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Sexual harassment and conservative traditionalism in universities

Cases of sexual harassment in higher education in Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh shed light on the scale of the problem and how state institutions tend to react.

July 6, 2020 - Ararat L. Osipian - Articles and Commentary

Kurgan State University, Kurgan Oblast, Russia. Photo: Aleksandr Kulinich (cc) wikimedia.org

There is a perception that conservative traditionalism usually does not allow for frivolous behavior and thus safeguards from sexual harassment. However, the opposite may be true. Sexual harassment is not as much about sex per se, as it is about power relations. Academia in no exception in this sense, since relations between teachers and students involve power dimension. Recent cases of sexual harassment in higher education institutions in Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh can shed some light on the problem of sexual harassment in academia and the reaction of the state.

Much advanced by the ruling regime over the last few years, Russia’s moralist approach of spiritual staples, known as dukhovnye skrepy, is being counterpoised against imaginary Western decay, including alleged sexual deviance on a mass scale. Russia’s spiritual staples are viewed and intended as a form of strengthening social cohesion and reinforcement of traditional values, including family values, which are supported by the ruling political regime. Within the spiritual staples ideological framework, sexual harassment—or anything sexual for that matter—seem to have no place. Nevertheless, Russia’s pronounced conservative traditionalism does not safeguard from sexual harassment, including in universities.

Although it is rare, Russian media has reported on incidences of sexual harassment that take place in universities. In Saint Petersburg, for example, a faculty member was fired from the Saint-Petersburg University of Humanities and Social Sciences for allegedly offering positive grades on examinations in exchange for sex. Other sexual harassment scandals were also uncovered at Tyumen State University and South Ural State University. Usually, such scandals—if they gain a lot of publicity—end up with the voluntary departure or even firing of the faculty member involved.

Sexual harassment scandals in universities can have political extensions as well. One such scandal happened with a member of the Russian Parliament, Leonid Slutsky, who was accused of sexual harassment by three female journalists. Student activists demanded Leonid Slutsky’s dismissal from his office of the Chair of the Department of International Relations and Integrative Processes at Lomonosov Moscow State University. Certainly, this kind of negative publicity does not contribute to the reputation of this flagship of Russian higher education sector. This negative publicity did not stop scandals of sexual harassment at the university. Most recently, in May 2020, a faculty member at Lomonosov Moscow State University left his professorship amid accusations of sexual harassment.

Not all sexual harassment scandals result in simple dismissals. Rarely, there are legal prosecutions and even court sentencing. Nevertheless, real imprisonment is also a possibility. In one such incident, the president of Zaural’ski Humanitarian Technological Institute in Kurgan was prosecuted for sexual harassment. But the crime was more serious than sexual harassment. The university president was charged with raping a student in his presidential office. He was sentenced to more than three years in prison and a five thousand US dollars fine for raping his female student and then giving her an examination pass.

Sometimes sexual harassment extends into gender violence and even murder. Universities are not immune from such tragic incidences. The most recent tragedy took place in Russia’s historic capital, St Petersburg. In late 2019, an associate professor of history at Saint Petersburg State University shot and killed his graduate student and girlfriend. The 63-year-old military historian was dragged from the icy river in the early hours of Saturday morning. He had been disposing of the victim’s body in the Moika River when he fell into the water. Two female arms severed at the elbow and a gun were discovered in his backpack.

The Saint Petersburg State University professor is a prominent Napoleon expert who often dressed as the French emperor, led re-enactments of Napoleon’s war in Russia of 1812, and was even decorated with France’s Legion d’Honneur. People familiar with the situation said that the historian had a history of erratic behavior and that he had abused another female student. The professor met his first wife when he was a 34-year-old schoolteacher and she was his teenage student. The horrendous crime attracted a lot of attention and the media spared no space in describing and illustrating the murder. In a swift reaction to this tragic incident, the university administration stated immediately that alleged perpetrator will be fired over this “monstrous crime” and issued condolences to the family of the victim.

In 2020, graduates of Saint Petersburg State University have published an open letter denouncing sexual harassment, psychological abuse and sexism. The authors acknowledge that during their studies they “were witnesses to romantic relationships between students and faculty members,” and some of them were even in such relationships. They also faced incidents of sexism on the part of instructors.

