The suspension of a teacher on charges of sexually harassing students at the University of Peshawar sets a laudable historical precedent and is an indicator that attitudes towards women’s rights in Pakistan may finally be shifting.
Patriarchal traditions have meant that for too long the harassment of women has been institutionalised in educational organisations. The systemic harassment of young nursing students by doctors shows that there is still a long way to go. Last year, a 22-year-old nursing student at the Jinnah Post Graduate Medical Centre in Karachi was severely injured when she tried to escape from a doctor trying to rape her. In educational institutions, women are routinely harassed by teachers and students, and often coerced into trading sexual favours for grades.
According to research, sexual harassment in educational institutions ranges from touching and standing too close to sharing vulgar jokes and sexual invitations. The problem is so deep-rooted that sexually harassing women is considered a form of recreation rather than a crime, with the focus squarely on the victim’s conduct and appearance rather than on the aggressor. For the past couple of years, a local NGO has taken efforts to introduce and disseminate a taxonomy of aggressors to shift focus away from the victim.
The suspended lecturer from the University of Peshawar now faces a provincial inquiry, and more female students — who have, so far, feared speaking out about their ordeal — are expected to come forward with their complaints. Earlier this year, with the passage of the sexual harassment bill, Pakistan became the first South Asian country to declare sexual harassment a crime. Provincial governments were called upon to appoint ombudspersons to hear the complaints of women against harassment but, though all legal and institutional mechanisms are present, implementing the laws has remained a challenge. This case is a welcome indicator that the good work the NGOs and the media have been doing in this regard may finally be showing some results.