The level of vitriol directed at the survivor in the LUMS Sexual Harassment case is a classic case-study of the perceptions regarding what constitutes harassment and the kind of behavior that we as a society think appropriate in a public setting.
I cannot dissociate myself from the case or claim absolute neutrality (as formal colleagues of Abid Hussain Imam have sought to do) because I too had some experiences with Mr. Imam that people deem “unfortunate” (for those interested here my account of my interactions with Mr. Imam: https://www.facebook.com/shmyla/posts/10154813233140512). Let me deconstruct the kind of criticism I have received and as well as an accurate timeline of the events and the travails the victim (who I will not deny was and is a dear friend) had to face in order to be heard.
In this series of blog posts I will refrain from using the word “victim” to describe the girl because I feel that the word takes away a lot of the agency that she has. She’s not just a victim of sexual harassment; she is a girl who had the courage to speak out against behavior she that was highly inappropriate for any student. She’s not just a victim because she had the courage to do what I and a lot of other people haven’t been able to do.
The incident took place on 21st January 2014 as the complainant entered the Law Department at around 1:30 p.m, after jumma prayers. Upon entering the Law Department she ran into Mr. Imam, whose office is at the door step of the department. At the time, he was her academic supervisor and her Moot Court Coach. Upon seeing her, he remarked “you look very fashionable”.
The complainant tried to ignore this remark but was polite to him given the fact that Mr. Imam was her professor. However, Mr. Imam continued and proceeded to reached for the 3-inch zipper on her shoulder and asked, “Is this real?” In doing so he pulled the zip to reveal her bare shoulder. This incident took place in front of four of the victim’s class fellows, two of whom were male students. The complaint was shocked, and re-zipped her dress. Mr. Imam offered a token “Haha, oops, sorry!” to the complainant, and this is the only instance of any form of an apology being given to date. The scene was captured on the LUMS security footage and has been made available exclusively to Mr. Imam and not the complainant.
Mr. Imam’s colleagues claim there was a “briefest tap on the student’s shoulder [which] took at most a second before Professor Imam quickly withdrew his hand.” There was an unzipping, not a “brief tap”. The phrase makes all the difference and those making this representation know exactly what they were doing when they employ such language. It is very important to stress the act of unzipping in the face of such gross misrepresentations. As is obvious in the Ombudsman order, the defense did not argue that the event did not take place nor did they not raise objections on the interpretation of the event in the order.
Friends and colleagues of Mr. Imam, who have seen the video, point towards the fact that the complaint did not immediately run away from the scene and apparently “lingered” for a minute or two. What is this comment supposed to mean? Who are we to define what an appropriate reaction to being unzipped should be?
Let’s take a step back and consider how the complainant may have viewed this situation. Mr. Imam is a professor at a university, he has the power to write recommendations for the complainant, potentially grade her if she ever takes his course and can determine whether she is selected for or goes to a moot competition. Furthermore he is a male professor, the gender dynamics between a female student and a male professor are markedly different from those if the genders between the two parties were the same. He is in a position of power by virtue of his gender and position—any discussion of this case that tries to ignore this context is ill-informed.
Let’s take another step back, and talk law since this was the law department and the professors who have jumped to Mr. Imam’s defense. The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010 in Section 2 defines sexual harassment as:
“harassment” means any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favors or other verbal or written communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature or sexually demeaning attitudes, causing interference with work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment, or the attempt to punish the complainant for refusal to comply to such a request or is made a condition for employment;
This is the definition of sexual harassment you need to defend Mr. Imam under, not your subject notions of what might be deemed sexual behavior.
There also seem to be some claims of an apology: “Realizing that even if this inadvertent action might have been inappropriate, Professor Imam immediately apologized to the student on the spot, if any offense had been caused. That should have been the end of the matter.” The fact of the matter is there was no apology, Abid Hussain Imam did not feel any remorse for his actions, or non-actions as his colleagues claim—and I’ll tell you why.
The complainant, as I mentioned earlier, being a friend of mine, came to me immediately after the incident. She told me what had happened and was visibly upset. Having experienced inappropriate behavior at the hands of Mr. Imam I suggested we go for lunch to calm her down.
On the way out of the department I encountered Mr. Imam. He was in the pantry of the law department trying to warm his food in the microwave. Mr. Imam appeared again and commented: “Shmyla, isn’t [name of complainant] looking nice these days?” I did not comment but smiled weakly. He then proceeded to ask me: “Shmyla, why don’t you dress more like [name of complainant]”? I told him that I didn’t want to and was happy with how I looked. He smiled and replied: “you should dress more provocatively for my viewing pleasure.” Then he disappeared into his office as we exited the department, disgusted and distressed.
This is not the space for me to argue whether what Imam said to me was harassment or not, however it lays bare the blatant lies peddled by Mr. Imam’s colleagues in an effort to paint him as a remorseful victim. In fact, when the matter was eventually taken up by the LUMS Committee inquiring into this complaint, Mr. Imam in his formal reply to the complaint said he “was of course shocked that the matter even became an issue”. This does not go along with the image of the remorseful Mr. Imam, fully grasping the magnitude of the situation and being sorry. It had not even occurred to Mr. Imam that this would be an issue was because no one had ever stood up to him or called him out for the comments he makes. No apology has been rendered by Mr. Imam.
