Middle Eastern universities must do more to tackle sexual harassment

The practice is banned in most countries but it remains rife across the region, with universities no exception, says Sabrin Ramadhan

April 18, 2022
A Muslim woman with male hands on her shoulders, signifying sexual harassment in the Middle East
Source: iStock

In the Middle East, women and girls are sexually harassed on a daily basis in the streets, in shops and on public transport. According to a report released in 2019 by Arab Barometer, 39 per cent of females in the region are sexually harassed in public places, with national percentages ranging from 44 in Egypt to 15 in Tunisia.

Unfortunately, even universities are not safe havens. Sexual harassment of female students by male professors and students persists in almost all Arab universities. Recently, an economics professor at Hassan I University, near Casablanca, Morocco was sentenced to two years in prison for giving grades in return for sexual favours from female students.

In 2014, a group of dozens of male students sexually harassed a female law student on the campus of Cairo University. The incident was the first of its kind to come to light, but it was certainly not the last. Five years later, a mass communication professor at the same Egyptian university was fired for sexually abusing and blackmailing a female student. A 2015 survey released by the United Nations Population Fund’s Egyptian chapter, UNFPA-Egypt, found that about 16,000 females experienced sexual harassment in Egyptian educational institutions.

It is often a lengthy and tedious task to conduct sexual harassment studies on Middle Eastern university campuses since it is still a touchy topic in these conservative societies. But a 2017 study by the Jordanian National Commission for Women found that 79 per cent of women had experienced sexual harassment at Jordanian universities. Another poll carried out by a news agency in 2019 found that 40 per cent of female students had been sexually harassed by their male professors in various Iraqi universities.

The true rates are likely to be a lot higher since the victim-blaming mentality that is deep-rooted in these countries dissuades women from reporting sexual harassment. Women are often accused of enticing the harasser, especially when their clothes do not conform to social norms. Moreover, whatever their truth, rumours about women’s sexual behaviour drag the names of their loved ones through the mud in a culture that makes the honour of entire families dependent on the chastity of their female members.

Some don’t even recognise sexual harassment in all its forms (verbal, physical, non-verbal and visual), or fail to grasp its significance – often the result of having little self-esteem and respect for their bodies.

Yet this does not mean that they are unaffected by it. In his 2014 book The Body Keeps the Score, the psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk recounts how trauma affects the entire life of human beings, their bodies, minds and brains. Given the silence and taboo that surrounds sexual harassment in Middle Eastern societies, it is not difficult to imagine how life feels for the women who so frequently experience it but so rarely receive therapy for it.

According to the World Bank, most Middle Eastern countries are among the 140 that have taken steps to protect women against sexual harassment in education settings and workplaces. Tunisia criminalised sexual harassment in 2004. By 2014, Egypt had done the same. By 2018, even Saudi Arabia had done so. However, Jordan is among the few countries that does not yet have laws that clearly criminalise all forms of sexual violence.

Moreover, passing laws does not automatically stop illegal behaviour, and sexual harassment persists on campuses across the Middle East. Arab universities and colleges need to take matters into their own hands. They must take concrete steps to effectively combat sexual harassment, developing clear and comprehensive policies that impose zero tolerance for sexual harassment on campus by students or academic staff.

It would also help if universities had places such as police stations on campus where victims could go to report incidents, as well as counselling centres to get help from. Open discussions and awareness programmes and campaigns against sexual harassment should also be held more often.

Of course, none of this will immediately do anything to protect women once they go beyond the campus gates. But if, over time, university graduates of both sexes take this zero-tolerance approach into the workplace and wider society then we can hope the discrimination that holds Middle Eastern women back in education and everywhere else will finally be overcome.

Sabrin Ramadhan is a university lecturer in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

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