The crying stories of student survivors of sexual harassment from different campuses raise questions about the integrity of sexual harassment cells, the recent no confidence motion against the convenor of the cell in Jahanginagar University made it evident that formation of cell is not enough, much remains to be done, writes Nahid Riyasad
THE first public procession of women student against sexual harassment came out at Jahangirnagar University on August 5, 1993. The night before a student was sexually harassed on board a university bus. They came out demanding immediate punishment of the harasser. যৌন হয়রানি (sexual harassment) was a taboo word then, offence was rampant, but naming it for what it was, was against the social norms. Newspaper used to prefer phrases such as 'attempted an assault on her dignity or to outrage her modesty (শ্লীলতাহানির চেষ্টা করে হয়েছে)'.
Since that moment of first public protest against sexual harassment on campus, the student and women’s movement have walked many miles. Many women left campus for raising their voice against their harasser. In one such case from 1995, the survivor of sexual harassment was compelled to leave her academic programme in Jahangirnagar University, while the perpetrator is reportedly now a police officer. Simi Banu, a student of Narayanganj Institute of Fine Arts, chose to commit suicide protesting against her harasser and patriarchal police force who took the side of the harasser. Then there are others.
Formation of sexual harassment complaint cell
EACH voice against sexual violence helped the demand for an anti-sexual harassment policy in educational institution to grow louder. The demand was finally realised through High Court directives in 2009 when sexual harassment as offense was legally acknowledged and addressed to a certain extent. In response to a public interest litigation filed by Bangladesh National Women Lawyer Association, a division bench of the High Court delivered a milestone judgment on 14 May 2009 by issuing certain directives in the form of guidelines to be treated as law and strictly complied by educational institutions and employers in the public, as well as private sectors.
The landmark judgment has also catalysed the University Grants Commission to send out notifications to colleges and universities asking them to set up complaint committees in accordance with the directives of the Apex Court. With changes in law came some social changes. It is very rare now for a print media to refer to sexual harassment as an ‘assault on her dignity.’
A former student of the sociology department of University of Dhaka, on the condition of anonymity, said ‘It was mid-90s. I was constantly harassed by a male faculty of my department. There was no public conversation on the issue, let alone a cell. At the time, sexual harassment was seen as a source of ‘gratification’ for women. I tried to share my experience with some of my friends. And, there response was like, ‘You are lucky he took an interest in you. I wish he was eyeing up on me instead.’ I used to feel the world around me has turned deaf. So, it is a significant progress that the universities now have acknowledged and granted women students their right to complaint.’
Complaint cells today
ACCORDING to the record of the University Grants Commission, there are anti-sexual-harassment cells in 39 public and 60 private universities. However, in other educational institutes, particularly in schools and colleges, the High Court order is not implemented. In April, when the shocking death of a madrassah student Nusrat Jahan Rafi brought the issue of sexual harassment in school and colleges to public attention, the Directorate of Secondary Education and Directorate of Madrassah Education said, they have no information about how many institutions under their authority had so far formed the said committee. Women’s rights activists venting their frustration at the non-implementation said, implementing authorities do not consider prevention of sexual harassment as their priority concern, in their patriarchal mind set, it is still a ‘trivial issue.’
Today, students of different public universities, acknowledge this arduous history of anti-sexual harassment movement, while they talk about their current struggles with the complaint cells. A student of Jahangirnagar University, also a member of Daagkata Dal (a campus based student’s collective against all forms gender inequality and sexual violence) says, ‘committees exist, but they lack the sincerity to address the grievance. At times, members of the committee sit in the investigation with an anti-women attitude. Then, there is the influence of the existing student and teachers’ of the ruling alliance.’
Their allegations founded on the experience of students and teachers who faced the anti-sexual harassment cell as complainant. In 2018, a student of Shahjalal University of Science and Technology filed a complaint against a teacher of economics department that the accused has called her to his house on false pretences, locked her out and attempted to sexually assault her when he returned home later in the night. In this particular case, the integrity of the investigation was not questioned by the student community, but they were shocked when the complainant too was expelled from the university for two years by the university authority on the ground that she did not return to her student dormitory that night.* Even members of the sexual harassment complaint cell of SUST expressed serious concern as such action against the complainant would silence students and discourage survivors to come to the committee fearing repercussion in their academic lives.
