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UoB’s video scandal: the tip of the iceberg

Sexual harassment has been endemic at the University of Balochistan since well before last year’s video scandal.
Published 12 Sep, 2020 10:26am

QUETTA: On Oct 16 last year, the conference room on the first floor of a two-storey building on Adalat Road was jam-packed with professors and lecturers of the University of Balochistan (UoB) fielding questions from a posse of reporters. This was just after the shocking sexual harassment scandal at the university had burst into public view with the news that ‘objectionable’ videos of female students at the institution were being used to blackmail them.

The departmental inquiry ordered into the episode by the Balochistan High Court has come to a conclusion. During the 88th syndicate meeting in July, the university management, say sources, decided to sack two of the suspects, former chief security officer Mohammad Naeem and security guard Saif Baloch and stop for two years increments in the salaries of erstwhile registrar Tariq Jogezai and transport officer Shareef Shahwani.

A Dawn investigation reveals that the video scandal is only the tip of the iceberg. Numerous interviews with students and faculty indicate a culture of rampant sexual harassment at the campus, ranging from lewd comments and stalking to attempted assault. Clearly, a lot needs to be done to address this problem. With classes likely to resume on campus in a few weeks, the Balochistan government can take steps to ensure an atmosphere more conducive to women students’ safety.

At the Oct 16 press conference, members of the Balochistan University Academic Staff Association (BUASA) distanced itself from the video scandal, claiming the faculty had nothing to do with it. One of the professors assured the assembled journalists that the varsity was like their home, and the students like their own children.

The entrance to University of Balochistan, Quetta. With classes on campus to resume soon, the provincial government should take steps to ensure that women students feel safe. — Photo credit: Mazhar Chandio
The entrance to University of Balochistan, Quetta. With classes on campus to resume soon, the provincial government should take steps to ensure that women students feel safe. — Photo credit: Mazhar Chandio

When Javeria* read the news about the press conference, she bristled with anger. “Children, my foot!” she exclaims in a conversation with Dawn. “Do children get sexually harassed by their parents?”

One of the UoB professors is a friend of Javeria’s father, so what transpired with her was all the more shocking. It takes her several minutes to muster up the courage to speak about what happened. “One day I was coming downstairs from my department along with that professor,” she says haltingly. “Suddenly, when there was no one around, he put his arm around my shoulder and forcibly tried to kiss me.”

She managed to push him away, but distraught at what had just happened, she broke down and started weeping in front of him. It left him completely unmoved. He walked away as if nothing had happened.

Other than confiding in her sister, Javeria kept the episode to herself and has stayed away from the teacher, despite the fact that her admission receipt is still with him.

Copy of a letter from the pro-vice chancellor’s office to department deans to take action against faculty members allegedly involved in harassment, blackmail and sexual abuse of students.
Copy of a letter from the pro-vice chancellor’s office to department deans to take action against faculty members allegedly involved in harassment, blackmail and sexual abuse of students.

Following the video scandal, teachers, students, and political activists took to the streets. However, interviews with the varsity’s girl students suggest that some of male protestors, including some faculty members in the forefront of the anti-harassment campaign, have themselves subjected the students to sexual harassment.

One day, while she was sitting an exam, one of her professors came up to her. “What do you think about my question paper?” he asked Javeria, lewdly touching her thigh, then warning her in a low voice that her marks were in his hands. He then ‘complimented’ her on her looks, adding that he could never forget such beauty.

The office staff, say several students, is equally guilty of preying on the female students; ironically enough, they accuse the young women of having loose morals. One of the clerks at her department told Javeria he could leak question papers to her if she would reciprocate with some ‘favour’. One day, in his office, he caught hold of her hand tightly while insisting she accept a SIM card from him. “Then he tried to lock the room,” Javeria tells Dawn. Fortunately, she managed to escape. “Another clerk, upon seeing me with my fiancé at the university, called me a characterless girl to my face.”

Javeria’s features resemble that of a Shia Hazara, though she is not from that ethnic group. Sadly, Hazara girls are particularly vulnerable to harassment at UoB because they are members of a much persecuted minority. To compound matters, they are not seen as having the ‘protection’ of Hazara men, only a handful of whom risk going to a university on Sariab Road which has been the site of many sectarian killings.

