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Footprints: the first of many

Updated July 28, 2017

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THREE years into undergraduate studies, Saima can recall her mother’s words on the first day of college: “Never sit alone in a classroom or a teacher’s office. Always wear a dupatta — it is your weapon. Don’t talk to boys and stick to large groups of girls.”

All these years, Saima has been unable to muster up the courage to make a formal complaint against a group of boys who have been harassing her with impunity. Recently, though, she came across some other girls at the university who were planning to file a harassment complaint against this gang. She did not hesitate to add her signature to the application. These boys were known at the campus for issuing lewd invitations to young women, making rude gestures and passing unwarranted comments.

There was a problem, though. None of the students knew who to take their application to. This particular university, like most universities in the public sector, does not have a grievance office designated to handle such cases.

So they approached the vice chancellor’s office, where — surprisingly — several of the staff members nodded in agreement. They had witnessed these young men harassing female students many times.

“If the VC’s office staff was aware of the issue, why did they not act?” asks Ayesha, a signatory to the application.

Some years ago, some male students at this campus ran a Facebook page where they posted doctored nudes of many female students. Ayesha says she feared lodging a harassment complaint on her own, thus perhaps inviting a backlash. But she added her signature to the application with 50 other female students, along with those of about a dozen male colleagues willing to be called on as witnesses.

On the day of the hearing, the young women lined up in front of the panel — all men.

“You were walking to the bus and plugging in your hands-free device when one of the boys cat-called you. Why were you using a hand-free device?”

After being berated for pointing out the irrelevance of the question, she was asked whether she was friends with those male students. She replied in the negative. “How do you know their names then? You found out from Facebook? Why are you on Facebook?”

Sameena, another complainant, was up next. She told the panel that the young men would often corner her in corridors, get uncomfortably close, and then run before she could shout.

“Well, no one ever touched you, did they?”

The panel began discussing whether that counted as harassment. The complaint, filed in April, remains pending.

Across the city, at another leading university, Sabeen found herself in front of the vice chancellor’s office seething with anger. An hour earlier, she and two of her friends had been walking towards the residential quarters when a man on a motorcycle screeched to a halt for a few seconds and groped her.

The three women started shouting and called out to two guards standing a few feet away. They turned their backs while the motorcyclist sped away.

“We ran to them and asked them to call the entrance gates to tell the guards there not to let the man leave,” she says. “They told us they couldn’t abandon their post for something so trivial.”

The colonel in charge of campus security happened to be walking past so the students ran to him. He told them not to worry, they would trace the harasser through CCTV footage. The victims explained that since the man had been wearing a helmet, they wouldn’t be able to identify him, but if the colonel would only call the guards at the entrance, they might just catch him. “He shook his head and told us that this was not how harassment complaints were dealt with.”

So the young women found themselves in front of the VC’s office with a formal complaint. After reading their application, he called them in.

Pointing at one of the friends, a short, petite girl, the VC asked in an astonished tone: “You’ve been harassed?” He then clarified that the student looked young enough to pass off as a child. Sabeen explained that she had been the victim. “He nodded sagely: ‘Yes, you would have been harassed’.”

The case was never closed because there was no CCTV footage. The students were told that the cameras were out of order.

And when Sabeen told her mother about the incident, she was told off for creating an issue. “If you get a student expelled for harassing you and then he throws acid on you, what will you do?” her mother said.

At the gates of most universities stand uniformed guards checking the credentials of those trying to enter. On some of the larger campuses, they even have motorcycles to patrol the vicinity to keep an eye out for hanky-panky — especially if the hanky-panky is consensual. Then, you can end up in front of a disciplinary committee and be publicly shamed.

In cases of violence or harassment, however, you will find that this ordeal is but the first of many that follow.

*Names of complainants have been changed to protect identity

Published in Dawn, July 28th, 2017