Writing Out a Revolution

by Madeeha Ansari

In Arabic, “Tahrir” means “liberation”. In Urdu, the same word can be translated as “narrative” or, more specifically, “writing”.  The Tahrir Square in Cairo, therefore, was a particularly apt venue for the unfolding of a historic narrative through which the future of an entire region will be rewritten.

The story of the social media revolution is one with chapters set in different locations, each with its own preface in terms of politics, culture and society. Some are more dramatic, others so understated that they may not make it to the archives. “Tunisia”, “Egypt” and “Libya” are the excerpts that will be preserved and quoted from. “Yemen”, “Syria” and the restive states with repressive regimes across the Middle East are still waiting to be written out and tied into the plot. As for “Pakistan” – it’s complicated.

Of course, there are common motifs in each narrative that can be isolated as catalysts for change. The first has to be heightened connectivity, and the empowerment that comes with it. As one Egyptian activist[1] famously phrased it, “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” The interactivity of social media has changed the meaning of “communication”, making it less about telling and more about sharing. The more traditional forms of media and communication have also evolved, with citizen journalism becoming a necessity as well as a norm. After all, if Citizen X sees and records it, BBC would rather have it before YouTube. 

“It would not do to hurtle through history like somnambulists, not when there is such a consciousness of youth and possibility.”

Then there’s the demographic development. Unlike the aging Europe and Japan, much of the developing world is home to a generation characterised by youth, energy, and a sense of potential. This last is most important: a nation’s sense that its reality can be different.  It’s an exciting world to be living in, where the power to craft reality is (virtually) at our fingertips.

With power, however, comes crushing responsibility. The knowledge that the future is one’s own – that’s a heavy burden to bear. It would not do to hurtle through history like somnambulists, not when there is such a consciousness of youth and possibility. Maybe that’s why the word “revolution” has become fashionable enough to be tossed about by more than the communists and the usual argumentative suspects. Energized and somewhat shamed by the precedent set by the Middle East, the young bourgeois of Pakistan have a secret longing to prove they can “tan (their) skin too white” and do something worthy of being remembered.

What needs to be understood is that “revolution” is a term that necessarily needs to be customized. For some it entails the ouster of dictatorship, to facilitate the liberation of the media and pave the way first for political, then for socio-economic change. For places like Pakistan where the industrial media is already liberated and civil society has already instituted some kind of political process, the vague call for “Inqilab” lacks substance.

If any lesson has emerged from the activist spirit sweeping across the globe, it is that the new and traditional forms of the media have an essential role in knitting together voices and efforts. They can create as well as sustain the energy to bring the kind of change that is needed in a particular place. In Pakistan, the need is not necessarily to take to the streets and overhaul a legitimate (if incompetent) regime. The need is for a quieter kind of revolution, to promote the less glamorous idea of responsible citizenship and ensure universal access to basic rights, in order to repair the rifts created by disparity.

It is this realization that has inspired campaigns like the petition against the “education emergency” in the country, seeking 200,000 signatures.  Education is something basic enough to be overlooked and taken for granted – we all know the system is flawed, that the state-allocated budget is dismal, that just beyond the urban periphery stands a lonely, brooding ghost school. But to rejuvenate the debate, to tap the outreach of new and traditional media and generate massive popular support advocating change – that is how this generation can be different.

As far as corruption and nepotism are concerned, too, one way of addressing issues is by bringing them into public discourse. Here, the generation has the option of sidestepping the convenient mud-flinging and finger-pointing, to free up mind-space for introspection. In this respect, one interesting illustration of the interplay between mobile phone communication, industrial media and social media is the “Khamoshi ka boycott” campaign launched by Telenor. This “Boycott of silence” under the umbrella of the youth brand, DJuice, has recently replaced the more frivolous tagline, “Fun to be young”.  Part of this campaign is the call to raise questions and text in answers, to get people thinking about Pakistan and Pakistani society. Questions like: “Do we respect females outside our homes?” or “Is it possible to get a job without a ‘reference’?” 

The need is for a quieter kind of revolution, to promote the less glamorous idea of responsible citizenship and ensure universal access to basic rights, in order to repair the rifts created by disparity.

Of course, that would be the corporate sector taking stock of the prevalent mindset and cleverly exploiting it for advertising purposes. However, it does mirror the truth that right now we are a demand-articulate nation, unafraid to ask questions. The real challenge is how to use the tools at our disposal to proceed from there.

So far, we’ve all just been trying to figure it out. One gets a sense of angst from the popular music that has emerged over the past couple of years, focusing on passion, patriotism, and the desire to “do or die”. After being preoccupied with unrequited love for decades, mainstream Pakistani musicians began to express the chronic national dissatisfaction with the government and general state of affairs. Shahzad Roy discovered satire; Strings and Atif Aslam decided the young folk had to assume ownership of their future; Ali Zafar flashed a winning smile in support. Socialist band Laal brought Faiz Ahmed Faiz back to life, with English subtitles for the urban You-tubers. All of this has been a reflection of the spirit that prompted the formation of a plethora of social media-driven youth groups, with the vague mandate of creating positive energy.

Interestingly, amazingly, the spirit has worked. Now the notes are becoming increasingly upbeat, so that the prime concern is not just being loud enough to criticize everyone else, but collectively forging a practical course of action. The newest Strings video being shared on Facebook and national television is gentler, sweeter, less virulent, featuring schoolchildren and the things they want to see. In the transition towards maturity, there seems to be a concerted effort to move beyond rhetoric. Apart from calling the odd discussion panel and signing a petition, young people are now being recruited by a variety of development initiatives, and there is a new spirit of volunteerism. They are also being incentivised to channel their talents through projects like “Teach for Pakistan”, which offers fresh graduates and professionals competitive salaries to teach in under resourced government schools for two years. The first batch of TFP fellows will be recruited this summer, to “start the movement” and play an active part in ending the “education emergency”.

There is something electrifying about “revolution”, a word that can rouse individuals who had been written off to apathy. Real development is not as glamorous; there is no adrenaline in the struggle, results are slow and hard to come by. But to successfully drag it into public discourse and create the momentum for change – that is nothing short of revolutionary.

After all, every place has its own “Tahrir”.