July 22, 2011


[In Pakistan's Punjab province, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, the student wing of a powerful hard-line religious party, seeks to enforce its fundamentalist agenda, intimidating and sometimes attacking students and teachers alike.]
By Alex Rodriguez
After philosophy students and faculty members rallied to denounce heavy-handed efforts to separate male and female students, Islamists on campus struck back: In the dead of night, witnesses say, the radicals showed up at a men's dormitory armed with wooden sticks and bicycle chains.

They burst into dorm rooms, attacking philosophy students. One was pistol-whipped and hit on the head with a brick. Gunfire rang out, although no one was injured. Police were called, but nearly a month after the attack, no arrests have been made.

Few on Punjab University's leafy campus, including top administrators, dare to challenge the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, or the IJT, the student wing of one of Pakistan's most powerful hard-line Islamist parties.

Few on Punjab University's leafy campus, including top administrators, dare to challenge the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, or the IJT, the student wing of one of Pakistan's most powerful hard-line Islamist parties.

At another Lahore campus, the principal disdainfully refers to the Islamists as "a parallel administration."

The organization's clout illustrates the deep roots of Islamist extremism in Pakistani society, an influence that extends beyond radical religious schools and militant strongholds in the volatile tribal belt along the Afghan border.

University administrators fear that the IJT's influence on many campuses will lead to an increase in extremism among the middle class, from which the next generation of Pakistan's leaders will rise.

"These people have connections with jihadi groups, and they are taking hostage our campuses," said Sajid Ali, chairman of Punjab University's philosophy department. "This is a real danger for the future of our country."

Fellow students and teachers regard them as Islamist vigilantes. In addition to trying to separate the sexes, they order shopkeepers not to sell Coca-Cola or Pepsi because they are American brands. When they overhear a cluster of fellow students debating topics, from capitalism to religion, they demand that the discussion stop and threaten violence if it continues.

The recent trouble here at Punjab University started when a posse of IJT members slapped a male philosophy student for talking with a female classmate. Students and faculty members organized a protest rally, which led to the dorm attack on June 26. Shahrukh Rashid, 22, who was among those attacked, said the police have been of little help.

"One of the police inspectors told us, 'Whatever is done is done,' " he said.

University officials say that government leaders in Punjab, the country's wealthiest and most populous province, have allowed the IJT to flourish rather than jeopardize their political alliances with hard-line clerics at the helm of religious parties. Even when students, teachers or university administrators seek criminal charges against IJT members, the police rarely respond.

"If the government wanted to solve the problem here, they could do it overnight," said Asif Mahmood Qureshi, principal of the Government Islamia College, a state university in Lahore, the provincial capital.

IJT members don't allow him access to their dormitory, and physically force students and teachers to join their protests. With support from a bloc of teachers sympathetic to the IJT's cause, they have managed to control the school's teachers union, Qureshi said.

"They don't want the principal to do anything without their consent," said Qureshi, the administrator who referred to the organization as running a parallel administration.

At Punjab University, IJT sympathizers include some teachers and even some of the security guards, teachers and students say.

Ali, the chairman of the philosophy department, said students and teachers in most of the university's academic departments do not resist. The IJT won't allow music classes on campus, Ali said, so the music department's teachers meet their students at a concert hall off campus.

Standing up to the IJT can trigger severe consequences. Last year, an environmental sciences professor, as head of the school's disciplinary committee, expelled several IJT members for unruly behavior. A group of IJT students stormed into his office, beat him with metal rods and smashed a flowerpot over his head. He survived the attack.

When IJT members attacked the philosophy department dorm late last month, the students fought back, chasing the fundamentalists. Within 15 minutes, the IJT youths had fled.

"We've never been cowed by them," Ali said. "So we're on an island at this university."

The IJT's campus leader, Zubair Safdar, acknowledged that some student members went to the philosophy department's dormitory to confront students there, and that fights broke out. The IJT members involved later apologized to the department's students and teachers, Safdar said.

"It was a miscommunication between the IJT students and the philosophy students," he said.

Safdar, however, denied that the IJT relies on violence to get its message across. Seated at his desk in a small office at a dormitory dominated by IJT members, the 27-year-old sociology student said his organization is opposed to male and female students sitting together because "the university is not a date point, it's a place of education."

He also denied that IJT members rough up male students who resist. "We just talk to them," he said. "We are trying to create an environment that puts students on the right path. We don't forcibly push students onto that path."

At Government Islamia College, Qureshi paints a portrait of a school under siege. Last year, IJT members staged 33 protests in six months, often threatening to beat students and teachers if they didn't join the rallies. The demonstrations created major disruptions in the college's routine; many students refused to show up to classes for two or three days after a protest because they feared that the IJT would instigate more violence.

Qureshi says he lacks the means to fight back. The power to suspend or expel students lies with the college's board of governors, which hasn't convened since January because of a pending lawsuit filed by IJT students challenging the board's authority. His attempts to get Punjab provincial education officials to clamp down on IJT behavior have been ignored.

In January, IJT members smashed the windshield and windows of Qureshi's 1990 Nissan and broke down the front door of his office. He met with Punjab province's education secretary and asked him to intervene.

