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Sexual harassment in Pakistan: Breaking the silence on sexism in academia

Updated Mar 22, 2018 09:42am

For too long, sexism and sexual harassment in Pakistan’s universities have been considered routine experiences, tolerated by those in authority. Believing that the consequences of taking action are more damaging than staying silent, most women continue to put up with harassment and misconduct.

This was the choice Navin G Haider confronted two years ago as assistant professor of history at Karachi University’s (KU) Pakistan Study Centre. She decided to formally report on the harassment she experienced on campus, not knowing what the consequences would be (the first harassment incident she reported was in February 2016, and then, another incident she suffered on 14 March of the same year.)

Haider decided to file a complaint to the university’s internal inquiry committee after Dr Jaffer Ahmed — then acting centre director, and her immediate boss — failed to take action against her alleged offender, a visiting faculty member teaching Urdu, Dr Sahar Ansari (Ahmed, who has known Ansari for decades, told Haider’s friend, an academic from a private university, that he was ‘neutral’ to both parties.)

Explore: Special report | Sexual harassment in workplaces in Pakistan

In her complaint, Haider alleged Ansari twice harassed her in the form of unwanted and inappropriate physical contact. Although she took a route rarely pursued by victims for fear of backlash, Haider says she was unprepared for what followed.

With 27 years of teaching experience, she was now labelled a troublemaker — even a nuisance by KU’s top management. Calling out harassment and discrimination became a noose around her neck. Yet, as she soon discovered, she was not the only woman who had been harassed by Ansari.

Haider says Ansari must have been around while she was a student at KU in the 1980s, but she rarely crossed his path until he began teaching Urdu at the centre in 2002. There, too, they hardly interacted.

“My limited interaction with Dr Ansari can be traced to December 2015 when he came into my room, sat on a chair next to me to look at student theses he could possibly use for an Urdu magazine for which he had just been appointed editor,” she says.

Calling out harassment and discrimination became a noose around Navin Haider's neck.

In an interview with Dawn, Ansari claims, “Through the years we were friendly as colleagues could be. She told me she would get me work on a translation project at the Ismaili community centre in 2000. [In other words] there were ample chances for me take any liberties [with her] if I wanted to. But at this age [reportedly mid-70s] and with my background I would not.”

Haider says she was unaware of what she stated was Ansari’s apparent predilection for fair-skinned women until she filed her complaint and other alumni and students begun to speak of their experiences with him.

She learnt that he took their numbers on the pretext of contacting them about academic work, and instead called them incessantly at night — asking them out to lunch, commenting on their physical appearance and marriage eligibility.

Some claimed he had groped them. A male staffer corroborated this.

“A computer operator at the centre told me he had witnessed how Ansari swept his hand right from the top of a woman’s shoulders to her buttocks. He was also one of the many witnesses who recorded his statement during the official inquiry,” Haider tells Dawn.

Also read: How far women’s struggle has pushed us forward

“In fact, Dr Ahmed’s wife and the centre’s current director had also warned her female students — I teach the same students in my history classes — to keep their distance from Dr Ansari. Something these girls told much later. Boys in his class knew he’d grade girls’ exams higher if they flirted with him,” she explains.

Haider’s ground level office — a tiny room packed with books and papers — is at the end of a drab, quiet corridor. It was here around noon one day in February 2016 that Ansari, without knocking, walked in while she was at her desk, engrossed in work. He strode right up to her, grabbed her hands in a tight handshake, and would not let go.

“It is friendship day, he told me. Besides, I like you beyond work, he said to me,” Haider says.

Ansari explains he was being friendly, not inappropriate, by shaking hands.

As the second inquiry committee ruling (a copy of which is available with Dawn) in January 2018 noted, Ansari denied that standing too close to a woman, hugging or touching her hands would make her feel uneasy and be inappropriate. He asserts he was made a scapegoat by Haider, who was displeased with Ahmed’s way of handling the centre’s affairs.

The ‘troublemaker’ complains

Even though her boundaries had been violated, Haider knew it was pointless complaining to the director.

“I was angry and vulnerable at this point for reasons concerning my work and promotions as well. I knew he was a friend of the acting director and that meant I should stay quiet. I would be called a liar if I spoke out. What evidence did I have? Also, being concerned about the manner in which contract faculty was hired and their tenure extended, I had written a letter to the university’s board of governors outlining corrupt practices in 2014, so I was perceived as a troublemaker internally,” she says.

Instead, she avoided him. She kept her office door locked, she recalls, and would avoid the library where Ansari would tutor mostly female students after class.

On March 14, 2016 Haider went to Ahmed’s office to discuss something when she spotted Ansari leaving the same office. She moved aside to make way for him, she said, but instead of walking past her to the door, he grabbed her by the shoulders and shoved her against the director’s personal assistant’s table (the assistant was out for lunch at the time). Holding on to her shoulders, he said, “Aap hichkicha kiu rahi ahin?” (“Why are you hesitant?”)