One student, Yasmeen Baloch* recalls sitting with several other young women in a professor’s office to discuss their studies. To the students’ discomfort, he kept passing remarks about how being surrounded by so much beauty made this the happiest moment in his life. “You look red like a pomegranate, so let me order pomegranate juice for you,” he told a Hazara student, says Yasmeen. According to her, the professor even sat on the lap of a Hazara girl. “He did that because he knew he could get away with it. He even kissed her in front of us.”

Another Hazara student tells Dawn about a senior UoB professor who kept Whatsapping her his pictures on a daily basis. “Then he started sending objectionable videos and pictures.” After that, she had her number closed permanently.

Then there is Professor Khan* who keeps a bottle of perfume in his desk drawer, and offers it to female students who need to see him about their studies. According to bachelor’s students Masooma* and Rabia*, he insists the students sit close to him. “He seems to like girls wearing perfume,” says one of them. “Then he stares at us from top to toe with a lustful look.”

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1/2.

2/2. Copy of a letter by several female M.Phil students complaining to the UoB vice chancellor about the “insulting” and “degrading” attitude of their research coordinator, Liaquat Sunny. For his part, Mr Sunny denies the allegations.
2/2. Copy of a letter by several female M.Phil students complaining to the UoB vice chancellor about the “insulting” and “degrading” attitude of their research coordinator, Liaquat Sunny. For his part, Mr Sunny denies the allegations.

Herself the niece of a professor, Masooma tells Dawn in a soft but clear voice how she was harassed by Professor Khan, who would follow her as she walked to the girls’ hostel, and pester her for her cellphone number. “One day I told him about my uncle being a professor at the university.” To her relief, that put an end to the harassment.

Professor Khan then began following her friend Rabia who observes purdah. “Why do you not show me your face?” he asked her one day. “I understand you’re a reserved girl and cannot have friendship with me, so why don’t you give me another girl’s number?”

“How can you have a friendship with your teacher?” asks Masooma. “And it does not stop there. They demand more than that.”

Some girl students have lodged complaints of sexual harassment with the FIA’s Cyber Crime Division. One of the letters, addressed to the division’s deputy director, names two UoB office bearers who the student accuses of blackmailing her with “inappropriate pictures” of her taken without her consent. She also mentions that the mental torment is driving her into having suicidal thoughts.

In December 2016, an MPhil student at UoB, Neelam Momal, along with three of her colleagues, held a press conference in which they accused their MPhil programme coordinator, Dr Liaqat Sani of unwelcome advances. In a conversation with Dawn, Neelam accused him of having deliberately given her low marks because she refused to give him any ‘favours’.

For his part, Dr Sani vehemently denies the charge. He maintains that he caught Neelam cheating during an examination, which was why she bore a grudge against him.

Neelam had submitted a written complaint to the then Vice Chancellor Dr Javed Iqbal, and despite the fact that the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010 demands that every allegation of sexual harassment be investigated by a three-member committee set up to look into complaints of this nature, no action was taken. A copy of her complaint is available with Dawn.

The dog shooter

On Dec 2, the FIA submitted its report on the scandal to the court. Although they claimed to have investigated the case for four months after being ordered to do so by the BHC, they say that not a single victim had reached out to them. “The objectionable videos were seen by very few people,” reveals one of the officials, after being pressed. “Thank God, they were not leaked. If that had been the case, none of the perpetrators would have been spared.”

According to another: “We submitted the report, and the judge handed it over to the UoB to take departmental action against those involved in the scandal. It is now up to them.”

As mentioned earlier, in response to the BHC’s order to conduct a departmental enquiry, participants at the UoB’s 88th syndicate meeting in July decided to fire two security personnel and withhold increments from two other suspects for two years. They also recommended that the Balochistan governor — who is the university chancellor — institute a judicial enquiry against former vice chancellor Javed Iqbal, on whose watch the video scandal took place, and take back awards and titles conferred on him. UoB officials claim the syndicate does not have the authority to take action against Mr Iqbal.

