Sumbal Nawaz Chaudhry* was stunned when she received a suggestive joke in the form of a Whatsapp message from her professor for the first time. A second-year student of the BS (4-Year) Programme at Punjab University, Ms. Chaudhry had been receiving text and Whatsapp messages from her teacher for the last many days. But she took them lightly, as all of them used to be only “forwarded” messages, some good morning, good night or well wishes for her.
However, the last one, received at almost midnight, set alarm bells ringing for her. She tried to calm herself down with a self-explanation that the joke might have been delivered to her mistakenly, but her sixth sense was telling her the act was done on purpose. Coming from a religious background village-based family, the 20-year-old felt frightened. She could not sleep almost in her hostel room that night.
The next day she attempted to appear composed in the department, especially in the teacher’s class. But at the end of the class, a shiver ran down her spine when her teacher asked her to visit him in his room “to discus her assignment with him”. She requested one of her classmates to accompany her to the teacher’s room.
After a few minutes of verbiage on the course work and the so-called assignment, the professor asked her directly, “How was the joke?” The question puzzled Sumbal Chaudhry. She looked at her teacher’s face in disbelief and pain, but had to lower her eyes as he was also staring at her and grinning from ear to ear. She looked at her classmate and found her looking at her suspiciously. Ms. Chaudhry immediately left her teacher’s room, even without asking her classmate to come along. She was feeling giddy; she didn’t remember clearly how she boarded a rickshaw at the gate of her department and reached her hostel room.
It took her almost three hours to get out of the shock that her teacher, whom she respected like her father, had not only sent her a filthy joke, but was also asking for her response. She also had realised that more such messages would land in her phone in the coming days. She started thinking about different solutions. The first thought came to her mind was discussing the issue with her elder sister, who was a married woman with two young children. But she rejected the idea immediately, as she knew her sister, an under-matriculate, would force her to leave studies and return home. She might discuss it with her father, who had permitted her to continue her studies although with a lot of hesitation. If the situation comes to knowledge of any of her family members, it was for sure, she would have to abandon her education immediately.
She thought of shunning the use of the cell-phone, which was practically impossible, as most of department and classes-related information was passed on through the phone. Changing the cell-phone number was also useless, as the new number would also have to be shared with the Whatsapp group, formed by the CR (class representative) for sharing information about important academic activities on a day-to-day basis.
The same evening she received one more “personal” message from the teacher, along with an offer of full help if she felt any difficulty in completing her assignment or preparing for the soon-to-be-held mid-term exams. In fact, she realised, it was a message for her that if she did not respond to him, she might not be able to get even passing marks in her paper as well as assignment. During her one-and-a-half year stay at the department, she knew it well that all teachers were fully authorised to pass or fail their students, and it was very difficult to get any relief from anywhere if a teacher turns against any student.
With each passing day, the frequency of messages and “intensity of feelings” kept increasing. Though she requested her professor through text messages many a time not to send her the messages, her pleadings always fell on a deaf ear. She could not prepare for her exams properly and attempted all her papers poorly.
The day she appeared in the teacher’s paper, she received a message from him in the night: “You have attempted my paper very poorly. But if you want to get A+ grade in the paper, you will have to accompany me for a dinner.” Already, she had almost broken literally, and the message proved to be the last straw. That night she decided to end her life after bringing “everything” into the knowledge of her roommate. Sumbal Chaudhry had always avoided her roommate for her being an “ultramodern” and “outgoing” girl. But that night, talking to her proved to be a blessing for Ms. Chaudhry.
After listening to her ordeal, she took her teacher’s cell number from her and sent him a brief message, telling the teacher that all messages he had sent to Ms. Chaudhry would be given to the electronic media if he sent even a single message to her in future. Thus, the issue was resolved, and an innocent girl was saved from taking her life with her own hands.
However, Ms. Saira, a student of Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences, Jamshoro (Sindh), was not lucky enough to get rid of her professors by sending them a warning message. In October 2019, she attempted suicide due to harassment by two of her professors. She was admitted to Hyderabad’s Civil Hospital in a precarious condition after the suicide attempt.
