Protests at one of Pakistan’s largest universities continue to widen after a surveillance, harassment and blackmail scandal broke open.
By Mariyam Suleman
October 25, 2019
“We boycotted classes this Monday. There are protests in [the] university and fear all around especially for us [female students],” says Alia Baloch, a final year student at the University of Balochistan.
Balochistan, the largest province of Pakistan by area, is also one of the most conservative and least developed regions in South Asia — women are its most vulnerable population. According to the UN, Balochistan scores highest in terms of female illiteracy, gender disparity and unemployment amongst its provincial counterparts.
In a society where the honor of women matters a lot more than food on the table and where men have all the decision-making powers, not many women get to university. Those who do are burdened with the responsibilities of maintaining the honor of their communities.
“But for years, we [female students] have felt safe here and therefore it is home to the largest number of female students in the province. They come from different parts of Balochistan,” says Alia. “We, however, never thought we will be [urged] by our families to return home after the disclosure of this massive scandal at our university. This is a serious threat to women’s education in Balochistan.”
“For years, both male and female students have complained about harassment… but this never led to an investigation,” says Zakia Baloch, a student at the University of Balochistan and vice president of BSAC (Baloch Student Action Committee), a students’ group.
However, after the Balochistan High Court ordered the FIA (Federal Investigating Agency) to conduct an in-depth investigation, CCTV footage and cases of the harassment and blackmailing were confirmed. This led to more details about secret cameras in different blocks of the university including private spaces such as washrooms, violating the privacy of students.
“Through this CCTV footage, officials in security branch, the administration and those working under the vice chancellor have been harassing and blackmailing students for years,” Zakia told The Diplomat.
The news has so far shaken the province and provoked an uncompromising response from students’ groups, educational institutions and activists.
According to FIA, there are at least 200 employees of the university including those of higher authority directly involved with the surveillance, violation of student privacy, harassment and blackmailing cases.
“It has been disturbing and has since then created an atmosphere of fear. If the government fails to disclose all those involved and the vice chancellor is not suspended, we fear that the education of students especially of girls will be gravely affected,” says Zakia.
Suspension of VC
With developing pressure of protests, the vice chancellor of Balochistan University, Dr. Javed Iqbal, has temporarily stepped down from his position until the FIA completes its investigation.
The governor of Balochistan, retired Justice Amanullah Khan Yasinzai, announced the temporary removal of the vice Chancellor on Sunday.
But, the students are skeptical of the vice chancellor and consider his stepping down “part of the game.”
“He [vice chancellor] should have been suspended right after the FIA’s investigation. How can a vice chancellor be unaware of what happens in his university?” asks Zakia Baloch.
Meanwhile, Professor Dr. Mohammad Anwar Panizai has been made vice chancellor until the FIA finalizes its investigation.
“On 22 October, vice chancellor Dr. Mohammad Anwar Panizai joined our protest in university and announced that FIA has identified four employees charged with blackmailing and harassment cases. All four of them have been suspended, their identities however are kept secret,” says Hameeda Baloch, a Quetta-based activist, “We are now waiting for 29 October when FIA will release its complete report on the case.”
Committees to Probe the Case
Member of the Balochistan Assembly and Finance Minister of Balochistan Zahoor Buildi says, “A committee to probe the case has been set up and will soon provide its recommendations. There may also be legislative changes for universities to make the vice chancellor accountable to the provincial government and to the assembly instead of the governor. We at government will make sure a conducive and safe environment for students.”
The speaker of Balochistan Assembly Mir Abdul Qudos Bizenjo has ordered the committee to submit its report within 10 days. It has already been a week since the committee was formed and only two days since the member of provincial assembly, Mahjabeen Sheeran, was elected as the chairperson of the committee. As part of the inquiry, university staff and students sexually harassed and blackmailed by university administration will be interviewed by the committee members. The Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights has also taken up the case and will have a meeting on October 25.
The inquiries by the Provincial Assembly and Senate committees are both welcomed by many students and activists, but there are those who raise questions about the implementation of the Protection against Harassment of Women in Workplace Act, 2010.
According to the act, it is mandatory for all organizations and institutions of Pakistan, whether public or private, to develop a self-regulatory mechanism to handle cases of sexual harassment internally instead of relying on external committees.
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“Forming committees is not just enough, to ensure safety in educational institutions, government should have a plan. If they do not have one, we suggest them to go through our charter of demands,” BSAC representatives insist.
The list of demands is comprehensive: those involved should be disclosed, suspended and charged under the law; the vice chancellor should be permanently suspended from his position; surveillance cameras should be limited to the entry gate and removed from within the university; security forces should be limited to entry gates and all other security forces should be removed from within the educational institution; a provincial higher education commission should be formed and universities should be under the charge of the provincial government instead of the governor; all the committees formed by the provincial government to probe the cases should also include student representatives, including women; a harassment reporting cell should be formed at university; there should be a time limit for services of vice chancellor and a new vice chancellor should be appointed without permitting any extension period in every university of Balochistan; and since student representation is a democratic right, previously banned students’ unions should be restored.
Zakia Baloch adds, “Protests are ongoing, classes are disturbed whereas students have shared their demands, yet we are unsure if the issue will be solved any soon.”
Mariyam Suleman is a freelance writer from Gwadar and holds a masters degree from University of Karachi. She tweets at @mariyamsuleman