There is a strange tendency within many of Pakistan’s institutes of higher learning to treat students like children in need of constant supervision and regulation. Rather than seeing them as what they really are, namely adults capable of making their own decisions and managing their own lives, colleges and universities across the country constantly strive to enforce standards of discipline that often cross the line from questionably justifiable to explicitly draconian. The smallest and most innocuous infractions can lead to the imposition of draconian and entirely unwarranted punishments, with the absurdity of the situation being compounded by how many of these measures are sanctioned by bodies and committees that pass judgment in an arbitrary and non-transparent fashion. Unlike universities abroad, the concept of sharing governance responsibilities with students is virtually unheard of, and the relationship between university administrations, faculty, and students is one that remains characterized by hierarchy and unequal power relations.

An obvious consequence of treating adult college students like errant children is that they are infantilised; it is assumed that they cannot take care of themselves and must constantly look to their elders, and those in positions of power, for guidance. The consequences of this are clear to see, as Pakistan continues to churn out graduates who lack initiative and remain deferential towards authority. There are obviously exceptions to this broad generalization, but is also not entirely incorrect when considering how this infantilisation persists in other spheres of social life. In areas such as marriage, employment, child-rearing, and the broader management of a household, for example, otherwise accomplished and capable men and women are often expected to defer to the dubious wisdom of their elders. It might be stretching the point, but one could even make the argument that the often toxic relationship that exists between women and their in-laws in Pakistan’s joint family system is at least partially because of the inability of their husbands to even contemplate questioning the words and actions of their parents.

Beyond infantilising students, however, the despotic nature of many university administrations in Pakistan also serves to facilitate the reinforcement of particular norms and values, policing the boundaries of what is or is not considerable to acceptable behaviour. Earlier this week, for instance, there were reports of how the International Islamic University Islamabad (IIUI) issued an edict requiring its female students to dress modestly. The tenor of the directive was predictably authoritarian, brooking no debate or dissent, and its content was entirely unsurprising; female students, adult women one and all, were told that they would no longer be able to choose how they could dress, with it being made clear that any deviation from IIUI’s conception of ‘traditional’ clothing would result in punitive disciplinary action.

IIUI’s imposition of a dress code on its female students is not the first intervention of its kind in Pakistan. The media routinely carries reports of how similar measures have been implemented in other institutions, and these are all invariably justified with the same tropes. As explained by IIUI’s administration, even though there are separate buildings and facilities for female students, the dress code has been necessitated by the presence of male faculty members, and the fact that some students might have to walk through areas with men in them. Why, one might ask, does this mean women have to dress a certain way? While IIUI does not explicitly provide an answer to this question, the subtext is clear; women who do not dress ‘modestly’ are an irresistible temptation for the men on campus, and are simply asking for trouble.

This encapsulates the warped way in which narratives of paternalistic protection intersect with straightforward sexism in the Land of the Pure. Women are told that they have to behave and act in particular ways for their own good, and that deviation from these rigidly defined codes of conduct will inevitably lead to consequences for which the women themselves will be held responsible. In the minds of the IIUI’s administration, women who do not dress ‘appropriately’ are presumably inviting sexual harassment, the same way women who are confined within the walls of their homes by their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons do the same should they ever go out the front door. Heavens forbid someone should ever ask why it is that the onus for ‘appropriate’ behaviour always falls on women, with the default expectation being that men who harass or assault women cannot be expected to act otherwise; will not be punished for they do, and cannot be subjected to the same behavioural strictures as women. IIUI believes that the solution to harassment is to deprive women of choice, forcing them to dress and act in particular ways. One could argue that perhaps a better approach would be to take strict action against men who harass women, and make it clear that the blame for harassment and assault will always lie with those who perpetrate rather than its victims.

Universities are meant to be spaces for debate and critical thinking, where students should be exposed to alternative points of view and be expected to develop tolerance and respect for those who are different from themselves. Excessive and, more importantly, unnecessary disciplinary measures create an atmosphere in which creativity and free thought are stifled, and where adherence to the institutional and societal status quo comes to be privileged over more radical and progressive thinking. Similarly, the moral policing of students – through dress codes and restrictions on socializing – deprives students of choice and agency and, in the case of sexual harassment and assault, perpetuates patriarchal structures and narratives that absolve men of responsibility for their actions while imposing further constraints on women. The deeply entrenched and enforced culture or deference and obedience that characterizes Pakistan’s colleges and universities makes it difficult for students to speak out but it is absolutely the case that they should be supported as and when they do oppose and resist such measures.