Less dramatic, but not less disturbing incidences are observed in Central Asia. Some universities and international organisations, including UNESCO, have tried to address the problem of sexual harassment and gender violence but have been ineffective. In Kyrgyzstan, a scholar in theology was recently involved in a sex scandal in one of Bishkek’s universities. At the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek, a sex scandal erupted over screenshots of correspondence of a theology scholar, who allegedly sexually harassed female students. The Head of the UNESCO Department for the Study of World Cultures and Religions, where the theology scholar serves as associate professor, confirmed the facts that served as the background for the scandal.

UNESCO’s Mission and Mandate states that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) “seeks to build peace through international cooperation in Education, the Sciences and Culture. UNESCO develops educational tools to help people live as global citizens free of hate and intolerance. UNESCO works so that each child and citizen has access to quality education… UNESCO helps countries adopt international standards and manages programmes that foster the free flow of ideas and knowledge sharing.” As the example of sexual harassment at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek demonstrates, the declared mission might differ from the reality. Despite the internal investigation, conducted by the university, the alleged perpetrator remains on the faculty, and the department retains its UNESCO name.

Sexual harassment and gender violence occur in different parts of the world and conservative traditionalism in universities does not help to deal with these problems. A most tragic event similar in dramatism to that in Saint Petersburg took place in Bangladesh. On the one hand, one would expect a fair level of modesty in interpersonal relations in such a conservative setting as an educational institution in a traditional and predominantly Moslem country, especially a madrasa. On the other hand, this conservatism would likely prevent a broad discussion of possible sexually flavored irregularities in interpersonal relations, should such incidences take place on the grounds of academia. 

A 19-year-old student at the Sonagazi Senior Fazil Madrasa, Nusrat Jahan Rafi, was killed in Bangladesh in April 2019. She was set on fire after she refused to withdraw the sexual harassment complaint lodged against her school principal, Siraj Ud Doula. Rafi had filed a formal sexual harassment complaint with local police and as a result, the alleged perpetrator was arrested and sent to jail. According to the police, the school principal asked several people to kill the accuser. The perpetrators included local politicians, schoolteachers and students. Rafi was taken onto the roof of the school building, where a group of people wearing burqas gagged and restrained her. They drenched her in kerosene and set her on fire.

Rafi was able to escape despite 80 percent burns, and record a statement, naming the assailants. She died four days later. Six months later, in October 2019, court has sentenced 16 people to death for this murder. This swift justice is explained by the nationwide mass protests staged in response to this atrocity, a mix of sexual harassment, gender violence, and corruption. After the tragedy, the government ordered 27,000 schools to establish committees focused on preventing gender-based violence and sexual abuse.

This practice is explained by the culture of political oppression, poor human rights record, widespread gender-based violence, and silencing of victims. The response of the authorities—both the harsh sentence for all perpetrators involved in the murder and the establishment of anti-sexual harassment committees–demonstrate the willingness of the state to tackle the burning problem of widespread sexual harassment in Bangladesh.As the examples from the three countries demonstrate, cases of sexual harassment that occur in higher education do not produce much reaction on the side of the state. Universities prefer not to give such cases much publicity, and—even if publicised by the outsiders and the media—do not always investigate the incidents. However, if a certain incident of sexual harassment grows into gender violence and results in a tragedy, the consequences for the perpetrators may be dare. In such tragic cases, universities become eager to fire the alleged perpetrators and the state authorities can hand down serious sentences, including the death penalty. It appears that in cases of serious sexual harassment-related crimes, authoritarian regimes with conservative traditionalism react on the crime per se, while largely ignoring the problem of sexual harassment. Neither harsh punishment as reactive measures on selected cases nor ignorance and silencing the cases and victims will work in confronting sexual harassment in universities. Instead, comprehensive and proactive measures should be implemented for ensuring safer environments for students and higher accountability when instances of sexual harassment occur.

Ararat Osipian is a Fellow of the Institute of International Education and Fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium, USA. His research interests include corruption and sexual harassment in education.


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