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     Volume 7 Issue 31 | August 1, 2007 |

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Cover Story

Sir asked me, "Do you have a boyfriend?"
Before I had time to react he said, "No? Well I don't mind even if you do, you can still have an affair with me.”

I went into sir's room with a friend to ask him if I could come in. He said, "How am I supposed to feel if I ask one guest to come and two guests come instead?”

I went to talk to sir, he asked me to seek his blessings for the impending exams in the traditional manner by touching his feet. When I went to do it, he put his arms around me and kissed me. I was so stunned, I did not know how to react.

The boys in class were joking amongst themselves and giving me furtive looks. I asked them what was so funny. One of them said, ''Tomake falai kop dibo, ei joke-tar maney bujho?" (I will throw you down and stab you, do you know the meaning of this joke?). Before I could understand the insinuation of the joke, they started laughing and I stormed off, humiliated.

Violating a Sacred Relationship

Hana Shams Ahmed
Photos: Zahedul I Khan

Sexual harassment comes in all forms, and in all spheres of a woman's life. From ogling, winking, passing comments in the form of sexual innuendos, to touching, groping, 'eve-teasing', stalking, sending lewd text messages, 'prank' calls, display of pornography, threatening and intimidation, acid attacks, and unwanted 'love' proposals. Most women in our society have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment at some point in their lives. Women who have to be in public places grimly 'accept' harassment as part of their daily lives, facing it as soon as they are out of the house. Instead of demanding a change in male behaviour women are segregating themselves from their male counterparts, sometimes by wearing hijab, as a defence mechanism. In spite of this horrific climate, there are no national laws against campus and workplace sexual harassment.

The Bangladesh university system first opened women's participation in the 1920s. Over the last century, women have become increasingly competitive in the academic and eventually in the work environment, side by side with their male counterparts. But women work in an academic climate that is full of bias and harassment. Many women face impediments in the form of unsolicited sexual advances from students and even teachers. From unwanted sexual remarks to forced sexual contact, these experiences cause female students to feel insulted, uncomfortable, angry, and disappointed in their academic life. In response, students avoid places on campus, drop classes, discontinue higher education, are forced to get married by their parents and become psychologically damaged for the rest of their lives.

A policy against sexual harassment will ensure that a girl will be able to make a complaint without the fear of stigma.

In the absence of any formal structure of complaint hearing, many Bangladeshi students keep incidents of sexual harassment to themselves. Students fear having their identities exposed, of social stigma and in the case of a teacher-student relationship the student is usually too aware of the power advantage the teacher has over her. In 1998 sexual harassment on campus finally exploded as a public issue at Jahangirnagar University (JU). Since then, a section of progressive teachers have been campaigning for a formal Policy on Sexual Harassment. To date there has been no step in the right direction towards approving such a policy. If approved, it would be a groundbreaking move by a university, or any public institution in the country.

Incidents in the university atmosphere first came to light in August 1992 when a male student of Jahangirnagar University sexually harassed a girl on the bus. The girl reacted immediately and slapped him in front of all the others in the bus. No one, not even the teachers present inside the bus, came to her aid and the boy managed to get off. The girl later made a formal complaint to the university authorities. Progressive students (both boys and girls) made public protests demanding the harasser's punishment. The boy was forced to leave the university. Associate Professor of Anthropology department Sayeed Ferdous, who had been involved with the protests in 1992 as a student, and later as a teacher in the following years, comments on the very first public case: "What was outstanding about this case was that the girl's identity was never revealed to the members of the public by any of the students."

The Last Straw

It was the students' determination and resistance that finally brought the rapists of 1998 to justice. If the administration had been sterner justice would have been served before the students took to the streets

It was in 1998 that a series of rapes and incidents of sexual harassment by a group of students with political backing came to public view. The administration proved how nonchalant they were about such atrocious crimes by showing a complete reluctance to take action against the known rapists. The first report in the media came out on August 17 in the Daily Manobjomin where it was reported that three female students of JU had been raped by student cadres of Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL)of the university. On August 19 the first demonstration against rape and sexual harassment was brought out by students of the university. A fact-finding committee later reported (The Daily Star, September 26, 1998) that a total of 20 JU students were raped in different locations on campus and 300 were sexually assaulted by members of this group. The perpetrators were all political cadres of Chhatra League. Jasimuddin Manik, a student of Drama and Dramatics department and the former general secretary of the JU unit of BCL, was on the top of the list of seven persons accused of having committed rape. The report also said that Manik on completion of his 100th rape 'celebrated the occasion by offering sweets and throwing a cocktail party'. The Jahangirnagar University General Students Unity continued to wage an unrelenting struggle against the rapists for months as the then VC of JU Prof Alauddin Ahmed in his defence of not taking any action said, "under the law of the land, the victim has to lodge the complaint herself" (The Daily Star, October 2, 2008). When the media and the public wanted to know the identities of the raped victims the protestors said, "We have all been raped". Mug-shots of each of the alleged rapists were published in Shaptahik 2000 in their October 16, 2008 issue.

