Students are demanding 50 percent female representation in committees dealing with harassment cases
Nida*, 25, knew something was not right the day her university teacher began offering her car rides to the sets of a drama he was supposedly directing. “This was a class of 70 students and he only wanted to take four or five female students to the sets.” It never made sense to Nida and her class fellows but they had nowhere to go to report the teacher. “There was no procedure in place to tackle this issue. Even if we did tell someone, they answered by saying things like ‘oh, maybe you feel this way because you are too sensitive’”.
Nida’s story is just one of many incidents of harassment that take place on campuses every year but go largely unreported. One of the underlying issues in most of these cases is that the students don’t know where to go in order to report the offence.
In 2020, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) decided to tackle the situation by putting in place a Policy on Protection Against Sexual Harassment in Higher Education Institutions, 2020. “Educational institutions (in the Punjab) are governed by The Punjab Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2012,” says Fauzia Viqar, a gender policy adviser. “The law clearly states that every institution, public or private, which employs people shall constitute a permanent inquiry committee.” But she says that the law seems to be silent on whether or not students can be considered employees. This makes last year’s HEC policy more important.
What looks like a potentially effective initiative to tackle harassment is perhaps lacking in practical respects, according to the hundreds of students who participated in last week’s Students Solidarity March that took place in Lahore. One of the demands of the marchers this year was the setting up of functional anti-harassment committees in educational institutions.
“The HEC has given complete autonomy to universities for the formation of anti-harassment committees,” says Muqaddas Jarral, a member of Progressive Students’ Collective (PSC), one of the organisers of the Students Solidarity March. “Even where these committees are created, most of them are not functional all year around. The universities just form some kind of a committee as and when a case is reported.”
According to the HEC policy, all higher educational institutions should have anti-harassment committees in place and these should consist of at least three senior faculty members, one of whom should be a woman. The committees should be formed for two years with no member serving for more than two consecutive terms. Jarral says that most of these anti-harassment committees have only male members so that the issue is never really addressed. “Even where there is a female member on the committee she is too scared to lose her job and cannot take an independent decision about the case,” says Jarral.
According to official representatives of most universities, anti-harassment committees are functional all year around. “What the students are saying is not true,” says Khurram Shahzad, the public relations officer for the Punjab University. He maintains that most educational institutions have active anti-harassment committees. “This can be corroborated from the fact that certain universities have recently terminated teachers who were involved in sexual misconduct. It was possible only because of these committees.” Shahzad also says that students are informed about the presence of these committees on campuses.
“What the students are saying is not true. Most educational institutions have active anti-harassment committees. This can be corroborated from the fact that certain universities have recently terminated teachers for their involvement in sexual misconduct. It was possible only because of these committees,” says Khuram Shahzad, Public Relations Officer, Punjab University
The problem goes deeper than the mere absence of anti-harassment committees on campuses, says Jarral. “It is difficult to trust these committees even if they are present,” she says. “The only way to gain trust in anti-harassment committees is to have legitimate female representation on them.” She says a 50 percent female representation would be ideal, “with female students also present”. Students are making this demand mostly because they have lost their trust in the system. “Even the female teachers on the committees are aware of the fact that they can’t make a decision against the system. Most of them apologise to us towards the end of the trial about not being able to do anything for the complainant.”
Husnain Jameel, one of the founders of the PSC, agrees with Jarral. “When there is no female student representation on the committee, most decisions are male-oriented, even if one of the members is a female professor.” Jameel says that the men try to save one another from harassment charges. “This issue can be better dealt with if there is female student representation on the committees. For that to happen effectively, the revival of student unions is imperative.”
Viqar says that a student cannot be trusted to possess the kind of ability that is needed for effective participation in the matters of the anti-harassment committees. She says that the complainant can bring support with them, “be it a lawyer, friend, or a collective bargaining agency member. But a student can be marginalised. How far and for how long will she be able to stand her ground? Students can be brought in as friends of the committee but there is a risk of them being bullied.”
There are a number of issues regarding the establishment of anti-harassment committees in educational institutions but things have started moving in the right direction, it seems. “In the last year or so HEC has conducted training sessions on the anti-harassment law and policy for the principals of all degree colleges in the Punjab,” says Viqar. “I, myself, have conducted some of these sessions and have been brutally honest about what harassment is and about the overall responsibility of teachers. They often come up to me and say that if we had segregated colleges there would be no harassment. My argument against this is that first, you cannot blame the victim, and second, segregation is never the answer. How far are you really going to segregate men and women?”
This year’s march saw a number of lawyers, activists and politicians proclaiming support for students’ struggle for the revival of student unions, along with their other demands including the establishment of anti-harassment committees on campuses. Jarral finds this support encouraging. “Around 200 students approached us to be a part of our organisation a week before the march,” she says. “Usually people start getting scared when our march is around the corner, so this definitely is progress.”
“In many educational institutions, harassment is not taken seriously,” says Nida. She says that nobody takes you seriously unless you can say that you were attacked by a sexual predator.
“Even now, in 2021, while we know what harassment is, some people still do not understand that harassment is not always physical. It could be a stare or the way someone smiles at you. You just know.”
*Name has been changed upon request
The writer is a staff member