Alleged university scandals are an excuse to keep women out

Newspapers in Pakistan are reporting on a scandal involving a large and growing public university in Southern Punjab. The scandal, according to claims made by the police, involves the sale of drugs to, and the sexual exploitation of, female students by some faculty members and officials at the university.

The police released snippets of images, videos and WhatsApp chats purported to be from data extracted from the offenders’ mobile phones. The police claim they recovered as many as 5,500 pornographic videos of female students at the university from these phones.

The city’s police chief appeared in the press and confirmed the allegations. A video confession by one of the accused is doing the rounds on social media.

On the other hand, the university’s vice-chancellor and the legal counsel of the institution have denied the accusations and cast doubt on the police investigation, claiming the police may be motivated by ulterior purposes. They paint it as a deliberate campaign to defame the university and have announced they are launching an internal inquiry to find out the truth.

A well-known journalist and blogger has linked the scandal to revenge on the part of a police chief who was denied an office on the university premises to some politicians and to rivals of the university’s vice-chancellor.

Fundamentalist propaganda

Such scandals involving a higher education institution are not new in Pakistan and it is also the norm that these scandals remain in the press for some time and are then forgotten. The facts are seldom released to the public and the truth never surfaces.

However, they tend to follow a pattern which is characterised by the indiscrete handling of information related to the scandals by all those involved and their use by conservatives and fundamentalists to damage female access to and participation in higher education.

This has certainly happened in the case of the current scandal. Although the investigation is in its early stages, traditionalists have already launched a very coordinated social media campaign to present universities as bastions of sexual predation. They are urging parents not to send their daughters to universities at all.

Seizing the opportunity, some of the fundamentalists are even advocating measures akin to those implemented by the Afghan Taliban to restrict female higher education or enforce gender segregation.

All of this has been triggered by the indiscreet and unprofessional handling of the case by the police and a coordinated, biased and vitriolic social media and propaganda campaign.

Double jeopardy

The availability of drugs and incidences of harassment and sexual abuse on campus cannot be condoned. They need to be dealt with severely. However, their presence or occurrence on campuses should never be used to deprive women of their right to education.

In Pakistan, such scandals represent a double jeopardy for female university students. They are more vulnerable to harassment and sexual abuse compared to male students. The occurrence of such incidents and scandals serve as a reason and excuse to further restrict their rights and liberties.

There are examples of universities imposing a strict conservative dress code and head scarves on female students in the name of perpetuating religious and cultural values. Such a dress code for female students is justified as necessary on the pretext that it makes them less enticing to male students or teachers. These impositions are widely supported by the public and government, with any scandal, alleged or otherwise, serving to justify them.

There is a gender disparity in higher education enrolment in Pakistan. Female student enrolment stands at 44% of the total enrolment in the sector. The injudicious and unprofessional handling of these scandals and the ensuing propaganda against universities are used to project the image of university campuses as places that work against traditional gender roles.

The scandals are used as vehicles to deter parents, especially in remote and conservative areas, from sending their daughters to university by leading them to believe that campuses are unsafe places for their daughters’ honour and morals. This may further reduce female participation in higher education in the long run.

How such cases should be handled

Instead of getting support and protection against sexual harassment and abuse on campus women are considered responsible for it and the solution that is usually advocated is “if they are not there, they will not face it”. However, such a solution goes against all human reason.

Reason suggests that all such scandals should be transparently, thoroughly and impartially
investigated and, if appropriate, brought to court. During this process, the motive should be to provide justice to the victims and not to settle personal vendettas with the university or certain individuals.

The police and other prosecution agencies should realise that, in a society like Pakistan, any bravado or showmanship in handling such scandals and the release of relevant information to the public about them will do more harm than good for the female victims. Many journalists and social media activists also use this information in a sensationalist way to gain more views on their social media platforms.

University management needs to establish and promote a safe campus environment. This can be done by giving an equal and stronger voice to female students.

The perpetrator, rather than the victim, needs to be held responsible for these incidents. The prevailing approach of clamping down on dress codes and other restrictions on female students, presented as a protection against harassment and abuse, amounts to putting the responsibility for abuse on the victims. This needs to change.

This approach, covertly and implicitly, also supports the idea that female students have inferior status vis-à-vis male students. University management needs to act boldly by raising awareness and challenging social stereotypes and engaging with local communities on these issues. They can help to undermine these stereotypes on their campuses by empowering the vulnerable and the victims.

So far, university campuses have accepted the cultural influences of Pakistani society at large, but now is the time to change the gender culture on campuses and to influence and transform society more generally.

Hamid Ali Khan is an assistant professor of EAP (English for academic purposes) at the School of Arts and Sciences of the University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan. Hamid holds a Doctor of Education (TESOL) degree from the University of Exeter, United Kingdom.