By Zaair Hussain
Without the youth taking on a self-actualised identity, we will have no innovators, no modern enlightenment, and no new ideas at all. We cannot have a new crop of free thinkers, our bright new stars to guide us, so long as teenagers are puppets dancing on the strings of the past
Think of the children. Think of the youth. When we summon forth these clichés, so badly worn now that they are indistinguishable from a soothing mumble, what do we mean? Almost without exception, we mean to say that we should sally forth, even though we beggar our energy and resources, to protect our children (and we as a nation absolutely include teenagers in this category), to secure their future and safeguard their interests, to ensure their happiness and guarantee their safety.
All without once considering that they may have something to say on the matter.
Crises are to Pakistan as holes are to a net; it is sometimes difficult to see where the crises end and the country begin. But we putter along. The government has not yet fallen, India has not yet declared war, nuclear weapons have not fallen into the hands of terrorists, our food and power sources have not yet petered out.
This is not to belittle the profundity of the above crises, but to illustrate that we have survived, we have stood our ground against disasters arising from the seas and the earth and the evil in men’s hearts. But we face another crisis, which will slowly but surely wear us down. A crisis of disengagement.
Teenagers comprise the most populous segment of our society, save for the even younger. The most recent demographic survey of Pakistan (2007) confirms that this holds true across rural and urban areas, in every province. They represent the surge of the future, or its stagnation. They are our grace and our downfall. They are our future, as the cliché goes, but what of it? They were also our past, and here we stand.
There are certain initiatives critical to the development of youth that are out of individual hands. They involve complex economic policies, and education reform. But what is basic and essential, both for individuals and the country and the state, is rethinking the way in which we see our young blood.
Think of the secluded boys and girls of the elite, who live their days either oblivious of their less fortunate peers or embarrassed by them. These are your future leaders. Think of the middle class teenagers, they who should be the economic backbone of this country, who learn so early on that hard work and ability is no match for a grand car and a grander name. Think of the poor, the majority, who see their parents go through life with their backs bent and heads down.
What do these people want? What do they think? What drives them? What angers them? What inspires them? Who knows? Who cares? Nobody’s asking. Teenagers are told that they are the future, of their boundless potential, but always kept an arm’s length from realising it. Lest they should hurt themselves. Lest they strike out on their own. Lest, heaven forbid, they do what their parents did not.
Likely this disdain stems from deeply rooted social customs, where respect for elders is flipped onto its head, and blinds us as a nation to the capacity of the young. They are loved, cherished, but not heard. Nowhere is this more apparent than education. Good teachers, as I have written before, rarely get the social or economic rewards they deserve. At the time, I was staggered at the idea that we poison the very stream that feeds into our future. But if we see it from the lens of our ingrained authoritarian patriarchy, it makes sense: we treat teachers as glorified baby sitters because we do not see teenagers as people in their own rights. We see them as eggs to be incubated, one more or less like another until it hatches into full adulthood.
Ultimately, it matters little whether the national penchant for ignoring teenagers springs from disdain or a misguided intention to protect. The youth are rising, whether we will it or no. They will be our future — our immediate future. They will be everything we do and everything we don’t.
It is not looking good. There is a consensus among analysts like Heinsohn that countries with very young populations are prone to social disaster. This has already occurred in many countries around the world, and Pakistan’s prospects look grim.
Teenagers of Pakistan have had their agency stunted. They are utterly disengaged from mainstream politics, from education, from the great national debates of our time. They have been ignored wholesale by parents, by legislators, by the government and by the opposition. Without the youth taking on a self-actualised identity, we will have no innovators, no modern enlightenment, no new ideas at all. We cannot have a new crop of free thinkers, our bright new stars to guide us, so long as teenagers are puppets dancing on the strings of the past.
Too many of our young men are angry. Too many of our young women are wasted. Both are in chains with no substance but incredible weight.
Why have I chosen this time to espouse the rights, the personhoods of the young? Because of the young boys beaten to death in Sialkot, the young man (one of thousands) slain without a trial and left to bleed on the streets of Karachi. Because of the girls whose lives are determined for them, on pain of shunning or far, far worse. Because of the new jihadis who have no agency or franchise, and so settle for dogma and destruction.
Surely our young have earned the right, through blood and tears, to speak and be heard. Teenagers absolutely must be more widely engaged on their own terms, their input actively courted by parents, by educators, by industry headhunters, by broadcasters and by politicians. Violent political parties and movements already offer teenagers avenues to scratch out a crude identity, knowing their potential, exploiting their energy and their drive and their sheer numbers. We cannot lose our youth to them.
As I write, millions of teenagers in villages and cities across the country are learning the wrong lessons. They are learning that they are undeserving of respect, that might makes right, that corruption and staggering inequality are inevitable, that the only freedom is the freedom of wanton violence or abject submission.
And they learn quickly.
The writer is a Lahore-based freelance columnist.
Source: The Daily Times, Lahore