Although this information is published on BBC Urdu, UoB’s current vice chancellor Dr Shafiq-ur-Rehman, smilingly refuses to speak on the matter with Dawn, saying he cannot comment as the case is subjudice. “I have assumed the office now as vice chancellor during the Covid-19 period. Whatever steps were required to prevent incidents such as the video scandal from happening again have been taken during my predecessor’s tenure.”

FIA sources say cameras were installed across the campus in addition to the presence of Frontier Corps personnel because of the security situation in Quetta. The security in-charge of the surveillance room was Saif Baloch, and according to the investigative agency, Saif abused his position to blackmail and harass couples, particularly girls, who were captured by the cameras engaged in ‘objectionable’ activities with their boyfriends. The FIA claims to have recovered such videos from Saif’s mobile, as well as on a hard disk and USB flash drive he had concealed at his sister’s home.

Saif Baloch in the UoB control room with assorted guns on his desk (picture from Twitter).
Saif Baloch in the UoB control room with assorted guns on his desk (picture from Twitter).

Along with his brother Sanaullah and another partner, Saif also had the contract to run one of the university canteens, and would often be seen there.

Yasmeen Baloch’s department was close to the canteen, and she would often go there with her classmates. One day, she rebuked Saif when she caught him staring at her. For close to three weeks after that, according to her, from the point where she got down from the university bus until she reached her department, he would follow her in his white Corolla which had black tinted windows. She heaved a sigh of relief when winter vacations came around.

It was clear that Saif believed that no rules applied to him. In front of the main arts faculty, there is an open courtyard with a stage for varsity programmes. Normally, no one parks their vehicles here, but he had no such reservations.

Some students describe him as strutting around like a hero in a Bollywood film, wearing dark glasses and a commando jacket. In a picture that went viral on social media, he can be seen sitting in the security surveillance room, with several weapons scattered on his table, including an AK-47, pistols and 223 and sniper rifles, etc.

Zohaib, a zoology student, remembers him as someone who believed boys and girls came to UoB solely to indulge in ‘immoral behaviour’. One day Zohaib was discussing an assignment with his classmate when Saif appeared on a 1-2-5 motorcycle and holding a walkie talkie, and accused them of having an affair. “I told him she is my classmate and like a sister to me,” recalls Zohaib over a cup of tea. “After the girl left, he taunted me saying: ‘What a girl she is — and you have made her your sister!’”

Several years ago, say sources, Saif was hired as a ‘dog shooter’ at UoB, a job apparently created in 2005, without any notification, specifically for his benefit. (A visit to the varsity, however, reveals there are still lots of stray dogs roaming around on the university grounds.) To students resentful of his swagger and machismo, Saif is still known by the disparaging nickname, “kutta maar”.

Dawn tracked down one of Saif’s nephews. He describes his mama (maternal uncle) as a simple and uneducated man from a poor family. When Saif’s father died, his mother, with eight children to support, married again. Over the years, he says, Saif’s friendship with a senior university administration official helped him forge a career at UoB.

According to one of the students, “Saif was so close to him that on the occasion of varsity programmes [when a higher level of security was deployed] he would put the phone jammer into [the official’s] back pocket and take it out with his own hands!”

As per documents available with Dawn, soon after being employed as a dog shooter in 2005, he was appointed as Chowkidar (BPS-1) and on June 27, 2008 promoted to Security Guard (BPS-05), a jump from grade 1 to 5 within only three years.

The last appointment was challenged in the Balochistan High Court by Muhammad Nasir, an old UoB employee, who alleged that Saif was illegally promoted while he was passed over for the job. Once, he alleges, Saif threatened to kill him if he did not drop the case. The first indication that UoB girl students were being sexually harassed emerged during the hearings, and that was when the BHC ordered the FIA to launch an investigation into the issue.

Notification about the appointment of Saif Baloch as “In-charge, Control Room” despite the BHC, according to sources, ordering him to be demoted to BPS-4.
Notification about the appointment of Saif Baloch as “In-charge, Control Room” despite the BHC, according to sources, ordering him to be demoted to BPS-4.

In spite of this, Saif continued to climb up the promotion ladder. In fact, one of Balochistan High Court’s senior judges felt compelled to ask in utter confusion: “Kya bala hai yay Saif!?”

On Jan 20, 2015, the VC appointed Saif as technician (BPS-13) in the transport section, with the additional charge of overseeing the university’s security, despite the court’s orders to demote him to BPS-4.