The university syndicate described the acts as "morally degrading" and gave the following punishments to the students: Jasimuddin Manik received a life-long expulsion order from JU, two others received a two-year expulsion each, two received three-year-expulsions and another a suspended one-year expulsion (faced expulsion if found guilty of misconduct within a year). A group of teachers headed by Professor Anu Mohammad of the Economics department termed this punishment 'a license to rape' in an article. (The Daily Star, October 20, 2008)

Some Others that Became Public
In May 2006, Rajshahi University students of the Botany department enforced a strike on the campus demanding removal of Prof Nurul Aman for alleged sexual harassment of a female student of the department. (The Daily Star, May 8, 2006). The sociology students of Rajshahi University went out on demonstrations on the campus demanding punishment for and dismissal of a teacher of the department for his alleged sexual harassment of a female student of the department. (The New Age, May 10, 2006)

In August 2006 allegations of sexual harassment were brought against Sayeed, a student of Economics department (The Daily Star, August 23, 2006). A group of Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD) cadres led by Sayeed, Shafiq, a student of Urban and Planning department and Sajib, a student of Statistics department, swooped on three students near the Social Science faculty on the campus, as they protested assault on the student.

Prof Anu Muhammad (left) and Prof Sayeed Ferdous

In November 2006 allegations were brought against a teacher of the Bangla department of JU for alleged sexual harassment of a first year female student of the department on November 16. A fact-finding committee, formed to conduct primary investigation of the allegation against the teacher found that her allegations were true (The Daily Star, December 24, 2006). Transcripts of the text messages sent to the student were obtained and records of how many calls were made to her and at what time were gathered from the phone company. The teacher, Assistant Professor Golam Mostafa was eventually dismissed from his duties. Just before this a teacher of the BBA department resigned over allegations of sexual harassment.

Authorities of Psychology Department at Dhaka University (DU) temporarily relieved a teacher of all kinds of academic activities at the department for his alleged involvement in sexually harassing a female student of the same department. The student along with her father submitted a memorandum to the DU VC accusing the teacher of sexual harassment on April 23 (The Daily Star, May 22, 2008).

And now the latest allegation has come against a teacher of the Drama and Dramatics department at JU. Four students of the department brought the initial complaint against him. Later two more students of the department went to the fact-finding committee and gave their statements, saying how they were sexually harassed by this teacher. One of the members of the fact-finding committee speaking on condition of anonymity has said that they have not been able to find any 'hard evidence' against the teacher although they unanimously agree that 'there is something there'. Whatever exists now is 'circumstantial evidence' and the committee members have not been able to come to a conclusion based on the evidence. In the meantime, the students of the department continue to demonstrate against the teacher while the department's classes have been suspended for the last three months.

Progressive male students of JU have been participating equally in demanding a stop to sexual harassment on campus

"We are the educated sections of society, if we don't get justice for such harassment who is going to give justice to those women at the grassroots level?" asks Dola, a student of Drama and Dramatics department, "They have no hope for justice in sexual harassment cases, they will continue to suffer in silence."

"They keep talking about hard evidence," says Imran, a student of Bangla department, "But it's weird because in cases like this how do you expect to obtain such evidence?"

And the Fight Goes On...

Rahnuma Ahmed. Photo © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Ever since the movement in 1998 students of JU have been demanding that a code against sexual harassment be implemented. A section of the teachers of JU have supported this demand. A Draft Policy was first presented to the university administration in 1999. In 2000, 17 teachers from JU forwarded a revised policy to the administration. From then on it has become a ritual to demand the approval of the policy on Women's Day (March 8) every year. A formal committee was formed under the university authorities and with the help of lawyers (Sultana Kamal of Ain O Salish Kendra was also placed on this committee), legal technicalities were further brushed up and the new draft was presented to the authorities in April 2007.

As of writing of this report, the administration has not responded to the demand for a policy. The current ViC of JU Professor Muniruzzaman, when asked by <>The Star<> whether there is going to be any steps to approve the policy, refused to comment on it.

The Proctorial Law of 1970, which guides the administration now, deals with the students. It specifies what the punishment should be if any student breaks the law. "In the current legal framework in the university, there is no specific definition on what grounds a teacher would be punished; a vague, ill-defined clause of 'moral turpitude' is applied in dealing cases of sexual harassment," says Sayeed Ferdous, Associate Professor of the Anthropology department, "everyone in the university knows everyone, and they are friends and colleagues, so when someone brings a complaint about any person, at first it seens impossible to believe and often it is treated in a very much personified way, which seals off even an attempt for a proper judicial initiative."

The university system allows men and women to intermingle freely. Male students need to know where to draw the line between a joke and sexual harassment

"This law [The Proctorial Law] was formulated at a time when men and women were not even allowed to speak to each other in the class room," says Professor Anu Mohammad, Chairperson of the Economics department. "There are many things in our society that are not even considered sexual harassment -- like making a comment, or creating a pressure to oblige to a proposal of love," he adds. Anu Mohammad has been involved with the movement and the drafting of the policy from the very beginning.