Recently, similar role of the administration was witnessed at the Dhaka Commerce College when two women lecturers of the Bangla department had submitted separate written complaints against the chairperson of Bangla department. Instead of promptly launching a probe based on the complaints, the college authority suspended one complainant, but later reinstated her under pressure. One of the complainants also told Bangladesh Mahila Parishad that they were threatened in the name of investigation. On October 1, in a public protest in support of the survivor, the president of Mahila Parsishad Ayesha Khanam urged the college authority, ‘They should not give any political or administrative shelter to an accused as news on his controversial activities have already been published in different newspapers and electronic media.’
Referring to the harassment of complainant be it a women student or teacher and tendency of the authority to take the side of the perpetrator, advocate Kamrun Nahar, a member of Naripokkho and sitting member of a number of anti-sexual harassment committee said, ‘Forming a committee is becoming a common practice but how effective are these committees? From my involvement, I have experienced that victims are seen as someone who is trying to defame the institution and there is a tendency to refrain her from reporting the crime in the first place. During such a time of crisis, instead of offering a helping hand, most of the committees show a very anti-women and unfriendly face towards the victim.’
The students of different public universities who have dealt with sexual harassment cells have described how survivors of sexual harassment are often discouraged by the administration from submitting a formal complaint. In 2018, when an admission seeker of fine arts department of Jahangirnagar University brought allegation against an existing student of the same department that he had sexually harassed her, the teachers of the department dissuaded the parents of the admission seeker from filing a formal complaint to the cell suggesting that this may 'tarnish the image of the department' and tried to resolve the matter through ‘dialogue’.
New Age Youth have recorded a number of similar incidents from different public universities that expose ideological character of the sexual harassment complaint cells and that is patriarchal and influenced by the ruling party political interest.
Patriarchal and ruling political bias: the case of Jahangirnagar
Recently, a student of government and politics department of Jahangirnagar Univesity tried to take her life as the psychological burden as a complainant to the sexual harassment cell was too high for her, says her friends and members of Dagkata dal. They elaborated the hostile way the cell and university administrations have dealt with her complaint, that her complaint from a year ago left unattended and that there is barely any support network on campus so she attempted to commit suicide. Her story brought the question of transparency and integrity of the sexual harassment cell to the fore.
In this context, New Age Youth have approached UGC to know what mechanism they have to monitor the role of cells in preventing sexual harassment on campus. The deputy director of public university management division and the member secretary of UN Women supported anti-sexual harassment programme, Mouli Azad said, ‘UGC do have a monitoring cell to maintain the accountability of these cells. However, due to shortage of personnel, we cannot operate our monitoring cell as it should be. In collaboration with UN Woman, UGC has been running a pilot project in four universities — Jahangirnagar University, Sahjalal University of Science and technology, Rajshahi University and East West University. Of the four Rajshahi University still does not have a decisive committee; comparatively, the cell at JU is performing well.’
The complaint submitted by the student of government of politics contradicts the observation of UGC. New Age Youth has learnt from talking to students, since the formations of the cell, on a number of occasions, survivor student or teacher of the campus have raised questions, their questions establish a pattern that the cell more often than one would expect work with an anti-women attitude and subject complainants to further harassment. The political interest of the ruling teachers’ alliance and student party reportedly influence the investigation.
In 2010, after a number of failed verbal complaints to the authority, Nowrin Tabassum, a faculty of international relations department filed a sexual harassment complaint against Abdullah Hel Kafi, a faculty of the same department. Students had to take to streets and Tabssum had to endure the political pressure and harassment of the cell and university administration before any actions were taken against the accused teacher relates Tabassum to New Age Youth, ‘I had to face the anti-sexual harassment committee of the JU nearly a decade ago. The accused was close to the ruling party; as a result, the head of the committee, as well as other members were relentlessly trying to further harass me and tried to establish that I was making false accusation. During every hearing, they tried to shift the blame on me. Even in the presence of my husband, they threw illogical and personal questions towards my husband. They did that to create problem in my personal life.’
There are other ways the indifference of the university administration towards the complainant-student is exposed. On April 14, 2015, a student was sexually assaulted by five students near the Chaurangi area of the campus. Once she filed the complaint to the cell, the investigation process was dragged, according to her friends, it was because all the accused were members of the ruling party student organisation, Bangladesh Chatra League. The kind of questions she faced during the investigations amounts to victim blaming, as in what was she wearing? However, eventually, all the accused were temporarily expelled for two years. The expelled students then quickly moved to the High Court and returned to campus with a court order that termed ‘the university decision illegal.’ The return of the accused students on campus caused immense psychological stress to the students, and many students felt demoralised that filing a complaint is futile.