“Professor Imam discussed the matter with the LUMS Vice Chancellor who advised him to offer another apology, which he complied with.” No. Mr. Imam has never apologized despite the fact that the LUMS Inquiry Committee directed that “Mr. Imam should write an apology letter to [name of complaint] which clearly and unequivocally demonstrates his contrition and repentance. This letter should be written as soon as possible (within one week) directed by the VC. This letter should be placed on the personal file of Mr. Imam maintained by LUMS.” This letter has never seen the light of day.
Findings of the LUMS Inquiry
“After an extensive investigation, interviewing witnesses and a review of the video footage, it found Professor Imam innocent of sexual harassment both under University policy as well as under legal strictures.” Not really.
What this petition by former and adjunct LUMS faculty fails to mention is that FORMER Professor Imam was found guilty of “highly unprofessional conduct” and “conduct unbecoming” of a faculty member at LUMS. The Committee absolved him of sexual harassment on a technicality, they applied a different definition of sexual harassment than the Ombudsman (though the LUMS Inquiry report never tells us their definition). Since the Committee was not trained in the nuances of the law such a difference is not surprising. The Ombudsman interpreted the Act to cover the incident of unzipping. However the Committee did not by any means find him innocent, in fact its findings are extremely damning.
Quoting the order passed by the Committee on April 30, 2014:
“There seems to be a pattern of behavior with Mr. Imam which is both very sad and very worrisome. While many students like him as a teacher and as someone who forces them to think critically and is very strict with students who do not come prepared, there are many complaints as well. The three area where, according to students, Mr. Imam uses extremely poor judgment, insensitivity, and crosses the limits of appropriate behavior are as follows:
- Use of inappropriate jokes many times with sexual innuendoes and undertones, and obnoxious language. Almost all students felt that these jokes are extremely inappropriate for two reasons. First there are female students in class, and second Mr. Imam is a faculty member and not a fellow student. The students seem to behave in a far more mature fashion than their teacher. They do not like his “too friendly” and “too frank” approach.
- Making fun of and ridiculing students ostensibly belonging to underprivileged section of Pakistan. Hence, NOP students, so called non-burger students, and even their families were made fun of both in public and private”
These are not my words. If Mr. Imam is reading this he knows what I left out and I did it simply because it will cause too much trouble for him. I do not wish to target him for something he is not accused of and which, given the volatile situation prevalent in this country, could cause problems for him. We are not vindictive, we just want the side of the complainant to be represented, I hope he can understand that.
The Committee’s judgment was rendered on April 30, 2014. It was represented to the complainant that the order would be delivered within 30 days of the commencement of inquiry. The order was delivered in the middle of complainant’s final exams, causes her great distress. The Committee also committed various breaches of procedure and showed insensitivity to the complainant. At one point the complainant was asked to produce the dress she was wearing at the time the incident took place. Given that the Committee did not even bother to call eye-witnesses, it seemed to be very eager on procuring the complainant’s dress. The “how she was dressed” argument is problematic when it comes to harassment of a sexual nature because it implies that the dress of the victim somehow played into the harassment.
The Committee was not clear on what policy or standard it was following as it itself concedes that will be governed by the “spirit of the three policies” (the existing LUMS Sexual Harassment Policy, the LUMS draft policy and the HEC policy). The Committee also concedes that it will rely on “good judgment” and “common sense”. While these are noble aspirations, they are in no positing an objective standard. The Committee formed by LUMS had no training in sexual harassment. Due to these concerns, the complainant decided to appeal to the Federal Ombudsman.
The “you cannot fire someone who had already been fired” argument put forward by the ex-faculty falls flat on its face given the findings of the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman has stated that LUMS was not able to produce a single email that shows acceptance of resignation on part of Mr. Imam. This is why the Ombudsman was compelled to issue the direction to fire Mr. Imam.
The order clearly states that:
“he had resigned from the job on 09.04.2014 through an email sent to Vice Chancellor (at page 106 and107 of file) but this email in fact is not a resignation but seems to show his intention to resign in toxic environment. No proper resignation has been placed by respondent No. 3 even this intention of respondent No. 3 was not accepted by respondent No. 1 Vice Chancellor with remarks in his reply “You are too valuable faculty member and we will discussed this on my return” show that his intention for 1 resignation from job was not accepted. Neither any proper resignation nor its acceptance is also placed on record. He was continuing his job as advisor of appellant even during inquiry and at least till 20.08.2014 which apparently is a violation of clause X-C of Code of Conduct of Schedule of Act 2010 which specifically says that employer shall do its best to temporary makes adjustment so that accused and the complainant do not have to interact for official purpose during the investigation period.”
Since the news broke, various people associated with Mr. Imam have threatened to “leak” the video in question online. Mr. Siddique threatened to put it on YouTube, another gentleman on Twitter said it will be online very soon. When the Ombudsman procured the video as evidence, it was examined by experts sensitive to gender issues and the dynamics of victim-blaming—the rest of the world is not. Having the video online for all of prosperity (even Mr. Imam showing it to all and sundry) is tantamount to opening up the victim to more abuse and harassment. Imagine how the complainant felt, to have something that personal shown to people as though it were entertainment. The complainant asked for it to confidential, yet it became people’s evening entertainment. These should be obvious things, it pains me to even spell them out. It is a piece of evidence that, beyond its discussion in the judgment or the Inquiry report, is to be kept secret. It is unforgiveable that it was made available to the Imam, who then felt himself entitled to share it with all his friends—with complete disregard for the privacy of the complainant.