"I explained what happened, but all I got from him was silence," Qureshi said.

The IJT's logo, a blue shield with a star and crescent moon, is plastered all over campus: on walls, lampposts and the school's main gate. On the perimeter walls, IJT graffiti declare that "Martyrdom is our desire, and jihad is our way. Islam revolution is our destination. So join us."

Qureshi can't keep the group's images out of even his own office. Affixed to a file cabinet behind his desk and a nearby bookshelf are IJT stickers. Asked why he doesn't peel them off, Qureshi laughs nervously. "I have control, but not so much." 

[The cheerleading squad for the Indian cricket team Pune Warriors takes a traditional-culture, fully clothed approach to motivate players and fans. It calls for complex hand waves and traditional dance steps in saris.]

By Mark Magnier

Can sari-clad "cheer queens" stand up to short-skirted pom-pom girls?

That's a question Indian cricket fans are pondering after a team here introduced a cheerleading squad wrapped head to toe in traditional garb, its members eschewing high kicks and splits for complex hand waves and traditional dance steps.

"The concept of cheer queens is an extraordinary way of showcasing our national artistic heritage to the world," says Abhijit Sarkar, director of the Pune Warriors.

Others say it's a nice idea, done somewhere else.

"If you want fine arts, go to a hall," said cricket columnist Ayaz Memon.

Cheerleading arrived in India three years ago with the inception of a shorter, more TV-friendly form of cricket, a three-hour version of a game that, in its purest form, lasts five days with breaks for tea.

To attract audiences to the glitzy new Indian Premier League, organizers drew on an age-old principle — sex sells — and introduced U.S.-style cheerleaders in bikinis, miniskirts and high boots.

Many male fans welcomed the idea. But right-wing, religious and feminist groups quickly condemned it as "vulgar," "walking porn" and "frivolous eye candy" in a nation where, Kama Sutra aside, sensuality is not frequently discussed or displayed in public.

The fact that at least half the cheerleaders were foreigners, including several members of the Washington Redskins cheerleading squad with short skirts and what the Hindustan Times described as "teeny-weeny blouses," only fueled the kerfuffle.

They're "worse than bar dancers," complained Maharashtra state minister Siddharam Mhetre. "Mothers and daughters watch these matches and it does not look nice."

In a bid to appeal to the high-brow side of the sports-fan brain, the Warriors, an expansion team based in Pune, this year introduced its traditional-culture, fully clothed approach to crowd excitement.

A few hours before the last Pune Warriors match of the season, cheer queen Jennifer Cray, 27, donned a maroon and white sari, waterproof makeup, hair extensions and intricate forehead jewelry. She and her colleagues juggle seven traditional dance forms and multiple costumes in a bid to encapsulate India's 5,000-year diversity before spectators of the 450-year-old game, all in heat that can reach 120 degrees.

On the opposite side of the field, Delhi Daredevils' cheerleaders leap and gyrate in blue tank tops, miniskirts and three-quarter Lycra shorts.

"It's really difficult sometimes," Cray said. "Compared to other cheerleaders, who look so comfortably dressed, it can be quite hot and uncomfortable. But the appreciation from Pune Warriors supporters makes up for it."

Nets, security guards, even moat-like barriers separate cheerleaders from occasionally rude, catcalling fans, which "brings the cricket arena uncomfortably close to a zoo," in the words of one critic.

Pune's path along the moral high road has received mixed reviews. Some welcome this Indian imprint on the glitzy foreign concept. "CheerQueens are much hotter in [saris] than bottle blondes in knickers," wrote socialite Shobhaa De on Twitter.

But even some dance purists aren't sold. Although young viewers may be exposed to traditional culture, the approach, they say, risks cheapening the ancient art.

"To just thoughtlessly put together styles with a fast-forward button is disrespectful," said Aditi Mangaldas, head of the Drishtikon Dance Foundation.

Sociologists say the debate reflects the gap between an increasingly sophisticated, brash and cosmopolitan India and a largely uneducated and conservative rural population left behind.

League efforts to bridge this morality gap weren't helped by a scandal that saw Mumbai Indians cheerleader Gabriella Pasqualotto, a South African, fired after blogging about the after-game parties involving some of cricket's biggest names. "The guys treated us like pieces of meat," she told the South African Witness newspaper.

As cheerleading takes hold, many teams have found a middle ground, scaling back some of the most revealing outfits in favor of fuller clothes and tights beneath short skirts. With time, more foreign exposure and India's increasingly outrageous reality shows, the original shock value is also wearing off.

"At first it seemed cheeky and bawdy," said columnist Memon. "Now, it's become more naturalized and acceptable."

Even as the Pune Warriors vow to keep the candle lighted for tradition, few other teams in the league seem eager to follow suit. If anything, the Western cheerleader concept has spread to hockey and boxing events, TV programs and advertising, as well as Internet sites that allow you to direct how avatar cheerleaders leap and gyrate.

"It's Indian hypocrisy at its best," said Suhel Seth, head of Counselage India, a consulting firm. "This is a country of temples carved with erotica, that invented the Kama Sutra. Pretending to be squeamish about women is absurd."