In terms of legal steps, what the university could have done when the High Court ordered their decision illegal, New Age Youth asked barrister Jyotirmoy Barua. ‘First of all, considering the existing backlog of cases in High Court, I am still conducting cases from as early as 1996, it is quite surprising that the expelled students have managed to get an order in their favour in such short time. There is also the question of how sincerely and seriously the university represented their course of action to court, their representation must have been weak. Then there was Appellate Division, the university had the opportunity to move there and challenge the earlier order. The university authority could have also considered the possibility of lodging a complaint with the local police. The inaction on part of the administration is indicative of their lack of political will to serve the interest of the student who survived sexual harassment on campus,’ says Barua.
The experiences of previous complainants help us contextualise the helplessness and frustration of the student of government of politics at JU. On September 29 2019, as a complainant, she filed a no confidence motion against professor Rasheda Akhter, the convener of the sexual harassment cell, a faculty of the department of anthropology, also the acting dean of social science faculty. Later, on October 9, as her concern was not addressed, she filed a petition to the vice chancellor demanding punishment of the convener of the cell, ‘for her failure to ethically conduct the investigation and for her repressive attitude towards the complainant.’ In her petition, she had provided elaborate detail with evidence how the convenor has taken an abusive approach in investigating her allegation (New Age Youth have obtained copies of her petitions). The convenor even made derogatory remark about her [the complainant] in public forums. Her earlier complaint that she made on August 15, 2018 left unattended till date. She also added that the convenor apparently influenced by the proctor had withheld the investigation of her 2018 complaint. The matters of the cell are, as she writes, is supposed to be confidential, sharing it with others in the administration is irresponsible and amounts to covering up an incident of sexual harassment. Therefore, she demands actions against the convener for compromising the investigation.
When asked about the no confidence motion, the vice chancellor of the university, professor Farzana Islam told New Age Youth, ‘It is not possible to make someone resign from a post on some vague allegations. If the mentioned victim has objections about Rasheda Akhter, we can find an alternative — Rasheda [the convenor] would not attend the next hearing and other members of the cell would handle the issue.’
New Age Youth have also spoken with professor Rasheda Akhter, ‘I think vested quarter is trying to benefit off the current political instability at JU [indicating the ongoing students and teachers movement demanding resignation of the vice-chancellor for alleaged involvement in corruption]. I can assure that no victim has left empty handed from the cell. Moreover, anti-sexual harassment cell in JU is the most active one currently.’
In this situation, what steps the student-complainant of the government of politics department at JU can take to ensure that a fair investigation of her allegation against assistant professor Md Sanwar Siraj of the same department is conducted? Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua replies, ‘The High Court directive is instrumental in ensuring the formation of a cell, it granted women their right to file complaints, they do not necessarily have to suffer in silence. However, it does not have specific direction on how to monitor and ensure the accountability of this committee. What happens in practice is that those who are close to the power quarter on campus often ends up in the cell. Whether they have demonstrated commitment to end sexual harassment is not a criterion here. In this context, the possibility of influencing investigation, politically or otherwise, always remains open and that has been the case. This student’s no confidence motion makes it evident that the High Court directive in this regards needs an urgent review. More importantly, the government needs to pay heed to the No 7 of the code that has asked the government ‘on an urgent basis, complete its initiative to insert a new section in the Nari-O-Shishu-Nirjaton Nirjaton Daman Ain, 2000, defining the mischief of sexual harassment.’ It is shocking how successive governments take pride in their apparent ‘women’s empowerment projects’, but never really attended the lived reality of women that restrict women’s freedom of movement, their access to education due to rampant sexual harassments'.
The crying stories of student survivors of sexual harassment from different campuses raise questions about the integrity of the cells, the no confidence motion against the convenor of the cell in Jahanginagar University made it evident that formation of cell is not enough, much remains to be done.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.
The New Age Youth cover story of October 13, 2019 said that a female student of Shahjalal University of Science and Technology who filed a complaint of sexual harassment against a teacher was also expelled for two years. The female student was, in fact, given warning in writing against future violation of rules of the hall of residence, side by side the expulsion of the errant teacher. We regret the inadvertent mistake.