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SAFETY AND THE CAMPUS

Can taking the problem of sexual harassment head-on make campuses safer for women?
Updated 26 Oct, 2020 11:42am

Sexual harassment is an ugly reality that women often have to deal with at universities, but finding a solution becomes harder because of the culture of silence around the issue. Can taking the problem head-on make campuses safer?



Aleena* is about to get married and start a new chapter of her life. But even during this festive time, demons from her past continue to haunt her. The bride-to-be is unable to fully enjoy the present moment, or even plan for the future. Instead, she keeps reliving a horrific life-altering day from last year. The day she went to a faculty member’s office at the prestigious university in Islamabad where she was a student. But rather than answering her course-related queries, the instructor had locked his office door from the inside and sexually assaulted the student in broad daylight.

“It was the most horrific incident to have taken place in my life,” Aleena later told a friend. But after confiding in her friend, the shaken student took no further action. She did not think coming forward would help her. Instead, she feared accusations will be made about her, her moral character will be questioned and her future will be forever destroyed. She just wanted to move on — something she is still struggling to do.

Aleena’s must be one of hundreds of harassment cases that went unreported last year. Time and again, research has shown that the majority of sexual harassment cases go unreported around the world. But last year, it seemed like the wheels of change were finally set in motion, after multiple incidents from across Pakistan shed a stark light on how unsafe campuses can be for students — especially female students. It all started when it was reported that female students were being filmed at the University of Balochistan (UoB), without their knowledge or consent, and these videos were then being used to blackmail them. The ‘video scandal’ sent shockwaves around the country, starting a media frenzy, igniting student protests and sparking a much-needed conversation.

Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

Questions about campus safety were raised again earlier this year, after a private television channel’s ‘sting operation’ recordings appeared to corroborate accusations of harassment against a professor at Gomal University in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Some campuses have been striving to create a safe experience for their students, and giving the issue of harassment the attention it deserves. But there is little denying that harassment has been rampant at many campuses across the country, and has remained unchecked, even though sexual harassment policies have been in place. In light of the same, earlier this year, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) approved the Policy on Protection against Sexual Harassment in Higher Education Institutions 2020. The revised policy has some clear guidelines, including detailing what amounts to harassment and how it needs to be investigated. It is also much more comprehensive compared to the 2010 Act.

Read: UoB’s video scandal: the tip of the iceberg

The revised policy has been effective since July 1, 2020. According to the HEC, about 85 universities have confirmed implementing the policy, while the response of 125 universities is still awaited. The policy clearly states that it is binding for all higher education institutions in the country, the HEC tells Eos in an email. Violations or failure to comply with the policy would lead to regulatory action to be taken against non-compliant universities. “Such action will depend on the nature of the violation, and can range from warnings to stronger regulatory action for more serious violations,” the commission adds.

How the violations will actually be dealt with remains to be seen. Unfortunately, there is little evidence of strict action being taken against higher education institutes for non-compliance of sexual harassment policies in the past. An in-depth overview of the circumstances in which most universities have been functioning in Pakistan, and how the Sexual Harassment at Workplace 2010 Act was being implemented on campuses, presents a clear picture of the sorry state of affairs.

While campuses which have been proactive have already started making changes in light of the new policy, they are exceptions. Critics argue that without implementation, a new policy cannot achieve much. Indeed, a few months after the policy went into effect, one can see why they are sceptical.


A LACK OF AWARENESS

Clarity is one of the things the revised policy strives for. As per the official document, the HEC’s sexual harassment policy and any internal policies of the university, as well as information regarding the 2010 Act, are meant to be available on every institution’s website.

This information is also meant to be part of the packet that all new hires receive, be included in the material that new students receive at orientation, and displayed at “prominent locations” on campuses. “The names of the Focal Persons and the members of the Inquiry Committee shall be made visible/accessible to the HEI [Higher Education Institute] community through its website, posted on notice boards, etc,” the policy further reads.

But this information, aimed at ensuring a safer experience for students, is still difficult to find on most university’s websites in Pakistan. This is especially noteworthy at a time when most communication has moved online because of Covid-19. “Well, you know, many foreign universities and other people see the website,” one vice chancellor of a large university in Islamabad says, explaining the lack of information online. “[It is] better that we do not put it on our website.”

It is telling that senior management considers even the mere mention of sexual harassment on their website a source of embarrassment. The fact that this is apparently done to appease “foreign” individuals and institutes is even more misguided. Around the world, there is heightened awareness about sexual harassment on campuses and the need for better protective measures for student bodies. At most higher education institutions in the US, for example, one of the first things incoming students do is attend a seminar on harassment (either online or in person). This is a requirement they must fulfil before being allowed to attend classes.

