Longing For The Past And Learning From It: A Conversation With The Pioneers Of LUMS Historical Society

Earlier this month, I stumbled upon an image of a clay female figurine called the “Mother Goddess.” Bedecked with a flagrant headdress and endowed with prominent breasts, the figurine, one of the many recovered from the Neolithic site of Mehrgarh in Balochistan, is a celebration, even deification of the female form. The curvaceous contours of the figurine do not sexualize the female body but lend a cult-like reverence to it. When I look at these figurines, 1000-year old glorifications of the female body preserved in the softness of clay, I cannot help but compare them to modern-day perceptions of the female form in Pakistan and the notions of shame associated with it. How did we go from venerating the female body to demonizing it? So, when Haanya Channa, Founder and President of the recently-launched LUMS Historical Society (LHS), tells me, “History defines our past, forms our present, and draws our future,” I wonder if we, as a society, had not overlooked the exalted history of Mehrgarh women, would we have been kinder to the women of today and tomorrow? I wonder if we had rescued these figurines buried deep into the heart of Balochistan, would we have had to bury so many of our women in recent times? This then, is Haanya’s vision for LHS; to recover and reclaim our history in a way that carves out a better future for all. 

A Word With The Pioneers 

A law major minoring in history, Haanya’s passion for the latter and its multiple realities was stirred by none other than Dr. Ali Raza, the HSS faculty member with the most sought after and frustratingly elusive courses. Fortunately for her, Haanya landed a course with him in her freshman year; a course that would completely alter her understanding and perception of history for years to come. She tells me, “In the first class, he asked us to define ‘colonialism.’ The only definition that I knew was the two-line definition that we had in our textbook, and he told us that he did not believe in the textbook definitions. He said that by the end of the year, our perspective of history and what it is will completely change. And it did.”

Haanya’s colleagues in the Executive Council have had journeys of their own in discovering their passion for history. Heer Cheema, the Head of Publications and a history major, had taken World History in her A-Levels but had never felt drawn to it enough to consider pursuing a degree in it. It wasn’t until she started having conversations with her grandparents about their experiences of the 1947 Partition that her interest in the discipline was truly confirmed. “The more I heard, the more I knew that there were stories I was not hearing, and that just drew me closer and closer to the realization that this is what I wanted to do,” she says. 

For the Head of Research, Mohid Ahsan, who is a senior majoring in history and minoring in CLCS, history has been the exploration not just of the past but also of the self. “I went to a madrassa, some seven or eight years back,” he says, “And after that, I was really confused about the world; coming from an elite school, going to a madrassa with a completely different pedagogy and set of values. History, in some ways, has allowed me to stitch together why I am feeling the way I am feeling.” 

Zarmeen Sajjad, the General Secretary, came to LUMS as a potential political science major, but the history courses she took steered her in the direction of the discipline that resonates with her essentially because of the stories it tells. “History itself has the word ‘story’ in it, so for me, it has always been about the stories of the people, stories from the past that determine the way we view our present,” she says. 

What To Expect: A Comic Series, An Oral History Archive, And Much More! 

One of LHS’ primary goals is to democratize the preservation of history. Instead of restricting the narration, collection, and compilation of historical narratives to an exclusive circle of the educated elite, the Executive Council is committed to ensuring that their publications and archives are accessible to a wider audience. “Our goal is not necessarily to publish research papers which will be read by people like ourselves. We want our work to be able to connect with a broader audience,” says Heer. To achieve this, the society will take on a number of projects, one of which is conducting discussions with Pakistani historians on topics of history that are relevant to the Pakistani narrative. “These conversations will be conducted in Urdu, because that language is at the core of our society, and we already have plenty of historical research available in English which is only read by a small group of scholarly people,” Mohid elaborates.  Hence, LHS is not solely focused on documenting Pakistani history, but also on doing it in a way that makes it accessible to the masses that are usually denied this information on account of linguistic or socio-economic barriers.

