‘University campuses are still mainly male-dominated spaces’


Dr Gitiara Nasreen, professor at the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism of Dhaka University, speaks to Shuprova Tasneem of The Daily Star about sexual harassment on university campuses and media's role in normalising sexual violence.

Incidents of violence against and harassment of students on campus have been in the news quite a few times this year. Do you think university authorities are failing to make campuses and classrooms safe?

In many cases, university authorities focus more on restricting student movement than ensuring campus safety. And if those who are making campuses unsafe belong to certain groups, they are given a free pass.

Needless to say, these restrictions are imposed more on female students. For example, images of Dhaka University (DU) students getting together on campus to watch the football World Cup has generated widespread discussion and praise, especially for the fact that so many are sitting together in an orderly fashion, with no fights breaking out.

If we for a moment overlook the insinuation that university students can't get together without fighting, a shadow that falls over this bright picture is the fact that barely one percent of these students are women. University campuses are still mainly male-dominated spaces.

We see the same thing happening with other co-ed activities. Recently, a student of mine gained a TV channel internship where she would have to work different hours, including the night shift. To ensure safety, the channel provided her with a car for travel. But the sad thing is, when her teachers heard of this, a majority of them – men and women – asked why she needed to work the night shift.

Structural inequalities are obstructing female students from participating in everything, and when these inequalities are normalised, it creates a path to violence and harassment. It enables people to ask: why were you there at that time? What type of clothes were you wearing? When the responsibility for violence is placed on the victim, it continues. In fact, we have even seen a few people take a stand in different campuses with placards commenting on women's clothing, further legitimising violence against women.

Power structures also play a part in allowing sexual violence to exist. The fact that allegations were made of students being abused for sex work in a DU-affiliated college recently is still fresh in our minds.

We are all aware of how cases of sexual violence are hugely underreported, and that even when complaints are made, they become trapped in lengthy processes of justice. Most of such cases pending at DU have not been settled yet. Sometimes, the accused are even given various posts and benefits.

This is despite the 2009 High Court guideline on preventing sexual harassment which, before a law is created, should be treated as law. The point of this guideline is to increase awareness on sexual harassment, to identify it as a crime, and to inform others of its consequences. We have seen many cases of people being unclear on what counts as sexual harassment – they don't consider it an offence, they argue that "boys will be boys," and blame the victim instead. This only strengthens a culture of harassment.

The first step to ending this is spreading awareness in all educational institutions and workplaces. For this, the High Court guideline has suggested creating a special five-member committee to accept accusations and conduct investigations. Their role is not only to punish, but to create awareness through regular discussions. However, a majority of educational institutions have not implemented this suggestion, and even if the committees exist, a lion's share of teachers and students don't know about them.

Instead of taking effective measures, most campuses try to hide incidents of sexual harassment. Yet, if these same universities tried to seriously prevent them, they would only rise in everyone's esteem.

What do you think are the biggest mistakes journalists make when reporting on gender-based violence?

The biggest weakness that still exists is that of reporters taking on the roles of judge and jury. They end up writing about the victim's personal life, the circumstances of the crime, the victim's age, clothing, Facebook status, etc. Such reports present sexual violence as unstoppable/ordinary incidents, thus normalising it.

We also see reports quoting police officers, judges, etc regardless of how off the record, biased and value-laden their statements are. Yet, they are presented like they are hard facts. Instead of focusing on how such violence is an issue of justice that negatively impacts society, and instead of writing follow-up reports that investigate the process of justice, most reports on violence only make us feel hopeless about a horrific state of affairs.

We know that the concepts of "shame" and "honour" still hold a lot of currency in Bangladeshi society, which heavily discourages victims from reporting their abuse. How can the media help in changing this?

The problem starts when we interpret honour, and what destroys it, as we please. I think linking the concept of honour with a woman's body is dishonourable in itself. Why should we call a crime dishonour? The fact that we still think these crimes destroy the victim's and her family's honour is the reason why, even after the momentous struggle that led to our independence, the women who were raped in 1971 are still considered outcasts in many quarters of our society.

Regrettably, mass media often reinforces such mindsets. Words like "dishonour" are used regularly. Movies and telefilms tell us that if a person is raped, the only way out is suicide. Even in the case of political crimes, we see media comment on the personal lives of the accused – it seems scandals are considered more newsworthy. The media is also mostly silent on male victims of sexual violence, who are seen as being as "weak" as women and therefore equally "dishonoured."

Rational and neutral reporting is one of the core principles of journalism. There are a few things that media outlets must do now to deliver this.

Sexual violence must be identified as a crime, and the rapist/abuser must be identified as the perpetrator of the crime. No other factors must be brought into reports to explain the violence. Finally, the media must stop victim-blaming, and stop using other words to describe a violent crime.


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