How blackmail, harassment forced Pakistani women from university
Many parents pull out their daughters from Balochistan University after CCTV footage was used to blackmail students.
Balochistan, Pakistan – Rahila* had missed the deadline to submit her application for admission to the University of Balochistan, and feared she would now have to wait for months before being able to apply again.
A teacher at the pharmacy department, however, offered to help her submit her forms and gain admission to the university, the main institute for higher education in the southwestern Pakistani province after which it is named.
After she filled out the forms, however, she alleges the same teacher began to harass 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, said. “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.”
Rahila’s experience is just one of many cases of alleged sexual harassment at this government-run university, where allegations have been made that its officials used security camera footage of male and female students mingling to extort and blackmail them.
Balochistan has a female literacy rate of 33.5 percent, and the danger of harassment is often cited by parents who refuse to send their daughters to school. Only 5.07 percent of Pakistan’s roughly 102 million women ever complete university, according to the country’s bureau of statistics.
In October last year, the Balochistan High Court directed the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to investigate the allegations against university officials, directing officials to submit a full report on the blackmail allegations.
News of the scandal led Javed Iqbal, the university’s vice-chancellor, to step down, and many parents pulled their daughters out of the university.
“All the struggle people did for women’s education has suffered a setback of 20 or 30 years because of this scandal,” said Shain Taj Raisani, 26, an MPhil student at the university.
“Girls who were coming into the education field with their opinions now feel threatened.”
Education a key battleground
Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest but least populated province, is rich in mineral resources and is home to a port at the heart of China’s $60bn China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project that runs through the country.
The province is, however, one of the least developed parts of the country, with its vast, rugged terrain only sparsely populated by small towns and villages.
Education is a key battleground. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, less than 12 percent women in Balochistan made it past primary school.
Many say the recent scandal has led to even more parents pulling their daughters out of higher education.
“A [university] hostel is like a home … if your daughter isn’t safe at school, then her parents won’t let her study at the university,” Mahrang Baloch, 25, a student at Bolan Medical College located in the provincial capital Quetta, added.
Security on campus
Home to about 10,000 students, the University of Balochistan is not a typical university campus. Located on Sariab Road in the southern quarter of Quetta, the area has often been the site of suicide bombings or targeted attacks against security forces or, on occasion, university officials.
“Many professors have fallen victim to this terrorism in the past 12 years,” said a senior FIA official investigating the video scandal case. “Both professors and students have been martyred. We’ve lost too many people,” the officer, who wished to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera.
All the struggle people did for women's education has suffered a setback of 20 or 30 years because of this scandal
Security cameras have been installed all over the campus to safeguard students and faculty against that threat, and both police and paramilitary soldiers are stationed across the university.
Students, however, fear that the pervasive security on campus had undermined their learning experience. Others say it has contributed to the atmosphere of harassment at the university.
“When I was at university, [the paramilitary Frontier Corps] had made its checkpoints everywhere. They would harass and throw their numbers [written on pieces of paper] at women,” Yassir Baloch, 27, who graduated from the university in 2017, said.
“And they’d sexually harass and blackmail young men, who had just come from college and were 20 or 21 years old. Sometimes, [security and university officials] would catch couples too. They’d tell them we’ll show this video to your parents. If you give us Rs 50,000 [roughly $320], we’ll delete the video.”
Wali Rehman, the registrar of the university, however, said paramilitary soldiers do not interfere in the “academic blocks”, but pass through “university-regulated areas, grounds, sports area and colony”.
“Frontier Corps isn’t there to tell students what to do or not to do. They only come if there’s danger,” he told Al Jazeera.
In November, security forces agreed to vacate the university after a parliamentary committee recommended universities re-evaluate the deployment of security forces amid public pressure in the wake of the security camera scandal.
Misuse of cameras
The university currently has 56 security cameras in operation, down from 94 cameras, three of which did not work. According to the registrar, the university disconnected “unnecessary” cameras, referring to the installation of in “unauthorised” places.
“At the direction of the court, we disconnected 37 cameras. Cameras that were in places where they were not needed were uninstalled,” Rehman, the registrar, told Al Jazeera.
During the investigation into the video scandal, the FIA obtained university and security officials’ laptops and mobile phones, and Saifullah Langove, the head of the security control room, was removed from his post.
The senior FIA official investigating the case said there was no standard operating procedure for how the data collected on them would be used.
“Cameras wouldn’t have been misused if the protocol was defined,” he said.
The university said it is now developing a new policy for how the cameras will be used and who controls them.
There is, however, scepticism among digital rights activists on the effectiveness of such surveillance systems and their effects.
“Technology will enable universities to see their students on all corners and regulate them. When you feel you are being watched, you’ll start to behave how authority wants you to,” said Shmyla Khan, a project manager for advocacy NGO Digital Rights Foundation.
Meanwhile, a sexual harassment committee has been set up in the university, headed by Sobiah Ramzan of the Institute of Management Sciences. The local provincial committee is also investigating the affair.
Women who have faced harassment at the university may be too scared to come forward because of the shame associated with sexual assault in a tribal society.
“If something happened to me, even if I wanted to come forward, I wouldn’t be able to confess because we live in a tribal society,” Sadia Baloch, a 19-year-old student at the university’s law college, said. “On account of our families, we can’t even talk about it.”
The FIA officer said he had been investigating the case for months, and the media had, in fact, frightened away victims, who may have otherwise come forward to assist with the investigation.
“We live in a very conservative society [in Balochistan]. If there are victims, they don’t want to come forward any more,” he said.
Students who claim to be in contact with sexual harassment victims confirmed to Al Jazeera that many “girls are scared” and do not trust that their privacy would be protected through the investigation process.
“Who can guarantee if a girl comes forward, her information won’t be leaked?” Mahrang Baloch told Al Jazeera.
*Name changed for security reasons