Sexual harassment - cover-up in the classroom

Published: August 30, 2015
How can higher education institutions learn to protect students against sexual harassment?. DESIGN BY HIRA FAREED

How can higher education institutions learn to protect students against sexual harassment?. DESIGN BY HIRA FAREED

In 2012, a few days after her orientation at the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi, Mariam* began receiving messages online from one of her new teachers at the university. Throughout her first semester, the behaviour persisted and the teacher continued to email her and ask her to meet him. When Mariam finally approached the registrar to report the harassment, she was called to his office. “The registrar seemed to be strangely excited about the complaint and was grinning as he asked me for details,” Mariam recalls. “He asked me what I was wearing during classes and whether I had lead the teacher on.”

The following day, Mariam was called to the registrar’s office once more. “He told me that he had gone through my social media accounts and some drawings I made,” she says. “He said my artwork was sexual and as a girl, I should not be making such art.” The teacher was ultimately fired, but Mariam, who graduated this year, says she came to accept such behaviour at the university. “I got catcalls from male students all the time or they make nicknames for me based on my body, but I never reported them,” she says. As a girl, she says, “I get this kind of verbal harassment on a pretty regular basis, so I’ve just come to accept it.”

Mariam’s story is not uncommon. Students reporting harassment at institutions in Pakistan say that they faced unnecessary questions and, in some cases, their university degree was withheld as the harassment claims were investigated. While many institutions boast watertight policies against harassment, are these policies implemented or merely practiced on paper?

A policy against harassment

In 2010, the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act was passed, governing the law on sexual harassment. One year later, in February 2011, the HEC circulated Policy Guidelines against Sexual Harassment in Institutions of Higher Learning, a policy related to sexual harassment, to 158 universities all over Pakistan.

The HEC reports that complaints of sexual harassment on campus include the following allegations: asking female students to visit the supervisor’s office after hours; asking students to meet off campus; financial and sexual gratification; intimidation of faculty members by students and colleagues; harassment of minority students; inquiries into one’s sexual experiences; abuse that refers to mothers or sisters; forcing students to publish research in the supervisor’s name.

The guideline holds figures of authority — such as department heads or supervisors — responsible if a harassment complaint is not appropriately dealt with. “Once a person in a position of authority at a higher education institution (HEI) has knowledge, or should have had knowledge, of conduct constituting sexual harassment, the HEI is exposed to liability… Any administrator, supervisor, manager or faculty member who is aware of sexual harassment and condones it, by action or inaction, would be held responsible for negligence towards maintaining sexual harassment-free campus,” the guideline notes.

The Act requires the formation of a three-member inquiry committee under Section 3 and states that at least one member of the committee must be a woman. The inquiry committee is required to submit its findings within 30 days and to impose penalties, which, in serious cases, can result in dismissal from service and fine. A Harassment Monitoring Officer, with at least 10 years experience and ‘sound’ reputation is required, under the HEC guidelines, to promote awareness on sexual harassment and to act as adviser in case of a complaint.

However, as per the HEC, universities have dragged their feet on implementing the guidelines and, in some cases, ignored it. In 2014, it was found that the National University of Modern Languages (NUML), Islamabad, flouted the HEC’s policy guideline when an all male three-member committee was set up to investigate a harassment complaint. The guilty party was removed from his position as head of department and his position shuffled to head another department.

A 2013 HEC report stated only 20% of universities have implemented the guidelines since 2011. In April 2013, the HEC asked universities to take part in a survey on sexual harassment. Only 30 universities of 145 replied. In June, the HEC sent an email reminding the universities to respond, but few bothered to reply. “Now we have decided to halt projects carried out with HEC’s assistance and funding to those varsities which have not replied yet,” an HEC official who wished to remain anonymous told The Express Tribune at the time.

In 2014, the HEC stated that it had sent repeated reminders to universities to send in names of faculty members nominated to inquiry committees required as per the policy, as well as details of harassment cases reported or resolved. Not a single university replied to the HEC.

Policy in practice

The Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums) states that the institution has a comprehensive sexual harassment policy, adopted on October 30, 2014. The university states that it deems harassment a punishable offence and has formed an inquiry committee, as per the HEC’s policy, comprising of three members to look into complaints of sexual harassment. “I was given a student handbook which mentioned the policy on harassment,” explains Ayesha, who graduated from LUMS in 2009. “If I had a complaint about harassment, I would have definitely reported it, because it was very easy to do so”. While a number of female Lums students said they were aware of the university’s stance on harassment and were confident that their complaint would be taken seriously, male students said they would not bother reporting a complaint. “There is a lot of social stigma attached to guys reporting such incidents, so I would probably not make such a complaint,” said Ahmed, who graduated from the institution in 2014.