On Nov 6, 2016, UoB’s Finance and Planning Committee appointed him ‘In-charge Security Surveillance room, a newly created post in BPS-13.

Notification dated July 27, 2018 about Saif Baloch’s re-appointment as In-charge security surveillance room. BHC sources say the court had set aside notifications about Saif’s appointments as a UoB employee.
Notification dated July 27, 2018 about Saif Baloch’s re-appointment as In-charge security surveillance room. BHC sources say the court had set aside notifications about Saif’s appointments as a UoB employee.

Although BHC sources say the court on Jan 31, 2018 had set aside all the notifications about Saif’s appointment, the VC once again put him in charge of the surveillance room on July 27. According to the varsity notification, his probation was for one year.

“It was like asking the cat to guard the cream,” says a source in the BHC.

FIA’s investigations unearthed a small cabal, allegedly led by Saif and involving three other individuals — Yahya, Naeem and Shareef — who were blackmailing the students. (Yahya’s name was subsequently dropped from the list of suspects.) The university registrar, Tariq Jogezai, is believed to have known about the goings-on even if he was not directly involved.

As per court documents, Saif himself set up the security system in the university, including the installation of CCTV cameras. Following the FIA’s inquiry, he was demoted to security guard besides being suspended.

After many failed attempts, Dawn finally tracked him down for a brief chat several months ago. “I can walk on burning coals to prove my innocence,” he says, with a calm and confident air. Dressed in a pale brown shalwar kameez, Saif has a close-cropped beard and moustache. He smiled briefly. “What has been said on social media has no basis,” he added, stubbing out his cigarette in an ashtray. “People said whatever they wanted to, and it was all against me.” He emphatically denied any role in the video scandal.

The secrets of Changa Manga

According to Punjabi folklore, Changa and Manga were two brothers. Both were thieves, and, to escape the authorities, used to hide in a thick forest, which is now known as Changa Manga in Punjab.

That is also the name given to a small patch of fir trees, plants, and thick shrubs in front of the newly built Renewable Energy department of the varsity (other similar green areas on campus are also dubbed Changa Manga). On a cold and cloudy day in mid-November, four girls are kicking around some fir cones on a cemented area scattered with fallen leaves alongside this green space.

It’s a peaceful scene, a far cry from the scandal that originated here and exploded into the public domain. Courting couples are said to often spend time together in the privacy of Changa Manga. Perhaps unbeknown to them, security cameras had also been installed in the secluded area: in places trees were trimmed to allow the cameras a proper view of the surroundings. A few private cameras, it is claimed, were also installed by the perpetrators of the video scandal.

According to varsity sources, there were a total of 37 video cameras to secretly film the couples in these areas and elsewhere on campus. They claim that young women would be summoned by certain UoB administration officials and shown videos of their ‘objectionable’ activities with male classmates. In return for not making the videos public or sending them to their families, they would then blackmail them for money or sexual favours.

On BHC’s directive, the FIA interrogated around 200 university officials. The law-enforcement agency told the media that they traced 12 videos — some sources in FIA put the number at 19 — that were used to blackmail female students.

A faculty member told Dawn that early one morning, after the FIA enquiry began, he saw one of the alleged perpetrators grabbing a student’s identity card from her. The man had been blackmailing her with a video showing her with her boyfriend near the bus point and — the faculty member surmised — was trying to create a reason for her to come to his office so he could convince her not to speak to the FIA. The teacher’s intervention forced the man to back off.

Pakistan Studies MPhil students have regular group study sessions in the garden facing the administration block where the security surveillance room is located. “One day, when we were there, a girl came out of the administration block,” recalls one of them “She was weeping, and kept crying for some time. We did not dare ask her what had happened.”

Much like FIA officials who accused the media of creating unnecessary ‘hype’ over the issue, former acting vice chancellor Dr Mohammad Anwar Panezai — who had taken charge from Dr Javed Iqbal — was also unhappy with the coverage and made his feelings clear when he spoke to Dawn back in February. After a five-minute lecture on the media’s ‘irresponsible’ conduct, he asserted that the institute would spare none of those involved. “Four administration officials [named earlier in story as Naeem, Yahya, Saif, and Shareef] have already been suspended and issued show cause notices. But as per the SOP, we can’t issue a show cause notice to former vice chancellor Professor Javed Iqbal. Only the Balochistan governor can do so.”