Ms. Rahila’s* case is not much different from that of Ms. Chaudhry. She had been helped by a teacher at the Pharmacy Department of the University of Balochistan, Quetta, to get admission to the department in 2019. However, after she filled out the forms, the teacher starting harassing her by sending her text messages, mostly at night, and threatened to cancel her admission when she did not reply to him. “From his words, I could tell his intentions were not good,” Rahila, 20, told Al Jazeera television’s web edition. “I felt so strange about it. I used to call him ‘sir’ with so much respect to his face, and he turned out to be this creepy, inappropriate person. At that point, I lost confidence in myself.”
In May 2019, a case of sexual harassment by two Mass Communication Department professors made headlines. At least three students accused two professors of harassment in a written complaint, alleging that the teachers had sent them inappropriate messages on Whatsapp.
One of the victims gave details to a TV anchorperson about the communication she says took place with the teacher. “I remember I messaged Assistant Professor Osama Shafiq on Facebook and asked him about a job I was offered,” she said. “I asked him if the agency I wanted to work for was good for me. He then told me to message him on Whatsapp.”
According to her, he started asking her about personal information such as her father’s job, where she lived and if she had any “fast friends”. The student said that she was asked if she was “friendly” to which she replied that she considered herself “serious” by nature. According to her, he then messaged asking how her nature would become when they became friends. “Slowly and steadily, he started making me feel very uncomfortable,” she said.
Last year in May, Saba Ali in Rawalpindi shared shocking news on her Facebook page. The student of HSC Part-II, who had gone to Bahria College for her biology practical, wrote on Facebook: “I am still completely shocked that we had to go through it. Approximately 80 girls were harassed that day and our teacher told us to keep quite because she did not want us to lose marks! Sadat Bashir scarred us for life and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Following the suit, nearly two dozen survivors and girl rights activists launched a massive campaign, #PunishSadatBashir, on the social media. Later, Sadat Bashir was dismissed from service after charges proved against him. So was the case of Dr. Wasif Nauman, an assistant professor of the Department of Forestry and Range Management, who was dismissed from service by the Bahauddin Zakariya University Multan administration in 2019 for harassing a student. The professor had blackmailed a student through inappropriate behaviour and made her objectionable videos.
In yet another case, the police registered a case against Dr. Sajid Iqbal, head of the Mathematics Department, University of Sargodha, Bhakkar sub-campus, who reportedly sent indecent messages to Ms. Shahnza Komal and demanded “favours” from her. In a video message, Ms. Shahzna shared the text messages of Dr. Sajid, who was asking her to send him pictures. In the video, Dr. Sajid can be seen asking her to “come closer” and tell him about her “veil.” The professor was dismissed from service after he was found guilty.
In May 2019, the Lahore High Court also upheld a decision awarding punishment to an assistant professor of Lahore University in a harassment case. The convict was also a student of Doctorate at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Bio-Technology at the university.
The student alleged that the assistant professor had harassed her by sending her vulgar text messages on Whatsapp. He also forced her to visit his bachelor accommodation and cook food for him. She alleged that when she inquired from him about the status of class results, he started “indecent” conversation with her.
However, Beenish Iqbal*, an MPhil scholar at Punjab University, has a different viewpoint. She says harassment by university and college professors cannot be denied altogether. However, she tells Cutting Edge, in many cases the situation is vice versa. She says she personally knows many girl students who even blackmail their teachers and secure marks of their choice in semester exams.
She claims that some students “encourage” their teachers in the beginning to send them messages on their cell-phones. When they receive sufficient messages of “personal” nature, they start blackmailing their teachers, and tell them how much marks they need in their subjects.
At least one such sad incident took place in October 2019, when a young faculty member at MAO College Lahore committed suicide after being falsely accused of harassment by a girl student of the college. A lecturer, Muhammad Afzal, ended his life after writing a letter to the inquiry committee head a day before he was to be declared “innocent” by the principal formally, as the student had failed to provide any evidence of harassment.
Afzal wrote in his suicide note that the false harassment accusation had tarnished his image, ruined his career, and disturbed his family life. His wife had left him following the allegations, leaving him devastated.
* Names partially changed to protect students’ privacy