The issue of sexual harassment is not local to any one region, country or place. Similarly, it is not exclusive to any single gender, class, or religion. Last month, we heard the story of a woman in Columbia University in New York carrying a mattress everywhere with her on campus to protest alleged rape. Last summer, James Madison University’s decision to offer a light punishment to perpetrators of sexual assault received worldwide censure. Last week, a video of a woman in New York receiving hundreds of cat calls over a ten hour walk around the city went viral.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away from the United States, Pakistan’s Federal Ombudsman directed the leading university in the country, the Lahore University of Management and Sciences (LUMS), to remove Abid Hussain Imam, a professor in the law department, after he was proven guilty of sexually harassing a student. This case highlights the notion that in Pakistan, university administrators and staff are not simply indifferent to sexual harassment on campus; they are often the perpetrators.
In a similar case last November, students of Punjab University protested against the vice chancellor of the university for supporting a teacher accused of sexual harassment. Additionally, over the summer, a story broke out of an assistant professor allegedly trying to molest a student in Quad-e-Azam University. These cases did not receive much public attention, and the news stories were forgotten quickly.
The stakes are higher this time. Abid Hussain Imam, the accused in the LUMS sexual harassment case, is an Ivy League graduate and LUMS is regarded as the most prestigious university in the country. Having personally been a part of the Law Department at LUMS and having served on the University Student Council and the Law Student Council, the news of sexual harassment on campus was not surprising at all. The university administration has had a surprisingly cavalier attitude about sexual harassment on campus. The students less so — this case led to a widespread online petition asking for the removal of the LUMS vice chancellor for tolerating sexual harassment on campus.
Numerous students on campus have suffered sexual harassment. The challenge in convicting the perpetrators is the reluctance of the aggrieved party to pursue legal action. They find the social stigma that comes with the public attention too much. As a result, they choose to suffer in silence, rather than be blamed for inciting the harassment. They refrain from creating a scene.
However, the decision of the survivor in this case to pursue a case with the Federal Ombudsman, despite being threatened by the university not to, could prove to be a watershed moment for Pakistan. The high profile nature of the case — partly due to the prestige of LUMS and the elite status of the professor — has sparked a larger conversation around the subject in the country.
Before this case, sexual harassment was a topic people were hesitant to discuss. Women in Pakistan were largely socialized into a gendered order forcing them to suffer in silence; women accepted that being sexually harassed is a part of life in Pakistan.
After the case, however, a movement titled “Create A Scene” has started on social media, encouraging the sufferers of sexual harassment to not suffer in silence. The tag #ISaidNothing is generating a lot of buzz. The Facebook page of the movement has now shared numerous stories by women who kept silent about incidents of sexual assault for years. They thought it was better to suffer in silence than to create a scene. They thought creating a scene would bring disrepute to them and their families. The accused — instructors, family members, even religious clergymen — continued to live respectfully in society, while many of the sufferers internalized the victim shaming and lived in self-loathing.
In a country gripped by terrorism, sectarian violence and civil strife, the topic of sexual harassment has been a distant concern for many. The case at LUMS has allowed people to speak more freely about the subject. The first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging that there is a problem. The stories of brave women having the courage to share their stories publicly have made the nation realize that, yes, there is a problem.
Blaming survivors for what they wear, where they choose to be, or for inciting sexual harassment is unacceptable. After the news of sexual harassment came out, LUMS was even attacked by conservatives for its liberal policies, some even going to the extent of questioning whether the university should have separate classrooms for boys and girls. One comment on the news read, “A Lion and a goat cannot drink from the same water.” Maybe, during the times of Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamization or its immediate aftermath, this comment would have reflected the popular sentiment in Pakistan, but in Pakistan today, the tides are changing. A series of commenters criticized this individual for the use of this metaphor for sexual assaults.
The people of Pakistan are learning to have a conversation about sexual harassment. In a country with no sex education in schools and almost no public seminars on the topic of sexual harassment, the road to ridding society of this plague is not easy. However, slowly and surely, the stage is being set for Pakistan to “create a scene.”
Shehzad Ghias studied law in Pakistan at LUMS. He is now pursuing his graduate studies in Theatre in New York City. He tweets at @Shehzad89.