“No student, upon arrival in the university, even knows that there is a thing called ‘sexual harassment’, and that there are laws in place to deal with it,” says Tahir Malik, a senior professor, speaking about the on-ground situation at campuses around the country. The students and parents need to be told these things on the orientation day, he adds. “You will not see anything on this in the prospectus,” he says. “There is nothing on the websites. And, similarly, you will see no such notification or notice in the departments, informing students, faculty and the management about the issue.”

Some campuses have been striving to create a safe experience for their students, and giving the issue of harassment the attention it deserves. But there is little denying that harassment has been rampant at many campuses across the country, and has remained unchecked, even though sexual harassment policies have been in place.

Students agree with Malik’s assessment. A recently graduated student from another university says that he was never told about any sexual harassment policies on campus, and was unaware of any portal or avenue where harassment could be reported. This seems to be the experience of many university students across the country. Another female student also says that there was no discussion on the matter at her university’s orientation session or even later during the year.

Now that universities are mandated to clearly provide this information to incoming students, it remains to be seen what impact this will have. Or, indeed, if higher education institutes will even follow the protocol.

Another issue is recall. It is not enough to simply present this information, but to communicate it in a clear, effective manner. “Generally, students are not aware of the policy on harassment, but we do know that, if there is any issue, we can report to the disciplinary body of every department,” a female student says.

There are systems in place at universities across Pakistan and, despite the difficulties that many face in accessing these systems, people have been reporting sexual harassment. The HEC policy document contains a detailed list of examples of sexual harassment at higher education intuitions (see box below), based partly on actual reported cases. If the length of the list is any indication, students have been taking their harassers to task, against all odds. Their courage and the HEC’s efforts will only bear fruit if higher education institutes give the policy and these examples visibility, rather than trying to sweep the issue under the rug.


A GENDERED ISSUE

Photo by Shakil Adil, White Star
Photo by Shakil Adil, White Star

“We are a patriarchal society where, firstly, people do not speak up about such cases and, secondly, if they do, all the onus of responsibility is on the shoulders of women,” says a professor. She says that if a woman speaks up, she is the one questioned instead of the accused. Why did you pick up the call? Why did you go to the teacher’s office at odd hours? Why did you stay silent for so long? Fearing this victim-blaming, many remain silent.

The professor does not want to be named as she thinks speaking up on the subject can also have consequences. She says that it is important to admit that there are cultural and traditional connotations that tilt the balance in the favour of the male professors. Some professors construe this as a licence to harass and exploit vulnerabilities of the students (both female and male).

The burden always falls on the women. While reporting for this piece, I hear whispers about a certain female faculty member having an affair with a VC. The female is named and shamed. People casually pass remarks about her, and say her promotion is evidence of the rumours being true. But the VC is not part of the gossip in the same way. “People would seldom speak about the VC, who was the man and thus got away with whatever happened (or not),” says another professor. “But the woman got nothing but stress, agony and pain.”

Many students who even know about the existence of inquiry committees on their campuses do not trust them. They instead find themselves in the position of having to collect evidence or catch these teachers in the act. In one incident, a teacher at the anthropology department of a private university was fired only after 50 videos of him were found to be “objectionable.” Another teacher at the institute says that it is “criminal on part of the university” that the harasser was quietly sent packing and is free to work anywhere he wants.

There is also talk about male students objectifying their female classmates and even passing comments about their female professors. These students have grown up with international pop culture representations of ‘sexy librarians’ and with their behaviour being excused because, “boys will be boys.” But things are finally changing.

In April last year, some female students from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums) posted screenshots from a closed Facebook group called “Dankpuna at LUMS” on social media. The group, which reportedly had over 600 members, most of them male students and alumni, was used to post sexist content and “propagate misogyny against women at LUMS.” The women at Lums staged a sit in. Their response sent a clear message: misogyny will not go unchecked.

Related: Lums hopes for 'culture of respect' on campus as sexist Facebook group by students is exposed

Standing up against fellow students is one thing. The power imbalance is even greater when going against faculty members or supervisors. One PhD candidate at a public university in Islamabad experienced this first-hand when she filed a harassment case against her supervisor. The supervisor apparently did not have a good reputation even before the student’s complaint. Following her complaint, the woman and her supervisor were called into the dean’s office. As per eyewitnesses, the woman was asked to take her application back and “end the matter.” She refused. The issue eventually ended up in the Federal Ombudsman Secretariat for Protection Against Harassment, and the supervisor was terminated from service.

But not every case ends in the same way. In another case, not only was a student forced to take back a harassment complaint that she had filed against her supervisor, but every teacher in the department also refused to supervise her. Indeed, speaking out can have dire consequences for students, whose identities are also often not protected in these cases.


INQUIRY COMMITTEES

The new HEC policy places great emphasis on the creation of fair inquiry committees. In the past, at many higher education institutes, harassment cases were ‘resolved’ by groups of teachers. Inquiry committees were hardly operational, in spite of their being mandatory. And in many cases, the teachers who ended up listening to the students’ grievances, had received no sensitivity training before taking up the roles.