The latest policy identifies the parameters that define sexual harassment, which include among others -- making foul or unsolicited comments and advances on campus, commenting on a person's clothes, creating pressure to yield to a love proposal or physical relationship, blackmailing with photos or video, touching any part of a person's body without consent, pestering a person with letters, emails, text messages, posters, wall writings, notices and cartoons etc., any harassing behaviour towards teachers or students by teachers or students, physical harassment and ragging, using one's social or administrative power to force someone to have a physical relationship.

"Sometimes a girl's academic life is put in danger or she is forced to leave the university as a result of what she faces here," says Mohammad, "and this is a kind of offence that is very difficult for a girl to make a complaint about. So there needs to be such a kind of mechanism whereby the girl can make the complaint and remain anonymous."

The proposed policy recommends having an independent Complaint Cell (comprising of one man and two women) in each unit of the university where a person can air his/her grievance anonymously. It would be the university's responsibility to ensure the accuser's security. The accuser does not even have to appear in person to make the complaint if he/she feels that his/her security is under threat.

Incidents of sexual harassment leave a person psychologically damaged for life. Sometimes a student doesn't complain until it becomes unbearable.

"The' 98 movement was successful because of the students' unity," says Mohammad, "the government and a section of the so-called civil society tried to protect them [the rapists] from getting punished."

Indifference or Evasion?
According to Anu Mohammad there is a resistance from within the Syndicate (which has representatives from the government and the university) to approve the policy. "There is a fear from within the Syndicate and certain teachers that there might be abuse of the policy by the students," he adds. And yet, analysis of the policy shows that there are clear guidelines to prevent abuse: If a person brings a false accusation, he/she will receive the same punishment the person against whom the allegation was brought would have received if he had been found guilty.

"I do not want to dismiss the idea that false allegations may be brought, for instance, a teacher could well instigate a student to falsely accuse a rival teacher, or let's say, a disgruntled student may falsely accuse her professor," says writer and human rights activist Rahnuma Ahmed, "but the Policy has built-in clauses that foresee such possibilities. So when teachers, Syndicate members, or say, the VC raises this point, and ad nauseum, they expose themselves. It becomes clear that they are basically arguing for the status quo. For inaction. Because if they were sincere they would have worked on the Draft Policy, on the abuse preventative clauses."

"One does not need seven years to brush up a few clauses," says Ahmed, "one just needs to look at the continuing allegations made by women students over the past few years, and at the many movements that students have had to organise, to seek redress. The university authorities, and all others unwilling to support the policy, do not seem concerned at the loss of educational time, and other resources. What tremendous lack of public accountability!"

Rahnuma Ahmed was a teacher of the Anthropology department and a very vocal activist during the 1998 movement. Ahmed took photos of a BCL procession on August 23, and later took her camera out to take photos at a rally by the same group. Some of the cadres hurled abuses at her and broke her camera.

Ahmed believes that there is a profound, deep-seated inability to acknowledge that sexual harassment is systemic, that it is not just an individual occurrence, or misdirected sexual desire, something that happens once in a blue moon. "On the contrary, that it arises from the systemic social inequality between men and women, that it is a manifestation of male power, power being a question of gender," says Ahmed, "That when women are reduced to stereotypes of their 'sex', or when objectified fantasies of their 'sex' are imposed on women, they are viewed and treated as unworthy of equal citizenship."

Ahmed believes that the resistance of the JU authorities is not unique to Jahangirnagar, that a historical contextualisation of universities is needed to gain a deeper understanding. "I think, the universities of the ex-colonies are a product of paternalism, and this is distinctly colonial," says Ahmed "It is taken for granted that teachers as a class are morally superior, that they are the natural guardians of their students, who as a class are their wards. Paternalism is institutional, it is all-pervasive. And it prevents women, both women teachers and students from asserting that sexual harassment is a harm, an injury that is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women."

Professor Anu Mohammad agrees that these incidents are rampant all over the country. "But there is more resistance from our students which is strength for us," he says, "We can be a pioneer in this issue."

Having a policy against sexual harassment will not mean that harassment will stop. But not having such a policy does not mean that harassment does not exist. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) Education Foundation conducted a study on sexual harassment on campus in 2005. This study ('Drawing the Line') revealed that nearly two-thirds of university students in the US experience some type of sexual harassment and less than 10 percent of them report it.

The administration of JU (and some teachers) whether by pretending that such incidents don't happen, are exaggerated, or perhaps are not important enough, are keeping in line with the nonchalant approach they held since 1998. In the larger scheme of things this indifference reflects our society's attitude towards women. A policy against sexual harassment gives a female student a sense of security, a feeling that she has someone to confide in, that she won't be intimidated to give in to her harasser, or end her academic life, or be forced to get married by her parents trying to save her 'ijjot' (honour). It will also give security to the teachers, because the investigation will be carried out within a framework that has clear guidelines and protection against abuse. In time the policy will work as a hallmark for other universities and public institutions to follow in order to ensure an equitable working environment for women.


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008