It all started with a kiss.
When an unsuspecting female student at Lahore University of Management Sciences turned to peck her boyfriend on the cheek during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan last month, she probably thought her private moment would remain just that.
Instead the kiss – which a fellow student witnessed, documented, and then blasted in an email to the entire university as part of her "dossier" on campus PDAs (public displays of affection) – has sparked a passionate, headline-grabbing debate about how conservative Pakistani society should be.
The vigilant student, Tajwar Tashfin Awan, sent the mass email in an effort to generate support from students and the administration, which has since promised to "see any PDA go the route of the dodo." Instead, in the past several weeks it has generated hundreds of replies invoking anger, humor, and famous philosophers on what is normally a quiet listserv.
The brouhaha at LUMS, Pakistan's premier educational institution, points to the drastically different ideological directions in which youths across the country are being pulled, says Asif Akthar, the Lahore-based blogger who first reported the story and is now a research assistant at the university.
"I think [the debate over the kiss] signifies a conflict between different cultural identities and shows there is something unresolved there," he says.
LUMS's leafy campus, located in a heavily fortified compound in the posh Defence neighborhood of Lahore, has stood out in Pakistan as a place where students of all stripes seem to coexist. Dressed in everything from burqas and shalwar kameez to tank tops and skinny jeans, and drawn mostly from the upper-middle class, the student body goes on to hold top jobs in finance, industry, law, and software engineering. Many continue their studies in the West.
"At LUMS, you'll find people of all ideological persuasions studying and living together easily. There's a deeply secular community. There are religious ascetics who believe in a more tolerant form of Islam. There are Deobandis [an ultraconservative branch of Islam], and there are Marxists," says Ammar Rashid, a recent graduate and now research assistant in social sciences.
LUMS has also been more open about men and women studying together – in contrast with some government-run universities, such as the University of the Punjab also in Lahore, where "free-mixing" between the sexes is frowned upon and in some instances violently opposed by the Islami Jamiat Talaba, an Islamist student group.
But as the kissing scandal shows, the fissures of a society in flux run through LUMS as well, says Mr. Akhtar. "In a country where there's an ongoing debate about the role of religion and the state, that debate is going to spill over into all aspects of public life and college campuses."
In the maelstrom of replies to the e-mail that exposed the kiss (and threatened to supply photographic evidence of it), one conservative senior tried to guide freshmen on the correct path. "At LUMS, you will be bombarded with all sorts of atheistic and secular philosophies and 'isms'. If you do not have the proper knowledge and conviction about Islam, you may fall prey to the untiring efforts of certain faculty members as well as your fellow students to misguide you," he wrote, before linking to his personal website dedicated to Islamic practices.
Others responded with sarcasm: "I have sinned. I do not believe that there is a God because I can not see, feel, hear or touch Him/Her… During the holy month, instead of attending Koranic recitals in the mosque, I was listening to the demonic sounds of Pink Floyd," wrote one junior.
The LUMS Office of Student Affairs has promised to issue a code of conduct to ban PDAs – a measure some students have lauded, and others rolled their eyes at.
That would be a blow to university's prevailing culture of democracy and tolerance, says Akhtar. "The administration should be fostering a debate on the issue to try to get a handle on what the so-called prevailing norms really are, and the ideas should be thrashed out for debate," he says.