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A dangerous precedent

By: Hashim Bin Rashid

A dangerous precedentWhen the federal ombudsman convicted a LUMS law professor of sexually harassing one of his students, the case appeared to have reached its logical conclusion. Like any court case reaching its conclusion, it would be reported in a few newspapers.

Given the reputation of the university and individual in question, one would have expected the matter to gather some press and produce a debate over a larger culture of on-campus sexual harassment of students in both private and public sector universities. While opinions would be divided, one would expect that underlying these would be a genuine commitment to creating a safe environment for students.

How the debate has transpired in national newspapers and social media has done the reverse. The manner in which support has been extended to the convicted faculty member and the social profile of those offering such support has closed the space for students who wish to report harassment on campus. What it has also revealed is how certain parts of the elite will stick together to watch each other’s backs.

After a couple of national newspapers reported the conviction against Abid Hussain Imam, son of politicians Abida Hussain and Fakhar Imam, a number of former and adjunct LUMS law faculty members took out a press release calling it “sensational reporting” and narrating a different version of events. While disagreements with the ombudsman’s decision in and of themselves are their legitimate right, the statement is intensely problematic in tone and form.

Instead of taking issue with the parameters of sexual harassment as defined by the law, or critiquing the legal reasoning and interpretation of the facts by the ombudsman, the press release engaged in victim-blaming, citing “department politics” as the primary reason for the complainant’s decision to press charges. In fact, in a separate statement a former head of the law department commented that the girl “historically wore a hijab and dressed differently” and “had a history of emotionally disturbed behaviour.” The statement further claimed she was being driven by departmental politics. This embarrassingly misogynist statement was withdrawn a day later – after backlash from former students.

The press release issued the next day goes on to mention a petition signed by some students which cites the ‘brilliance’ of the convicted faculty member. But the question is: does being a ‘good teacher’ mean one cannot harass a student? Even, more ironic is that the press release didn’t even mention the student’s version, nor did it allow her any autonomy. She is painted as a troublemaker because she chose to press charges and take the case to court. It is ironic that the LUMS VC in his mail to the student admits that the student had “been embarrassed” by the incident and had “a right to take the right to any forum (she) choose(s).”

Lastly, the press release distorts facts by claiming that the event itself was merely a “tap on the shoulder” and the LUMS inquiry committee found Imam “innocent” of the alleged offence. Neither of these are claims are true. In fact, two of the signatories to the document admitted in their social media comments on the matter that the “unzipping” had occurred. The committee found him guilty of “unprofessional behaviour.” The reason it did not find it to be “sexual harassment” was the lack of a pattern of such behaviour with the student. However, one needs to be able to differentiate between sexual harassment, which can be a one-time event, and sexual abuse, which tends to occur over a longer period.

According to the court documents, the allegation is that the accused pulled down the zipper of the female student’s sweater while passing an unwelcome remark in the law department corridor. According to the LUMS inquiry report and the federal ombudsman, the accused admitted to the event, and the only debate was how to interpret the act. The accused claimed the act was a “distasteful joke”, the inquiry committee called it “unprofessional behaviour” while the federal ombudsman called it “sexual harassment”.

Given that the facts are not under dispute, only the interpretation is, why has the defence of being a victim to institutional and sectarian politics been used? Looking at the matter from the perspective of institutional politics, it should perhaps come as a shock that the LUMS VC wrote – as reported in the ombudsman’s report – to the professor after his resignation, “You are too valuable a faculty member and we shall discuss this upon my return.” Does this mean that the university condones ‘unprofessional conduct’ by their teachers?

What is most disturbing is that despite two judgements against the incident, there is no remorse from the former LUMS faculty member in question, nor his former colleagues who claim to be part of the faculty. The ombudsman’s judgement makes it clear that the faculty member in question resigned because he felt the inquiry report “was too harsh on him.” Faced with the contradictory documentary evidence cited above, it should be fairly clear that the attempt to paint him as an ‘innocent victim’ has an agenda that should cause those who wish to weed out sexual harassment at universities to fear for the future.

For many, including myself, who have been part of LUMS for a number of years, this case is only the tip of the iceberg. A prominent serving member of the administration has been reported for harassment a number of times, but no action has been taken, token or otherwise, which makes this judgement a unique victory that only happened because one girl chose to continue her fight. Most of those who have studied at Pakistani universities are aware that barely any recourse is available against sexual harassment.

Situated in this context, the way a clique in the faculty, legal community and liberal activist circles has surrounded themselves around the convicted faculty member is a dangerous precedent for the future. Any female or male student looking to file a harassment complaint will fear his former teachers ganging up on them.

The way it should work is that if sexual harassment is proven against a faculty member, you sack them and move on. You don’t drag your feet. You don’t gather around the person and call him innocent. You don’t engage in victim blaming. You do not invent lies that contradict your sides’ claims. You do not change the facts for different audiences.

All this makes our universities more unsafe for students. This is the dangerous precedent that has been set by this case.

The writer is a journalist and visiting faculty at Beaconhouse National University.


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