KARACHI: At best, the University of Karachi (KU) is ill-equipped to deal with cases of sexual harassment; at worst, the country’s largest varsity is sweeping under the carpet a growing endemic on campus grounds.
An assistant professor at the University of Karachi (KU), however, has refused to stay silent about her harrowing experience.
Navin G Haider has been taunted, criticised and even threatened after she stepped forward to report a well-known Urdu scholar for sexually harassing her inside university premises. Although her courage came at a price, it gave many students the courage to lodge similar complaints of sexual harassment against the same scholar.
KU’s administration took almost a whole month just to form a committee to probe Navin’s allegations, during which, she claims, concerned authorities attempted to silence “another case of rampant sexual harassment in KU” as they have done with many any similar cases.
On March 14, 2016, Navin recalls she encountered the accused, who is a visiting faculty member at KU, namely Sahar Ansari, at the office of the head of her department at the Pakistan Study Centre Dr Syed Jaffar Ahmed.
A little while later, she went to Dr Ahmed’s office again. This time, Ansari was leaving. Navin chose to ignore his presence, as, she said, he had behaved inappropriately just a few days back when he visited her office.
“Sahar Ansari came in to my office to wish me friendship day. I was a bit confused and taken aback. He then took my hand in his and while holding it, kept saying how he admired me and my work. I had to literally pull my hand away,” says Navin, adding that from that day on, she vowed to maintain a distance from him.
On March 14, however, as Ansari left the the HoD’s office and as soon as he saw her there, he put his both hands on Navin’s shoulders, while trying to lean on her. “Why are you hesitating?” she quoted him as saying with a smirk on his face.
“Confused and harassed, I could only utter: Don’t you have any shame?” she added.
Navin immediately walked away and back into her office. After gaining composure, she did what she thought best: walked straight into the HoD’s office and told him about the incident, and said she would not hesitate taking the matter up with the vice chancellor of the varsity.
Dr Ahmed didn’t seem to budge. Navin waited for two days but no action was taken against Ansari.
When asked why he failed to take any action despite Navin’s complaint, Dr Ahmed told The Express Tribune, “The lady had not given her application in written form.” On failing to inform her of the process, he said: “Why should I tell her that?”
“The teacher did come to me on March 14 and had at the very outset told me that she would reach the VC for this issue. And I thought, let it be,” Ahmed said, before adding, “I can’t comment on this issue until the report of the committee is out.”
DR S H M Library inside KU’s Pakistan Study department. PHOTO: FAWAD HASAN
From pillar to post
After her head of department failed to take any step, Navin filed a complaint with the VC.
Following this, the admin’s finally agreed after almost a month to launch form a committee that would probe the allegation, but that too after pressure from the student body.
On April 1, a number of students held a protest in front of KU Student Advisor office, demanding an investigation into the sexual harassment case and calling for the appointment of Sahar Ansari to be terminated.
“Within five minutes, we were apprehended by armed security personnel, who had were accompanied by the varsity’s Security Advisor Khalid Iraqi,” said a student who is part of a group that has initiated a campaign against sexual harassment in KU. Many eyewitnesses recall Iraqi outright threatening the students, with the guards standing my each side.
KU’s Security Advisor Khalid Iraqi talking to students on April 1, 2016. Armed personnel can also been seen in the background.
Iraqi had another story to tell. He told The Express Tribune he allowed the students to protest for at least 45 minutes before asking them to disperse. Students, however, said his claim can be easily negated by video clips of the protest from the day.
“Instead of stopping them, I advised them to write an application so that the management could hear their concerns. That’s the proper way to complain which they did not know till then,” Iraqi claimed.
On the other hand, protesting students claim they had in fact written to the admin and submitted an application lodging a complaint at least three times; the last one just a day before the protest.
“The authorities do not want to discuss the issue of rampant sexual harassment in KU’s premises because many big names would be publicly shamed and the institute’s reputation would be tarnished,” said a student, who wished to remain unnamed.
Complaint filed by the victim to VC of the varsity dated March 16, 2016.
Application filed by students to HoD Pakistan Study Centre after Navin Haider accused the Urdu teacher of harassment.
Letter sent to Navin G Haider, asking her to report on April 18, 2016, more than a month after the ‘harassment case’ took place.
An open secret
Stories of sexual harassment have been emerging inside the campus and Sahar Ansari seems to be the common culprit.
“Two female students recently came to me on different occasions and told me how they were harassed by Sahar Ansari. One of them was crying as well,” says a staff member, who also chose to withhold his identity. They went on to add,
“I, along with many others, am an eyewitness to what Sahar does with female students.”
A student at the Pakistan Study Centre department, who chose to stay unnamed, says Ansari began calling her every other night, trying to engage her in conversation at odd hours.
“I respected him because of his age and since he was a teacher. But when I asked my friends about him, I got to know about his character. It is obscene for a teacher to call a female student at night, telling her how much he admires her,” she reveals.
She went on to say that her friends had also been subjected to physical and verbal harassment at the hands of Ansari. At least a dozen of such incidents have occurred, she added.
A senior faculty member says cases of sexual harassment on campus are not uncommon and the KU admin has always tried to keep mum on the matter or turned a blind eye to it.
Last month, the faculty members said, a student told her that a professor at the Islamic History department “grabbed her wrist, tied a watch on her hand and kissed her”.
“The management has once again silenced a victim of sexual harassment because they do not want to bring to justice the culprits who are always their associates.”
Although the Pakistan Penal Code includes a section against sexual harassment in workplaces, the government has yet to pass a law or table an act specifically for safeguarding students at campuses.
The Protection Against Harassment of Women the Workplace Act 2010 is also just for employees of an organisation, whereas students do not have any legal cover.
Navin’s wait for justice
Almost two months have passed since Navin became a survivor of sexual harassment at her workplace but she is still waiting for the report of the committee formed to probe the allegations.
“I know I am hoping against hope that the committee will give a just verdict but they must at least announce their findings,” she says, while question their delay.
The Express Tribune reached out to committee member Professor Seemi Naghmana to ask when the report is expected. “In a couple of days,” she responded.
However, another committee member Raheela Najam said that the report would come out “next week as we are looking into every angle and aspect of the matter”.
Students are of the opinion that by delaying the report, the committee is trying to provide Ansari a safe passage as within a week or two “the ongoing semester will end and no one will remember the case”.
Ansari declined to give a statement, saying he would reserve his comments till the report is released.
Rejoinder: Following the publication of this article, the Public Relations Office of the University of Karachi has released a statement, saying the committee has prepared a report concluding that “Navin G Haider took a small encounter far ahead and by taking advantage of it provoked students to turn it into agitation against the centre” and she was unable to provide any evidence to support her allegations.