Horrified, Haider’s reaction was to yell, “What are you doing? Are you mad? Do you have no shame?”

Humiliated and stressed, she reported the incident to Ahmed that very afternoon, after which she submitted a written complaint to the university’s vice chancellor.

When Haider’s complaint was investigated by an internal inquiry committee (a committee member, for instance, was Ansari’s former student Dr Seemi Tahir) it absolved him of all charges in May 2016.

Despite testimonies furnished by alumni and students about Ansari’s misconduct, in its judgment (a copy of which is available with Dawn) it recommended that “[Haider] should be asked to improve her temperament”.

“They concluded I was insane,” she says.

It further stated that she “unnecessarily provoked the students towards agitation and boycott to settle her personal problem”.

In June 2016, she filed an appeal against this decision with the office of retired justice Shahnawaz Tariq, the provincial ombudsperson for the protection against harassment of women, explaining the inquiry committee had disregarded witness testimonies (16 people reporting harassment by Ansari had come forward), and failed to record statements and cross-examine both parties — all of which are legally binding.

Noting these discrepancies, the ombudsperson wrote to KU in August 2017 asking that a second committee “of independent, impartial and honest” officers submit a report in 30 days.

Noting that “any unpermitted and unconsented touch of the body of a female by any male is amounting to cause harassment”, the ombudsperson’s decision stated: “Neither the Inquiry Committee had made transparency nor ensured the impartiality while conducting the inquiry proceedings as well as passing its decision.”

In January 2018, a second committee headed by Dr Nasreen Aslam Shah ruled that Ansari behaved inappropriately with Haider. Its findings noted all witness statements about Ansari’s reputation for the type of attention he paid his female students.

The report (a copy is available with Dawn) stated no one regardless of their age, profession or fame has the right to harass another person on campus or otherwise. Also, incidents such as these will deter women from studying at KU unless strict action is taken against harassers, it elaborated.

Denying he had touched Haider outside the director’s office, Ansari claims: “She wanted to create a law and order situation in [the director’s] centre. If I had held her shoulders, why did she not push me away? Isn’t that unnatural — she didn’t yell? … She is bold, an activist … She is stout and healthy, and I am a semi-handicapped person.”

During an interview with Dawn, Ansari was asked twice if he had expected Haider to push him back. He responded in the affirmative both times — only if he attempted to touch her shoulders, he added suddenly, asserting he had not touched her.

Defining harassment in Punjab

Based on data collected from 260 students from 12 departments, a 2017 study in the Research Journal of South Asian Studies highlights the pervasiveness of harassment at Punjab University, including one incident that received much media attention.

“Two years ago, the termination of the services of a professor … who reportedly kept a bedroom next to his office on university premises, was initially applauded. However, recently, despite the university’s resistance, he has returned to the university due to political pressure.”

Clarifying the above, Dr Zakaria Zakar told Dawn the accused professor had not returned, but the court had restored his pension benefits as he had retired during the same time.

Before being appointed interim VC this year, Zakar headed the committee for investigating harassment complaints.

According to him, students’ complaints about verbal harassment on campus, such as catcalling, do not fall under the purview of the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010, as the law primarily provides cover to employees.

His interpretation of the law — including the definition of workplace sexual harassment and whom it should apply to — is antithetical to the views expressed by competent authorities such as the federal ombudsperson, who ruled: “The fact remains that work means physical and mental effort or activity directed to the production or accomplishment of something that one is doing, making or performing especially as an occupation or undertaking a duty or a task therefore, the act equally applies to employer, employee and students.”

Across the country, many within academia have reported that the most common harassment they face is ogling, sexual and vulgar comments, and unwanted touching. All felt angry and degraded though many are shamed and blamed; many researchers and teachers leave their jobs, while students are forced to endure continued harassment if they want to finish their degrees. Many more try to ignore the harassment and avoid the harasser.

In April 2017, over 50 students (mostly female) signed a petition against four students at the Government College Lahore claiming verbal harassment at a bus stop.

After several months of initial hearings, an inquiry committee comprising only men was established, which goes against the law: one woman on a minimum three-member committee is mandatory.

According to sources privy to the hearings, the questions posed to students ranged from irrelevant to downright absurd, while the committee only appeared sympathetic after one of the complainants burst into tears. The questions included: “You have stated that 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 hands-free device?” and “How do you know [the harassers’] names? You found out from Facebook? Why are you on Facebook?”

Fighting against a powerful harasser

Even though the law is clear that sexual harassment is discrimination, a violation of rights and therefore illegal, perpetrators do not face the full force of the law. The appointment of Saqlain Naqvi as VC of Bacha Khan University (BKU) in Charsadda is under review in the Peshawar High Court (PHC) for these very reasons.

