gender-segregated and subject to vigilance by a self-appointed culture police.

We also witnessed the growth of a fascistic state, which institutionalized religion and women’s sexuality as part of public discourse and codified it under the Hudood Ordinances. We were socialized in a culture of sectarian and communal hate, drugs, guns, Pajeros, and with a false consciousness based only on abstinence. Not much has changed in this generation of military dictatorship. Except that our generation also learnt dissent. For 11 years, I grew up in a house where watching censored TV and religio-military spin was banned. Many of us joined the women’s movement and the MRD.

Here we learned the real meaning of people power, street politics and how subversive theatre, poetry and dance actually is, by way of Ajoka plays, Iqbal Bano’s rendition of Faiz’s poetry and Habib Jalib’s insubordinate humor. A large part of the people’s movement had no address, no "leader" and no funding. Our peers in Karachi saw upfront the violent side of that regime, and it played on their psyches for years afterwards. Compare this with the definitive shift in the perspective and experience of youth culture today. Young people opened their eyes to cable TV, McDonald’s "golden arches" and an "indigenous" music culture sponsored by foreign multinationals.

The "alternative" bad boys of music groups are immediately appropriated by Pepsi and Walls. In our days, we had a single pop group of four pretty boys — one of whom has, significantly, become a music-denouncing tableeghi himself. For this was the choice for us ideological floats, who fell between the stools of the institutionalized right and the card-holding fledgling left. But consider the even harder choices that today’s youth have to make. The current dictatorship has conveniently blurred the lines between freedom and free will. We have the right to elections but not to legislate; the right to disagree but not dissent; the right to condemn terrorism within our borders but not internationally. This generation is growing up not only on the cusp of a military-political rule but additionally the corporate-military nexus.

Bombarded ever since they were in their cradles with consumerist messages, slick advertising, the Internet and all the force of globalization, they study the success of Microsoft and read The Economist, while we learned about the disasters of Union Carbide and Enron and read the Herald and EPW. For all their song, dance and drink, freedom of expression and buying power, this generation is simultaneously trapped between international Islamophobia and the hijab on the one hand, and a globalized consumerist culture that enslaves them to The Market and its determinants such as the World Bank and the IMF, on the other. Not that much has changed. In this context, the resurgence of a new wave of dissent as expressed in the rounds of the World Social Forums could be timely for this generation. Students today should be taught the recommendations of alternative forums and perspectives.

They should be able to debate such issues as the idea of canceling public debts of poor countries, taxation on weapons sales, concepts behind food sovereignty and small-scale agriculture, and this should be a mandatory part of their economic syllabus. Human rights, women’s studies, regional languages and the environment should be part of children’s consciousness from kindergarten, rather than the requirements of global corporations, which include computer skills, media literacy and the English language. Where we failed was in our inability to provide an alternative path for future Pakistani youth during our own identity-crises years. Instead, we rode on the wave of a previous generation, which admittedly made temporary political space for us, but then we got lost in the New World Order.

Those with stronger consciences have stuck it out and plug away in their efforts, many of them within the NGO culture that has replaced activism with research, advocacy and good governance, but at least they have retained their commitment and cause. There are also those amongst us who are mothers who suffer anguish over how to gender-train their sons and keep them from becoming the aggressive, competitive Patriarchs they theorized against for years; bankers who increasingly feel more like safe-keepers locked in big vaults, and lawyers who would rather write novels than have the book thrown at them. I hear journalists who are still haunted by Rwanda, Afghanistan and Karachi in the ‘80s and can’t, for the life of them, become DJs reminiscing afternoons of Pims and croquet on the lawns of youthful Cambridge. For the challenge that faces today’s youth lies not in finding alternatives but in defining them. Access to the media is not revolutionary - the content is.

Thus, the liberalization of TV and radio may be an important step, but not if it is diluted by the agenda of the elite. Privatizing religion and economic resources will not guarantee peace and prosperity — giving people their essential human rights, including equal health, housing and education will. Simply removing a uniformed leader will not ensure democratic rights for our people, but challenging the current corporate/capitalist/Citibank agenda of the economic policies will.

Far too often, political discourse has convinced us that democracy guarantees freedom — yes, a freedom for markets and to consume standardized products that everyone wants but only the rich are free to buy. The youth today have to decide if they are ready to seize history and manufacture their own democracies. But first they must define their own subculture and form identities that do not sell out to global markets but are based on human development - free, fair and equal for all. (The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. She has a background in Women’s Studies and has authored and edited several books on women’s issues.)

Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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