The Danger of Thinking

Image: screenshot from www.scholarsatrisk.nyu.eduDr Shirin Zubair, a scholar of women’s studies from Pakistan who was forced to flee the country because of her “immoral” work speaks to Eithne Dodd about her experience of being a scholar at risk.It's difficult to imagine from our privileged position in Ireland that in many places around the world, scholars and other member of higher education institutions are at risk of attack due to their academic research. These attacks range from imprisonment to killings, disappearances to loss of positions, and they occur frequently around the world. The Scholars at Risk Academic Freedom Monitoring Project reported 333 attacks on higher education between January 2011 and May 2015. The most recent attack reported on by the Monitoring Project occurred in Burma on November 3rd. The attack happened when Lin Htet Naing, the vice chairman of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), was taken into custody for his role in organising a student protest against a recently passed Burmese education law.Scholars at Risk (SAR) was founded in 1999 as a worldwide network of higher education institutions and individuals. Their aim is to protect members of higher education institutions. They do this by providing those at risk in their home country with positions of sanctuary in other higher education institutions. Scholars can be at risk for undertaking research which is deemed subversive by authorities and citizens. They can also be at risk for speaking out against regimes and actions that are inconducive with academic freedom.
“They deemed them immoral, subversive, there were several allegations of transgressing the norms of the society”
Andrew McClelland, the contact point for Scholars at Risk in Ireland said that the organisation had three main purposes. “One of which is to try to work towards protecting threatened scholars around the world, also to try to prevent attacks on higher education, and then thirdly is to promote ideas of academic freedom and other such values.”SAR has provided advice and assistance to scholars and institutions in over 2000 cases. They have provided 600 positions of sanctuary for scholars who were forced to leave their home countries due to violence or threats made against them.Dr. Shirin Zubair is a scholar of English literature and women’s studies. She had been teaching English literature at a Pakistani university in southern Punjab for nearly 30 years before she was forced to leave the university.Dr Zubair studied English literature to PhD level and her interest in gender studies developed after that. She rose in position in the university until she became chair of the department of the university and began designing modules for undergraduates. Many of these modules focused on women’s studies and feminist literary theory. “For the past 12 or 13 years, I have been teaching these modules along with other traditional literature modules,” she says.
“I think there is some kind of threat with these disciplines. Women, feminism and these topics were not received very well by the administration”
In regards to women’s studies Dr Zubair says, “I think there is some kind of threat with these disciplines. Women, feminism and these topics were not received very well by the administration and some of the other groups, extremist groups, they accused me of teaching materials and texts and promoting immorality or promoting ideas or values which were incompatible with the teachings of Islam.”The modules on women’s studies frustrated some students in the university, as did the hiring of a liberal English lecturer. Both this lecturer and Dr Zubair were accused of blasphemy by some students in the university.“When the protest happened it was a very normal day,” says Dr Zubair. “You go to work and I was in the class and I just left the class and came back to my office and suddenly here are these students that shout and then these students... they just barged in to the department… some of them had batons in their hands.”“100 or 150 students came protesting, chanting slogans against him [the lecturer] and also against me for promoting, for hiring this guy to teach. Also because they did not approve of the texts and themes that I taught… They deemed them immoral, subversive; there were several allegations of transgressing the norms of the society.”The students were looking for the English lecturer, who had posted something perceived as blasphemous on his Facebook page the previous night. “He had known [that the protest would happen] the previous night,” Dr Zubair said. “Otherwise they could have beaten him to death.”“At that time, I was in my office. I was scared because I thought maybe they would come and throw stones at me or smash the windows… I did not know what to expect really and I was really scared.”The other English lecturer was arrested by the police for blasphemy and is currently in jail in Pakistan. Dr Zubair was investigated by the police also, but was not charged with blasphemy. However Dr Zubair says, “I heard later that some of the groups in the university were pressurising the police to arrest me also.”The following day Dr Zubair was called in to the office of the vice-chancellor of the university. “He said, ‘there are threats to your life and you better not come to campus’.” Dr Zubair has not been on the university campus since. She went to London, then she got a fellowship in Germany, “and then I came into contact with Scholars at Risk.”Dr Zubair is currently researching at a European university, in her “second exile” as she calls it. Her first exile was in 2009. She has a consciousness raising group in Pakistan which organised rallies to protest against honour killings and promote women’s rights. Although this group was not affiliated with the university, when her name was in the local paper, the university removed her as chair. There was also slanderous graffiti written against her on public streets. She went to the United States on a fellowship from Scholar Rescue Fund, a sister organisation of SAR.When asked about education in Pakistan she says, “Maybe the access to education is there, but the content of the education is also important.” She says that education is no good “if you are not teaching them to think about issues or not asking them or making them reflect on these issues, and they’re just rote learning and reproducing the stuff.” She also added that some of the textbooks promote biases.Dr Zubair also references the Pakistani government’s recent YouTube ban and the influence of religious clergy on education. “Just before I fled the country, the religious groups had also pressured the vice chancellor to show them the curricula, the texts and materials that are shown in the literature department at the university level. They put so much pressure on the vice chancellor,” she says.The extremist groups visited the English department to view the texts and materials used by the department. Because the religious groups were watching the department so closely, the heads of the department got scared: “The very next day, they said… stop showing movies.” Dr Zubair summed up her experience of the event: “That’s not education, this is ridiculous.”According to Scholars at Risk, their work “is rooted in the principle of academic freedom – the freedom to pursue scholarship and research without discrimination, censorship, intimidation, or violence.” In some locations this goal is far from being achieved; but with the support of Scholars at Risk, Dr Zubair and academics like her will be able to continue their work in safe environments around the world.