Oral history has always been a radical and empowering tool in understanding how past events impacted the lives and experiences of people. In a country where history is largely constructed and rewritten by the state, the oral testimonies of people who were eyewitnesses to and lived through historical occurrences allow us to disentangle the historical truth from state propaganda. But more importantly, it renders history humane. This is why creating an archive of oral history is one of the fundamental objectives of LHS, so much so that Haanya had initially wanted to create an oral history society. “Initially, I had wanted to create a society that would solely focus on oral history, because it is so interesting. It’s not just about the stories people tell, but also the language they use, their expressions, the pauses they take. You can tell so much from just that,” she expresses. LHS understands that oral history has not flourished significantly in Pakistan, and elevating its position and bringing it on the same pedestal as written history is a foremost aim of theirs. “Archiving and making available audio files of oral testimonies is an important part of what we will be doing,” Heer points out. 

Visuals and illustrations have always been the most enchanting ways to tell a story, leading to LHS’ decision to introduce  a comic series that will compel people to visually connect with the past. “The comic series will be published throughout the year, and its point is to capture nuance in an intimate manner, and visual imagery just connects with people, and this is what history is ultimately about; connecting with things around you in ways that you never foresaw,” Heer states. She further informs me that the comic series will be published in a history magazine that the society intends to release. “The magazine will have a variety of pieces in it. Students who have written strong papers in any history course can send their pieces and we will try to publish those because you write these pieces in class and they go nowhere. Now there is a space for them. Along with that, we will also be publishing creative pieces that ask questions like what does it mean to be a researcher? What does it mean to be a historian in a country like Pakistan where so many sources are often kept from you?” she elaborates. 

Stories From The Margins: Unearthing The History Of The Silenced 

The experiences and narratives of religious, ethnic, and gender minorities have almost always been distorted, or worse, erased from the pages of Pakistani history. Very few people know of the Therhi massacre of 1963, during which 118 Shia Muslims were killed by a mob of Deobandi Muslims in Therhi, Sindh. Even fewer are aware of the 1953 Lahore riots which were citywide incidents of arson, looting, and murder against the Ahmaddiya community of Pakistan. In relegating the stories of these minorities to the sidelines, there is a conscious attempt to wipe out their history, and in doing so, to obliterate their identities as well. Therefore, LHS is committed to salvaging these tales of suffering and oppression from the vicious sands of time before it is too late. “Our aim is to get a conversation started on these incidents, and our podcasts, online blogs, and other publications will definitely incorporate historical narratives and vantage points that have been left out in the past. In Pakistan, history has almost always been told from the perspective of the Sunni Punjabi male, but we are committed to retelling history in a way that sidelines no one,” Zaremeen assures. 

Combatting Toxicity And Covert Sexism In A New Society

While student societies are indispensable to the LUMS life, they also sometimes develop a proclivity for nurturing problematic cultures that not only hamper the society’s own growth but also that of the people who devote their time and energy to it. Complaints about society inductions becoming ridiculously selective and instances of covert misogyny have surfaced on LDF repeatedly. Although still navigating through its embryonic stages, LHS is conscious of the ways in which societies can collapse into toxicity and become unfavorable for the people who join them. The EC is committed to forming a community that promises safety and equality. “As students ourselves, we understand the value of learning, and we understand that students enter a society to learn a certain skill set, therefore, we do not expect them to have any sort of rigorous past training or experience. A small example of this is that when we were writing the questions for our application, Mohid stated in brackets that even “prior interest” instead of prior experience in a department is enough,” Heer says. Similarly, the EC is passionate about making the society a safe space for everyone, especially women, who are often discriminated against or treated disrespectfully by male seniors in student societies. “We understand that our responsibility is not just to form a disciplinary committee and come up with a harassment policy; we know that we also have to implement a behavior and culture where women do not feel uncomfortable,” Haanya reassures. 

Spearheaded by a brilliant group of individuals, the LUMS Historical Society promises not just an exploration of the past, but also a re-examination of it. It pledges to take you on a journey that will make you realize that history pervades everything, that reclaiming your past is a way of reclaiming yourself, your roots, and your heritage. With its commitment to diversity, creativity, and nuance, LHS is already asserting its place as one of the most innovative societies that LUMS has to offer. Students cannot wait for its operations to officially start! 

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