THE conversation around the University of Balochistan harassment scandal seems to have snowballed into a larger debate about the province’s overall sense of deprivation and tenuous security situation. On Wednesday, acting vice chancellor of the university Mohammad Anwer Panezai told a Senate committee on human rights that the FC and police officials had agreed to vacate the campus. He was responding to a committee member’s concerns that the presence of law-enforcement officials at the university might be contributing to the environment of fear at not only this particular institute but also in the rest of the country. He also said that the number of CCTV cameras in the university had been reduced — though he did not make clear the steps being taken to prevent the misuse of those that remained. He stressed that the university faced a “continuous threat of terrorism”. The security concerns are legitimate. Balochistan has suffered from violence perpetrated by multiple anti-state actors. But the core issue remains the sexual harassment of students and the violation of their privacy in the largest higher education institute of Balochistan. Some initial steps have been taken to address the situation, with the previous vice chancellor stepping down and four university officials being suspended for their alleged involvement. Moreover, the provincial government has issued directives to all universities in the province to set up anti-harassment cells, though so far only Khuzdar University has complied. Still, the facts remain hazy, and one hopes that once the FIA submits its final report to the Balochistan High Court on Dec 2, it will become easier to identify the perpetrators and take them to task.
Given the stigma attached to it, sexual harassment is difficult to tackle in conservative societies, especially in a country like Pakistan where antiquated notions of family and societal honour have always prevailed. This is especially true for the tribal families of Balochistan — more so in the case of women, many of whom may now find it difficult to convince their families to allow them to opt for higher studies after this incident. Already the female literacy rate in Balochistan is a mere 33.5pc — a stark contrast to the, admittedly deplorable, 52pc for the rest of the country. How the Balochistan government tackles the situation remains to be seen. But it is hoped that it will leave no stone unturned to arrest the culprits who may have put the future of thousands of young women in jeopardy.
Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2019