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Sexual Harassment Verdict Pits Students Against Teachers At A Pakistani University

Students Demonstrate On 'Girl's Walk Against Harassment' In Peshawar
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Students from Islamia College University took part in the Girl's Walk Against Harassment on November 11, 2020, in Peshawar to protest sexual harassment by teachers.

Amna Ashfaq recalls the day she became a bold campaigner against sexual harassment.

She says that on November 5 last year, the chairman of the Political Science Department at Islamia College University, where she is studying for a degree, called her into his office.

“I was with another female student, whom he told to wait outside,” she said of her meeting with Amir Ullah Khan. “He closed the door and asked me to be his girlfriend and assured me he will keep everything secret,” she added. “When I politely declined, he stood close to me and took my hand and asked me to promise him to be his secret girlfriend. I just ran away from his office.”

Ashfaq reported the incident to the administration of Islamia College University, in the northwestern city of Peshawar, the next day. A committee of faculty members reviewed her complaint but concluded the accusations were baseless and their colleague was not guilty.

Khan has denied the accusations.

Ashfaq and her fellow students, however, were not convinced. On November 11, hundreds of Islamia College University students protested the decision and called on the government to intervene. The protest was one of several public rallies against sexual harassment on campuses in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a conservative region where such subjects are taboo.

Shah Farman, the provincial governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, ordered an investigation. He appointed Zaka Ullah Khattak, a close aide, to lead the probe.

The investigation, however, barely scratched the surface. Ashfaq and other students say it failed to even address their main complaint about her alleged harassment and the overall environment on the campus. It only provided general recommendations for preventing similar incidents.

In an unprecedented step for a student, Ashfaq reported the incident to a provincial ombudsperson in charge of investigating incidents of workplace harassment. Most previous cases barely made it to the administration of their respective universities.

Rakhshanda Naz, a lawyer and researcher, spent months looking into the case. She interviewed faculty and students at the university and issued a final verdict in April.

The nine-page statement recommends that in the best interest of the university Khan “be removed from the institution” according to the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace, a law the government adopted in 2010.

“[It] is hard to take such action against a ‘teacher’ who is considered to be a custodian of an educational institution,” Naz concluded in her ruling. “But the current atmosphere of the educational institutions is not conducive for victims of sexual harassment.”

Ashfaq says the ruling is a watershed moment for many women who are afraid to report sexual harassment. “I want Khan to be removed from his job in line with this ruling,” she told Radio Mashaal. “If he continues working, he will become bolder and even more people will think that they can get away with [this sort of behavior].”

Khan says he plans to challenge the ruling in a higher court. He told Radio Mashaal that he will exercise his legal rights and let the law follow its course.

Gul Majeed Khan, the vice chancellor of Islamia College University, told Radio Mashaal that they will heed the ombudsperson’s ruling once the governor -- who happens to also be chancellor of the university -- weighs in on the accused’s appeal. “We are awaiting the final decision,” he said.

Students are pushing for the immediate implementation of the ruling, which would entail firing the accused teacher and taking steps to prevent such incidents in the future.

Jabir Khan was among the scores of male students who backed female students in protesting sexual harassment on their campus. “We would like to create more awareness about this issue,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Other students were also sexually harassed but they avoided registering their complaints,” he added. “Our campaigning aims to force the university administration to address this issue.”

He says that instead of addressing their concerns, the administration pressured them to stop their protest. Senior university administrators deny that this was the case.

Maimona Khan, another organizer of the protest, says their aim is to make the campus safe for students. “As a female student, I’m proud of Amna Ashfaq, who bravely stood up against sexual harassment,” she told Radio Mashaal. “She not only discussed it openly with her family but pursued it to the very end,” she added. “I now expect the university administration to implement the ruling of the ombudsperson in letter and spirit.”

The faculty at Islamia College University, however, are standing their ground. Amid the student protests in November, the Teaching Staff Association unanimously decided they would stand by the accused teacher -- and any others who may be wrongly accused of sexual harassment.

“If a teacher is accused and found guilty of sexual harassment, we won’t stand by them,” association President Dilnawaz Khan told Radio Mashaal. “But if teachers are wrongly accused, those maligning him or her must be punished.”

In her ruling, Naz criticized Islamia College University for not taking students’ complaints seriously as well as failing to stop a social media campaign attacking Ashfaq.

While Ashfaq and her fellow students celebrated the landmark ruling, they face an uphill battle in getting support and seeing change from the conservative faculty at Islamia College University.

Sexual harassment and sexual violence are prevalent across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and Pakistan. One estimate suggested more than 90 percent of Pakistani women face sexual harassment or violence in public places across Pakistan.