When the students of the Progressive Students Federation (PrSF) and Progressive Students Collective (PSC) came together at the Faiz Festival in Lahore on November 17, they made their presence felt with chants of revolutionary slogans.
Leading the charge, was a young student activist, who passionately sang the timeless lines, ‘Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna’ written by the Indian poet Ram Prasad ‘Bismil’.
Overnight, the video went viral and Arooj Aurangzaib, a student of Lahore's Punjab University, became "that leather jacket girl" and eventually, the face of a revolution.
Fraught with fee hikes, harassment scandals and campus arrests, these students across Pakistan have been demanding better education and a free and fair academic environment.
With the Students Solidarity March set to hit the streets of over 50 Pakistani cities, demanding a restoration of student unions in Pakistan on Friday, Arooj Aurangzaib spoke to News18 about the burgeoning movement and its importance.
To begin with, could you give a little background about yourself?
I am from Lahore. I did my bachelors in mass communication from Punjab University. I am a part of Progressive Students Collective, The Feminist Collective, and Sangat.
When you were reciting 'sarfaroshi ki tamanna' at the Faiz festival in Lahore, did you imagine that the video will capture the attention of socialists and progressives across South Asia?
No, we were just doing our regular mobilisation work. I am glad that it's somehow speaking to the people who are sick and tired of mental slavery that transforms into real systems of oppression.
But I am also cautious and conscious. The attention is a burden in many ways. Logistically, I don't have space in my phone so I have not downloaded Twitter and Facebook. Socially, being a woman and being unapologetically visible in the video is something that is complicated in South Asian societies. That's why I had been avoiding leading slogans before the Faiz Festival. But when the video went viral, we used it as a platform to take our demands of the Student Solidarity March forward and to gain visibility for our cause of education. Personally, when I see the video, I see the beauty of the collective in it. Even when I am raising those slogans, the voice is not just mine.
Pakistan does not have elected student unions. What are the problems that students have been facing due to this ban on unions?
The fundamental problem is that we are not allowed to even talk about the issues we face on campus. Education is being aggressively privatised, the tuition and hostel fee has never been this high in the history of our country. Women continue to be harassed by peers and the administration on a daily basis, the quality of education is getting lower day by day, but there is no mechanism with which students can raise their voices and find solutions to the growing crises. We are not represented in any decision-making activity, we are not taken into account while our futures are being framed. We are just considered as machines that would work regardless of the pressure being forced upon us.
In the video viral video, you can be seen wearing a leather jacket. Some of your detractors on social media have used that to discredit you, by claiming that you come from an upper class background. What do you say to such people?
Your movement, much like the students movement in India, often quotes revolutionary poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ram Prasad Bismil and Habib Jalib. What relationship do progressive students in India and Pakistan have with 20th century poets?
In times of despair, revolutionary art and literature have the power to ignite fire that we forgot we possess. So, it's the relationship of hope, resistance and of imagining a better life.
There are student protests taking place all over Asia, and in India, Pakistan and Hong Kong in particular. Do you think they have something in common?
Universities are not centers of new ideas anymore, rather they have started to operate as profit making institutions. This is why fee hikes is one common aspect that you would see in all these contexts. The struggles are basically, a fight back from students to reclaim public education and make it accessible to every segment of the society. So, I think the commonality lies in their intention. We are simply tired of living a life that we don't want to live. It is exhausting. We want the quality of education that we deserve, we want it for everyone, and we want it now.