Dr Panezai added that the UoB committee constituted to look into allegations of sexual harassment on campus was also investigating the matter as ordered by the court. “I expect the investigation to be complete by end April. As for action against those involved, it is for the FIA and BHC to decide and recommend.”

In a phone conversation with Dawn that took place around the same time, former VC Professor Javed Iqbal, other than confirming that he had not received any show cause notice, was non-committal and asked that any questions be directed to the university administration.

Meanwhile, the new varsity registrar maintains that 26 unnecessary cameras have been removed as per the court’s orders, and where the remaining cameras are located, notices have been put up to inform the students of their presence.

Regardless of the action taken against the perpetrators, however, the video affair has dealt a blow to the cause of girls’ education in what is already a very conservative part of the country. According to women rights activist Qamar-un-Nisa: “This is a particularly unfortunate tragedy in the context of Balochistan where girls’ education statistics are already dire. There are reports of girl students dropping out or their parents stopping them from pursuing higher education after what has happened.”

Two cousins studying in the Social Work department were forced by their family to drop their studies. Attempts to meet them were unsuccessful as they are reluctant to speak to the media. The parents of another student from Nushki district disallowed her from continuing her education at UoB when the news of the scandal broke.

Mr Panezai, the former acting vice chancellor, however takes a more optimistic view. “If someone throws acid on a girl somewhere in Balochistan, it does not mean other girls will not go to that place again…People don’t stop going to the market where once a bomb blast took place. Similarly, the varsity case will not deter girls from taking admission in UoB. And we have done our best to deal with this case.”

The population in Balochistan tends to be scattered, and sometimes there is not a single girls’ school within a 15-mile radius of a village. Higher educational institutions for girls are even more scarce. There is only one women’s university in the entire province — the Sardar Bahadur Khan Women’s University in Quetta. Unlike boys, it is difficult for girls to get permission to stay in hostels; they often have to overcome considerable family opposition before they can do so.

Former faculty member Professor Dr Zeenat Sana Baloch has studied at UoB herself and also served as chairperson of its Gender Development Studies department. A few years ago, she had set up a one-person anti-harassment cell at her department. Girls could lodge complaints there, and she would, she says, do her best to deal with complaints in a personal capacity. No disciplinary action was ever taken against any alleged harassers.

According to her, Baloch girls are simple and naïve, many having come from the interior of the province. “These girls are harassed at the hands of their own Baloch brethren who take advantage of them,” she says with disgust.

The anti-harassment law mandates a three-member committee, including at least one woman, be set up in every workplace/educational institution to look into complaints of sexual harassment. UoB set up such a committee — although this one comprises five members, including two women — on Oct 16 last year after the scandal broke.

Its chairperson, Sobia Ramzan, tells Dawn they have received two complaints that accused the students’ male colleagues of sharing their pictures on social media. The cases were referred to the FIA’s Cyber Crime Unit. No other instance of sexual harassment has been registered with them, despite what has emerged of late. “It’s a tribal society, so females think that reporting such incidents will earn them disrespect, although the system is confidential and victims can reach out to us even via email, the address for which is on our website,” she says. “If a case comes to us, we would do the preliminary investigation and [in case of incriminating evidence] send our findings to the BHC and the ombudsperson. But so far there has been none.”

An Anti-Harassment Committee had earlier been set up at UoB on Dec 16, 2016. However, it was later dissolved for unknown reasons. No complaint had been registered with that body either.

Recently one morning, during BS admissions, two girls along with their mother were crossing Sariab Road to enter UoB. Three boys, sitting in a car with “HUNTER” emblazoned on the back window slowed down to whistle at the girls. Ignoring them, the women entered the UoB, reminding this correspondent of Mr Panezai’s words that explosions and acid attacks do not stop people and girl students from going to the same place again. But this begs the question: will these students be safe at UoB when they start their classes?


Some names and details have been changed in the interests of privacy. Illustrations by Reem Khurshid; Animation by Syed Asif Ali.