In a December 2016 judgment by the federal ombudsperson, Naqvi was censured for sexual harassment while dean of the faculty of sciences at Arid Agriculture University in Rawalpindi.

A researcher complained that his behaviour was the reason for the 10-month delay in her PhD thesis examination, because of which she had not been awarded her degree.

Although she attended only one course with Naqvi, his extraordinary attention towards her made her extremely uneasy. He made it untenable for her to stay, and so she quit the university.

Denying the allegations, BKU’s management told the PHC that the Rawalpindi bench of the Lahore High Court set the ombudsperson’s decision aside on April 18, 2017. However, the petitioner’s counsel told Dawn that the LHC had set aside the ombudsperson’s order on technical grounds and referred the issue to the Punjab provincial ombudsperson, as Arid University was not in the federal ombudsperson’s jurisdiction. It had not referred to the merits of the case.

With no ombudsperson appointed in Punjab, the case remains in limbo.

In interviews, professors and students have told Dawn they are either dissuaded from making officials complaints, withdraw their allegations or ignore serial offenders fearing the impact on their education and careers.

Students harassed by male professors who have authority over them, including the power to manipulate grades, are often intimidated by the consequences of reporting.

A former student at a private university narrates her experience.

There are cases where some senior male faculty attempt to trade grades for sexual favours.

At the University of Peshawar, there are no well-established mechanisms for addressing complaints, says Noreen Naseer, a professor of political science in a faculty dominated by male staff. There are cases where some senior male faculty attempt to trade grades for sexual favours.

As a senior female staff member, she feels responsible for younger students, often warning them to stay away from those known for predatory behaviour.

When a student was heard screaming in a professor’s office, the entire department was aware because she ran out crying, Naseer tells Dawn. The professor claimed he had asked her to take off her hijab so he could identify her.

An investigative committee was formed, but the teacher is still on campus.

“Because he belonged to the Jamaat-i-Islami the case was hushed up, even though other parties protested on campus. The woman got scared and didn’t pursue it,” she says.

Women told Dawn that when they do complain, in most cases universities downplay any wrongdoing and seek to keep matters quiet to protect their own reputation.

A teacher at a private university in Karachi discusses the power dynamics contributing to workplace harassment

However ironic, it is often conservatism that deters potential perpetrators from pursuing and harassing women in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The fear that he will be killed by a woman’s male relatives might be one restraining factor, explains Naseer, but clearly not enough to keep older men away from young students.

One professor on condition of anonymity said she even threatened to throw a senior professor in her department “out the window” if he didn’t stop harassing a young student who had come to her not knowing what to do.

“I was so angry at him for pursuing a 19-year-old student. There was no other way to get the message to him so I said what I did. Inexperienced younger women feel older men paying them attention is all good, not knowing it involves much more. I requested he let her finish her studies; stay away from her because she was uninterested in him. He would send her vulgar, bold messages — becoming demanding. She refused to press charges. This wasn’t the first time he had intimidated a woman into having sexual contact with him. And he had high-level contacts. But when your provincial assembly is sitting on bills to protect women, what can you do?” she says.

The cost of staying silent

Repressed anger accompanied with the trauma of harassment leads to psychological problems, says Kashif Faraz Ahmed, chairperson of the applied psychology department at the Government Islamia College Civil Lines, at a recent seminar.

Because of the way harassment complaints are often dealt with, victims end up blaming themselves leading to low self-esteem and mental and physical health issues — especially if the case becomes public.

More on this: Gender politics | The silent sufferers

Feminist activist Aimen Bucha explains, “Just because you have never seen it happen or haven’t harassed anyone, doesn’t mean that this doesn’t happen”.

Even then, it is hard to uncover the real scale of harassment on campuses. Our research points to a culture of impunity protecting powerful offenders. Victims, meanwhile, feel anger, remorse, shame and guilt — even when they do complain.

It’s a boys’ club so that’s the bigger battle I doubt I will win,
says Navin Haider

“Unfortunately, behaviours which may constitute inappropriate conduct are normalised in society; victims who have not been physically assaulted are not considered victims of harassment,” says psychologist Mary Pervaiz.

Dealing with the consequences of calling out predatory behaviour is tantamount to silent suffering.

“It’s a boys’ club so that’s the bigger battle I doubt I will win,” Haider says.

Though reconciled with her choices, she has already paid a price for her bold stance. Nearing retirement, her chances of getting a promotion are virtually non-existent; she has suffered a personal loss while fighting her case and her health is affected.

Women who do not stay silent know that unwittingly allowing such things to happen will not create change in workplaces. Though the cost of going public is high, it will translate into long-lasting change, they say — only then will the fundamental attitude of society towards women undergo transformation. These voices heard will only upend power relations.

Published in Dawn, March 20th, 2018