If you cry harassment in a crowded Pakistani university, you might just end up with a fairly insightful lens through which to view the gender politics of Pakistani society, particularly the elite.
On Oct. 31, news broke that the Federal Ombudsman directed the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) to fire a faculty member found guilty of sexual harassment. The internal inquiry committee had failed to hold Professor Abid Hussian Imam (Assistant Professor at the LUMS Law School) guilty, despite finding instead that his actions were “unbecoming of a professor at LUMS” for “use of inappropriate jokes many times with sexual innuendoes and undertones, and obnoxious language.” The committee asked Professor Imam to render an apology, and he allegedly preferred to resign—but the Ombudsman found that LUMS was unable to produce any proof of said resignation.
Many have asked that if the LUMS committee conceded to inappropriate behaviour on part of the professor, and he did not deny that the incident took place, then why was it not deemed sexual harassment? The CCTV video footage, prime evidence in the case, clearly shows physical contact between the professor and the complainant. The case is contingent on the nature of the physical contact; one side contends that it was a mere “tap on the shoulder,” while the complaint asserts that her shoulder zip was opened. The Federal Ombudsman agreed with the latter.
In any case, the debate about “what really happened” obscures the larger one: what exactly constitutes sexual harassment, and who gets to define it.
Many would argue that the definition of harassment stems from the context in which it occurs, but who gets to define it within that context? Given the differential power dynamics that underlie any situation that could potentially constitute harassment, I would argue that definitional powers should lie with the person who feels harassed.
Both asking abstract questions through hypothetical situations (what if I did this or that) and making the matter entirely subjective a useful exercise. Each interaction is a negotiated space with different dynamics; we must understand and empathize with the position of the harassed in order to determine the nature of the act and whether it qualifies as harassment.
There seems to be a fundamental confusion between sexual harassment, assault and rape. For some people it seems that Imam should not be held accountable for such a small act, or that the punishment of termination is not proportionate. It is this acceptance of small acts of harassment as part of the everyday, while holding up rape or physical hurt as the ultimate crime, that contributes to the trivialization of misogyny as a non-event.
Sexual harassment is and should be an event, telling anyone otherwise adds to our collective complicity to small, but dangerous, incidents of this nature.
Contrast this full blown debate with a little anecdote students like to tell around campus. An employee of the university’s much beloved superstore was found “accidentally” bumping into, staring at and groping girls. On one such glaring occasion, the girl being harassed created a ruckus and the employee in question was fired on the spot by the owner. There was no inquiry, no replaying of video tapes, no need to establish “good character,” no one asked if he was good at his job and there were definitely no public statements by his colleagues pointing out how much of a gentlemen he was. It’s not even a case worth mentioning for those concerned with gender politics at LUMS; it didn’t turn up in of the debates regarding Imam sacking, nor did it inspire such debates.
These two cases illustrate how LUMS is home to two divergent worlds.
On one hand are all the freedoms an elite University has to offer. On the other hand is the LUMS that reveals itself to you slowly, if you spend enough time there. Behind the garb of “liberalism” and the “LUMS brand” is a larger crisis that the University faces as it tries to expand. Lurking beneath the ideals of meritocracy and lofty claims of being different from the rest of the country, as the University tries to hold onto the oft-mocked “LUMS bubble,” is the realization that not only is the elite space not insular—its ideals were far from ideal to begin with. This problem is not unique to LUMS: any university around the world—particularly elite institutions—can be diagnosed with the same ailments.
The two different LUMS never converge, always running parallel. You could argue that these are both instances of institutional failure. However I contend that these outcomes are a product of a University doing exactly what it is meant to do. The cashier was right to stand up for the girl who complained, but the design of the University allows for an arbitrary dismissal at the lower level. No one bats an eyelash; this is how a well- oiled machine works.
Cut to the sanitized corridors of the LUMS law school, there are long and intricate debates regarding consent, the size of the zip, the dress of the complainant and the possible role of departmental politics. Underlying these otherwise legitimate debates is the assumption that a professor, hailing from a political and feudal background, attending exclusively Ivy League universities, should be given the benefit of the doubt; while a daily wage employee who serves coffee and stacks the racks is probably doing what he was expected to do all along.
The kind of issues that are important to Pakistanis, the Abid Imam case being one of them, reflect which classes the public thinks are worth caring about.
Defenders to Imam have chosen to paint the incident in light of the shrinking space for liberalism at LUMS. The argument goes that this case stems from a failure of students to accept a “liberal” environment where people of the opposite sex can have candid conversations and casually touch one another without it being an issue. This conflation of women standing up for their rights and the alleged religiousization of LUMS is hilarious, ironic, but mostly irrelevant. The code of conduct for teachers vis-a-viz their students stands in any country, physical touching is out of bounds—especially when it is unwelcome. This image of the conservative LUMS student implies that girls should learn to take a joke and if they feel uncomfortable in a social interaction laced with sexual undertones then they’re not liberal enough.
The biggest victim to the behemoth that LUMS has become is the complainant’s narrative. Any conception of her as a human being with possible feelings was discarded in the quest to defend Imam. Former professors (who had taught the complainant), in a petition printed in Pakistan Today, a local newspaper, question everything: her dress, her emotional state and her agency— attributing the whole incident to departmental politics.
These are not your regular internet trolls; these are the Ivy-League educated Pakistani intelligentsia. This victim-bashing is consistent with the contradictions imbedded in LUMS, a place where you can quote Foucault in the same breath as mocking the feminist society (FemSoc) for existing. LUMS is not as insular as it would like to believe; as gender issues are simply not a concern at the institutional level, Pakistan ranks 141 out of 142 in the annual Gender Gap Index by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum.
However, there is much to rejoice about: since coming to a very public defense of my friend— the complainant—and the release of the order of the Federal Ombudsman online, we have experienced all that is good about the internet. Overwhelming support for the complainant has changed the narrative completely, opening up spaces for a nuanced debate about the shortcomings of the law and prompting several other individuals coming forward with their own experiences.
Due to internal pressure from the student body, LUMS has publicly distanced itself from the apologist professors who came to Imam’s defense. Nevertheless, much more needs to be done for problems that exist at the policy (which has proved itself woefully inadequate to protect its students) and structural level. And there remains the issue of the two LUMS which cannot be corrected without serious introspection and a re-revaluation of the core values of university as a concept at large.