As per the HEC, “Members of the Committee shall be individuals who are known for being principled, credible, fair, gender-sensitive and have a strong character (someone who will not change their decision due to pressure from friends, colleagues or seniors).” The policy adds that the members should not have any conflicts of interest in particular cases, and shall be impartial and unbiased.

Another noteworthy clause is that the “committee shall consist of three members, at least one of whom shall be a woman and one of the members shall be a member of the senior management of the HEI.”

The assurance that a woman will be on the committee is a welcome one, but one wonders how strictly it will be implemented. A few years ago, a female assistant professor was allegedly harassed by a senior colleague. She filed a complaint against the professor. A committee was quickly formed after the incident (one did not already exist), but it consisted of three men. This is just one example of similar cases with panels of men have been appointed to review female students’ and faculties’ cases.

On many campuses, the default assumption is that the complainant is lying, and the priority is to quietly ‘resolve’ the matter, rather than uncovering the truth. In a scenario where even female faculty members feel like they need to look elsewhere for justice, students must feel even more powerless.

Many students who even know about the existence of inquiry committees on their campuses do not trust them. They instead find themselves in the position of having to collect evidence or catch these teachers in the act. In one incident, a teacher at the anthropology department of a private university was fired only after 50 videos of him were found to be “objectionable.” Another teacher at the institute says that it is “criminal on part of the university” that the harasser was quietly sent packing and is free to work anywhere he wants.

In another case, a student of the University of Sargodha’s (UoS) Bhakkar Campus made videos of her mathematics instructor to hold him accountable for harassment. He was prosecuted under Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act.

Of course, no student should be put in a position where they have to film their professors ‘in the act’, or feel like they need undeniable evidence, before they can report harassment. Unfortunately, this is exactly the kind of situation many find themselves in as they are met with suspicion if they bring forward such matters. It is worth noting that, in all the ‘high profile’ cases in the past — including the ones at UoB, UoS and Gomal University — irrefutable video evidence played a big role in the eventual ouster of the accused.


‘FALSE’ ALLEGATIONS

Photo by Shakil Adil, White Star
Photo by Shakil Adil, White Star

“About 98% of the cases are wrong,” claims Quaid-i-Azam University’s (QAU) VC Muhammad Ali. Some cases are either a matter of personal grievance against someone else on the campus, while others are politically motivated, he says.

The HEC document also has a strongly worded section about false allegations. “False allegations of sexual harassment made out of malice or intent to hurt the reputation of the persons against whom the complaint is filed are to be dealt with as serious offences,” it says. “Making mala fide allegation of sexual harassment knowing it to be false, whether in a formal or informal context, is a serious offense under this policy.”

While Pakistan-specific statistics are difficult to come by, studies have repeatedly shown that false sexual harassment allegations are, in fact, incredibly rare around the world. Yet, many university representatives in Pakistan continue to claim that a vast majority of allegations are false. This either means that Pakistan is an exception, or shows that many university managements operate from a place of mistrust towards the complainant.

A faculty member at Foundation University stresses the need for sensitivity training to ensure that the new HEC policy is actually effectively implemented. He also cautions against trivialising the experiences of the survivors.


***


Earlier this month, it was reported that a female faculty member at Swat University has accused the university’s registrar, deputy registrar and provost of harassing her. The assistant professor says that the registrar had made “illegal demands” from her, and then penalised her for not complying. She reported the alleged harassment and threats she received to the Kanju police station.

While it is early to determine the veracity of these claims and the inquiry is underway, the public relations officer of the university, Rafiullah Khan, has already denied the allegations. “[She] was neither harassed nor threatened and was only transferred to the main campus,” he had told Dawn.

The public relations officer had also said that instead of going to the police and the media, the faculty member should have approached the university’s grievances committee to resolve the issue.

But many think that trying to address these matters internally is not the best approach. In their experience, on many campuses, the default assumption is that the complainant is lying, and the priority is to quietly ‘resolve’ the matter, rather than uncovering the truth. In a scenario where even female faculty members feel like they need to look elsewhere for justice, students must feel even more powerless.

Harassment is an ugly reality that many women have to deal with at their workplaces, on the streets, in public transport and even at home. By introducing measures to create a safer experience for their students, the higher education sector is working towards addressing the issue. Indeed, the new policy makes some welcome headway. But we still have a long road ahead.

Campuses must become safe spaces for women to study, teach and follow their curiosities. As the founder of this nation said, “No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you.” It is imperative that we foster environments where women can explore their academic inclinations; only then can Pakistan prosper.


*Name has been changed to protect identity

Header illustration by Samiah Bilal


The writer is a broadcast journalist. He can be reached at riazulhaq86@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 25th, 2020