Plains of protest
Of my four grandchildren, my grandsons are the sweetest. Calm, kind, helpful. On the contrary, my two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter takes to the streets (literally) and protests when something isn't going her way. The other one, who's barely one-and-a-half, screams at the top of her voice and keeps all of us under control.
Strangely, I am happy to see these angels in rebellion. After all, our time has come. Women have protested far less in share.
Contemporary protests, like those of my extra feisty granddaughters, are unique in form and degree. It was only last year that we saw blank A4 papers being held up as a form of protest in one part of Asia. The confinement of three lockdown years of Covid, the frustration of children growing up in total isolation, neighbourhoods popping with frustration... all were being represented by the blank papers. The papers, perhaps, symbolised disappearing dissent.
People are also dancing in protest, not so much to perform or wow the audience, but more in sync with the somatic study of the body as perceived from within. These dancers say they are like goldfish wanting to know the ocean, rejecting the bowl while being in it.
Two years ago, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez wore a gown to the Met Gala, which had the theme of "American Independence." AOC walked in wearing something of a bridal gown, but the slogan scribbled on the back in bold red read, "Tax the Rich." That, too, was a protest.
Pope.L, a performing artiste, has been crawling since 1978 in protest. He has been on his hands, elbows, stomach, and knees, wearing many fantasy costumes accompanied by his Nike sneakers, and has often caught the attention of people passing him by, making them "look down." A Rutgers graduate, Pope.L is bitter about people losing "verticality," and for not sparing even a nanosecond's glance for the homeless. His knee pads, literally obliterated, finally made it to the Museum of Modern Art.
In 2017, there was jazz in Washington Square Park to mourn the death of the American presidency. Around 11:45am, costumed protesters stood beneath Washington Square Arch, dressed in black. They carried upside-down US flags. A few historical figures accompanied them, by the side of a black coffin with a Presidential seal reading, "The American presidency: April 30, 1789 to January 20, 2017." "Abe Lincoln" wore a mourning coat, and next to him stood Lady Liberty in black and white while Lady Justice carried money on her scales.
In contrast, traditional protests, mostly led by students, have impacted history. Students have always been the first to engage in discourses on divisive borders with imagined, imposing lines, language, religion or tradition.
In between 1948 and 1991, South Africa witnessed violence and protests as unequal education rocked the landscape. In 1961, only 10 percent of Black teachers graduated high school. In June of 1976, almost 10,000 students marched and protested; armed police attacked and killed more than 500, and injured about a thousand. That drew condemnation of the apartheid regime and set the stage for the end of apartheid. Now, June 16 is celebrated as National Youth Day in South Africa.
On July 9, 1999, at 8:30am in Tehran, students were attacked by security forces members, riot police and a paramilitary mob under the orders of a local police chief. Five were killed, a couple thrown off the balconies. The reformist president was enraged while the clerics and conservatives in the judiciary acted otherwise. The six days of demonstrations ended in violence. A state of emergency was declared. The nation was made to turn to "Anti-America" positioning while students mysteriously disappeared. Then came the 2002 unrest following the announcement of a reformist lecturer, Hashem Aghajari, being condemned to death for apostasy, after which came 2009, with the images of 27-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan being shot dead going viral. Families then were only allowed to mourn in silence, while security and intelligence forces continued to identify, surveil and arrest. Yet, today, the Gen Z who don't bear the historical burden of the eight-year-long war with Iraq continue to defy and risk their lives in protest against headscarves, even lighting bonfires using them.
In Pakistan, where honour killings were rampant and acid attacks were common, where rape within a marriage was only a faint issue till 2007, students protested and risked being beaten. General Musharraf paid lip service while women were getting kidnapped for wearing modern clothing and being forced to confess their so-called sins.
On May 15, 2001, students at the University of Jordan marched on the annual anniversary of Al Nakba ("the catastrophe"), a day in 1948 on which the Jewish State came into being. Students chanted "Allahu Akbar" and anti-Israel and anti-US slogans. Women burned flags of the US and Israel.
And today, we have Harvard. On Saturday, more than a thousand demonstrators gathered at Harvard University in support of Gaza, calling Israel's ground invasion a "genocide," as more than 300 Palestinians are dying every day in an Israeli retaliation against surprise attacks from Hamas that killed 1,400 Israelis (as of October 17, 2023) and saw many taken as hostage. The video from Claudine Gay, the new president of Harvard, conveyed a safe and fair message; it was a message rejecting terrorism, rejecting hate, and embracing a "commitment to free expression." It was clear that the new president would not tolerate threats while students affiliated with protesting groups have faced threats and doxxing attacks.
In protest, an Israeli billionaire and his wife are stepping down from the executive board of Kennedy School, as they considered Gay's message to be an unbefitting, lukewarm response.
Not too long ago, students led reforms in this land of ours. They marched for language, died for our mothertongue, and became immortal symbols of struggle against unjust dictates that barred inclusion, promoted bias, and crafted oppression. Times have changed, though. In today's age of social media, with money soothing our middle-class conscience, meaningful protests are mostly unheard of. And even when there are one or two, they are muted and often handled with the swiftest dexterity.
On December 10, 1957, the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature was living in war-torn Algeria. Prior to that, in February 1956, he had resigned from editorship at L'Express and subjected himself to a public silence about the conflict, after having failed to negotiate a civilian truce. In defence of his silence, philosopher, writer, and political activist Albert Camus wrote, "When speech can lead to the remorseless disposal of other people's lives... silence is not a negative position."
In his most famous novel L'etranger, his main character, Meursault, is condemned to death as he, too, refuses to speak when confronted by the norms of the French legal system and its society.
Considering the times that we are living in, perhaps, in between now and till all our daughters and granddaughters glorify protests, it's best for us to die the Meursault way?
Dr Rubana Huq is vice-chancellor of Asian University for Women.
Views expressed in this article are the author's own.
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