In November 2014, news broke that the Federal Ombudsman had directed Lums to fire Abid Hussain Imam, a faculty member in the law department, upon a harassment complaint. At the time, a graduate of the department, blogged about his reaction to the news and said, “I graduated from this department two years ago. Upon hearing the news, my reaction was not one of disbelief. I did not wonder, ‘How could this happen at Lums?’ but rather, ‘Which one of them finally got caught?’.” The writer, Shehzad Ghias, observed that girls complaining of harassment chose not to report it, largely because they did not want to ‘create a scene’. “One student walked into class wearing a sleeveless top and her professor exclaimed, ‘Girls who dress like this, their mothers do not sleep at their homes at night.’ She quietly went to her seat as she did not want to ‘create a scene’,” Ghias said.

Zahra, an MPhil student at Punjab University echoed Ghias’ observation, saying, “I would keep quiet if I had a complaint because no one believes harassment takes place, and the girl is always the one who is looked down upon.” She added, “The girl is always considered guilty in these cases and no respectable family allows their respect to be exploited on a public forum.” As per the HEC guidelines, Punjab University has an anti-harassment committee headed by the university’s dean, but Zahra is unaware of this. She states that a religio-political student group holds sway at the university and “they beat up teachers and students who are caught flirting, let alone harassing a girl.”

The University of Karachi also has a three-member sexual harassment committee, with the mandatory inclusion of one woman. However, questions remain over the committee’s efficacy. In November 2014, two months after a case of sexual harassment was reported at the social work department, a teacher at the Urdu department was reinstated after facing a two-year suspension on charges of sexual harassment. Sources claimed that while the investigations were going on, the teacher continued to receive his monthly salary while staying at home.

In March this year, KU faculty members complained that the committee’s report into a harassment case was being ‘covered up’ by the vice-chancellor. “What was the point in instituting the committee and what was its mandate?” a senior faculty member asked at the time. A female teacher who wished to remain anonymous told The Express Tribune, “The KU administration has turned a blind eye towards this issue.” In January this year, Chairman of the Mass Communication department Professor Tahir Masood said that cases of inappropriate behaviour and alleged sexual harassment by teachers were gradually increasing, after three cases were reported between 2012 and 2015. He suggested that the existing committee be scrapped, in favour of an ‘impartial and trustworthy inquiry committee’.

Bridging the gap

In many cases, complaints of harassment are treated with suspicion by faculty members. In June 2014, a female student at Quaid-e-Azam University claimed that an assistant professor tried to molest her when she visited his office to correct an error in her marks sheet. The teacher denied the claim and Vice Chancellor Dr Etazaz Ahmad responded, “It involves the issue of marks and is not a simple case. The girl belongs to a group that is already facing disciplinary proceedings. It can be a tactic to blackmail the assistant professor.”

Executive director of Mehergarh, a social welfare organisation, Maliha Husain also told The Express Tribune at the time that in another instance, a female faculty member approached the vice-chancellor at another university with a complaint against a head of department. The three-member body constituted by the VC included the accused person as the committee’s head, according to Hussain.

“Sexual harassment in higher education is not a new issue, but has until recently been a hidden silent one,” the HEC 2011 guideline states. “During the last few years, higher education institution personnel from administrators and faculty to employees and students have recognised the problem in terms of its lost productivity, time consumption, and legal implications (in addition to visible/invisible damage to the victim).” The question remains: how can education institutions learn to prevent such damage to teachers and students?

What is ‘sexual harassment’?

As per the HEC’s policy guideline, “Sexual harassment may be overt or subtle, and can range from visual signals or gestures to verbal abuse to physical contact along with hand or sign language to denote sexual activity, persistent and unwelcome flirting. Sexual harassment generally takes place when there is power or authority difference among persons involved (student/teacher, employee/supervisor, junior teacher/senior teacher, research supervisee/supervisor).”

The guideline states that such harassment “is a serious human rights issue. lt can be exacerbated by discrimination on other grounds of vulnerability such as gender, poverty, disability, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”

First formal complaint

In 2011, Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University was the first institution to receive a complaint from a student after the passage of the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act. The university syndicate removed a senior teacher after an inquiry, but this decision was overturned by the-then chancellor of the university, former president Asif Ali Zardari.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Komal Anwar is a subeditor at The Express Tribune magazine desk.

She tweets @Komal1201

Nisma Chauhan is a subeditor on The Express Tribune magazine desk.

 She tweets @ChauhanNisma

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 30th, 2015.

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