Academics demand sexual harassment report be made public

Academics and students in Pakistan have demanded that a report of a harassment investigation at Balochistan University be made public. On 29 October the High Court refused to reveal the contents of the report submitted by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) after protesting students alleged that university officials were using footage from security cameras to harass female students.

Surveillance equipment had been installed at all universities in Pakistan to monitor the security situation in view of threats from terrorists. A number of bomb blasts have occurred at universities in the past.

But the Balochistan sexual harassment case has placed a big question mark over the abuse of security cameras at universities, where the number of female students is already very limited.

An investigative report about harassment and blackmailing of female students at the university was submitted to a High Court bench comprising Chief Justice Jamal Mandokhel and Justice Abdullah Baloch. The bench directed the FIA not to reveal the contents of the report to the public.

The decision has generated shock waves, and suspicion that there might be even more serious aspects to the issue of spying for harassment.

Women students unnerved

Sadaf Panezai, a masters student in the department of international relations at Quetta's Balochistan University, told University World News: “We live in a very conservative society where female education is very limited and after it was revealed that security cameras were secretly installed in even washrooms, many of our female colleagues, especially those residing in the hostels, have left the university.”

She said that in a university environment it was normal to interact with males, discussing course work and other academic matters. But harassers showed recorded videos to the female students and threatened to reveal them to parents and “expose” their “friendship” with males, “which is objectionable in tribal society”.

“The harassers either demanded sexual favours or money in return for not exposing their videos.” Panezai said that the scandal had dealt a severe blow to female education in the province and that many female students who had left the campus were not likely to return to education. She demanded that the FIA report be made public.

Protests erupt, vice-chancellor steps down

Protests erupted at the university after the issue was highlighted through social media, which attracted the attention of the mainstream media. The chief justice of Balochistan High Court took notice and directed the FIA to investigate the matter.

Students protested inside the university and staged demonstrations and a march down Sariab Road in Quetta, during which they chanted slogans against the then vice-chancellor and university management, demanding punishment of the culprits.

The Committee of Human Rights of Pakistan's Senate – the upper house of parliament – also took notice of the alleged illegal use of security surveillance equipment at Balochistan University and summoned the vice-chancellor, the secretary of the Ministry of Interior and the director general of the FIA to explain the situation to the committee on 25 October.

Amid students’ continued protests and rallies, Vice-Chancellor Javed Iqbal stepped down on 20 October to pave the way for a transparent investigation, as demanded by students who accused him of protecting the culprits. Iqbal had earlier denied allegations, saying that the harassment accusations were based on lies and assumptions.

Caretaker Vice-Chancellor Anwar Panezai, addressing a press conference in Quetta on 22 October, said that they had suspended four key officials of the university connected with security surveillance on the campus. He said they would remain suspended until a final inquiry report had been submitted by the FIA, and “then appropriate punishment will be awarded to them if they are found guilty”.

But student groups, including the Baloch Students Organisation, Pakhtun Students Organisation and Insaaf Students Organisation, have rejected the suspension of the four officials and have demanded that stricter action be taken through police cases and court verdicts.

Jan Muhammad Buledi, secretary general of the National Party and a member of Balochistan’s Provincial Assembly, said: “Keeping the FIA's report secret shows that university high-ups or very influential persons are involved in the scandal.”

He told University World News that suspension was temporary and the suspects could be reinstated. He demanded that the FIA report be made public and that police register cases against the alleged harassers named in the investigation.

Four university administration officials were suspended for alleged involvement in harassment and blackmailing of students through CCTV footage. They include: Assistant Security Officer Saifullah; Security Surveillance In-charge Naeem; Yahya Domki, secretary of the former vice-chancellor; and Transport Officer Sharif Shahwani.

Anti-harassment rules must be implemented

Wasima Talat, head of fine arts at Sardar Bahadur Khan Women's University in Quetta, told University World News: “The universities must implement the Higher Education Commission’s regulations regarding sexual harassment in institutions of higher education.

“Had those been implemented in letter and spirit, the incident at Balochistan University would not have happened.”

Talat also demanded that the report of the FIA submitted to the court be made public. “An exemplary punishment should be awarded to those involved in harassment at Balochistan University in light of the FIA report, which should be made public,” she said.

After the Balochistan University incident, the executive director of Pakistan's Higher Education Commission or HEC, Fateh Muhammad Marri, wrote a letter to all universities on 18 October to remind them of the imperative for strict implementation of the “HEC Policy Guidelines Against Sexual Harassment in Institutions of Higher Learning”, which were drafted in 2009 and circulated to universities in February 2011.

The country also has the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010, which is applicable to the universities. But its implementation has been very weak due to procedural impediments and non-willingness of whistle-blowers – especially women from less developed areas, who do not speak up against harassment for fear of social backlash.