University authorities allegedly ignore complaints
Several female students at Islamic University of Technology (IUT) have complained of sexual harassment by their male foreign fellow students.
The female students also allege that the IUT authorities have been ignoring their complaints, allowing the male foreign students to act with impunity.
After being informed of the matter, this correspondent spoke to two dozen female students from different batches of IUT and also reached out to a sizable number of male students and alumni. Female students from all but two batches said they had faced sexual harassment at various levels at the university.
Students of the two batches from which there were no sexual harassment complaints have never set foot on the campus due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
IUT is an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)-funded university and has been operating at Dhaka’s Gazipur since 1986. The university used to be for male students only until it began enrolling girls in 2017.
In a misguided attempt to protect female students from sexual harassment on the campus, the IUT authorities introduced the controversial “sunset law.” The rule requires female students to confine themselves to their dormitories after Maghrib prayers.
The controversial rule not only puts the onus of preventing sexual harassment on the victims but also also severely hinders their academic and social development. As a result of the rule, female students are unable to take part in club activities or socialize outside the classroom.
The IUT authorities said male students also had curfew rules to follow and had to be on campus by 10pm. However, male students said this curfew existed in name only and they were allowed to move around freely at any time.
Female students said they understood it took time for a conservative institution to change its ways, but countless incidents of sexual harassment and discrimination were making them lose faith in the authorities and they felt unsafe on the campus.
Tales of suffering
Urmi Jahan (alias) is a student of the 16 batch of the electrical and electronic engineering (EEE) department at IUT. Her life changed when a male student molested her during a class in March 2018.
Urmi did not react at the time of the incident because she was stunned by the audacity of the perpetrator. Subsequently, she spoke with several teachers and submitted a complaint to the then-vice chancellor.
A month later, a committee was formed with some teachers of IUT and two female external inspectors.
“I had to repeatedly relive the incident as I explained what happened to at least half a dozen teachers and the VC, but I kept my hope for justice high. But the response from the investigation committee shattered me,” she said.
“They kept asking me whether I was properly dressed and why I hadn’t created a scene. They questioned why there weren’t any witnesses as well. Eventually, they dismissed the whole case and the one who had harassed me walked free,” Urmi added, her voice shaking with emotion.
Seven months later, the same miscreant texted her sexually explicit and derogatory comments, but she did not pursue the matter this time.
“I had lost all hope. I was a victim of sexual abuse, but I did not receive any support or empathy from the authorities. Instead, I felt even more victimized by their irrational interrogation. I have completely lost faith in the IUT authorities,” she explained.
The incident with Urmi is far from an isolated one, and most of the perpetrators were foreign students.
A student from batch 18 of the computer science and engineering (CSE) department was harassed by Cameroonian student Gaidadur Umar in the IUT cafeteria, and the entire incident was caught on CCTV with multiple witnesses as well. However, Umar was only suspended for one semester.
Students said the university was reluctant to take action on “female-related matters,” especially against foreign students.
As a result of weak action, perpetrators of sexual harassment were not being discouraged and incidents were frequent, they added.
Not only students but male staff of the university as well have also been accused of harassing girls.
Three female students from different batches came forward with complaints against Registrar Office Section Officer Md Mafizur Rahman. A female student of the EEE department reported being harassed by him over cycling inside the IUT campus.
Her cycle was seized, and she only got it back after agreeing to not cycle on campus again.
Rahman is also infamous for insulting girls about their attire and personal lifestyle.
One female student said: “I was called to the registrar’s office during the summer semester exam in 2017. He inquired about my family and told me that my clothes don’t reflect that I belong to a good family. He then continued shaming me for my attire.”
When this correspondent mentioned this incident to the IUT administration, they responded that a high-powered committee headed by a dean had found some truth to the allegations and had acted against Rahman. The mode of punishment was not disclosed.
No anti-sexual harassment committee
According to High Court directives in 2009, every educational institution must have a sexual harassment committee to look into incidents of sexual misconduct. However, no such committee exists at IUT.
This correspondent reached out to the IUT authorities for their statement on the matter. After rescheduling the appointment twice, VC Dr M Rafiqul Islam cancelled it altogether.
Registrar Dr Mwebesa Umar sent a written statement via email.
The statement said: “The academic regulations of the university deal with issues like misconduct, moral turpitude, indiscipline and disciplinary action. The terms ‘misconduct and moral turpitude’ cover a wide array of deviant behavior, including sexual harassment.”
The statement did not mention anything specific to the case of Urmi, despite it being mentioned by the correspondent.