While the #MeToo movement has reopened debates in the West about the ethical issues around romantic relationships between academics and students, Pakistani society has yet to fully grapple with its own growing problems in this area.
About 60 per cent of Pakistan’s 208 million people are under the age of 30, so educators are in huge demand, and in the country’s universities, many lecturers are not much older than their students. To those they teach, they seem more like elder siblings than they do parents. And while that can be very exciting, it also has considerable moral perils.
Their similar ages mean that there is a great deal of overlap between the interests and social activities of academics and students. And romantic advances towards students are becoming increasingly common among those faculty members who socialise with undergraduates outside the teaching space.
Some social classes in Pakistan find no fault with affairs between students and teachers. But social and cultural norms – including those by which most students live – generally disapprove of such relationships. If an affair results in marriage, society might accept that outcome, but the participants usually feel the need to keep their romance secret before then. The teacher is popularly regarded as taking advantage of the student’s emotional or academic reliance on him or her. Students are assumed to be emotionally vulnerable, so it is the teacher’s responsibility to keep their emotions balanced.
There is also an element of gender politics in how staff-student affairs are regarded. In a patriarchal society, a female teacher propositioning a male student is disapproved of more strongly than a male teacher propositioning a female student – although, even in the former case, the cultural onus would be on the male student to proposition the female lecturer, rather than vice versa.
Moreover, there can be exploitation on both sides: by teachers and students. On the one hand, some teachers who are married woo their students solely to have a good time. They not only spoil the reputations of the students involved – who, in many cases, are careless themselves about how they are regarded by others – but also create troubles in their own domestic lives. Their affairs sometimes halt abruptly when the student finishes their course, but other times they lead to marital break-ups.
On the other hand, some students offer their time and company to academics for ulterior motives: in pursuit of higher grades, social status or merely diversion. This can lead to tensions with those classmates who are more traditional and conservative or with those whose different social backgrounds make them more risk averse.
The situation becomes particularly fraught when the teacher’s advances are unwanted. Pakistan has had anti-harassment laws since 2010, but it is very rare for students of either sex to report advances from their teachers. Even if an active anti-harassment committee exists at a university, students’ dependence on their teachers for grades – as well as their fears for their own reputation – leads them to choose to suffer silently rather than take the risk of complaining.
Another issue that hinders universities’ ability to address the emotional fallout of student-teacher relationships is the unpopularity of student counselling services. While some Pakistani universities have psychiatrists, visiting them is a social taboo, so even the students who dare to do so rarely open up to them. Such counselling does happen, but more often in private spaces, away from prying eyes.
There is nothing wrong with falling for someone, and such feelings are inevitable when both lecturers and students are so comparatively young. But it is everybody’s responsibility to build and maintain a constructive environment of mutual learning in universities as Pakistan seeks to find its way between tradition and modernity. It is imperative for Pakistan’s universities to offer more training and guidance to help their young teachers and their students make romantic choices with due consideration of the consequences for their careers and their lives.
Abdur Rehman Cheema (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an academic and development practitioner based in Islamabad. Mehvish Riaz (email@example.com) is an assistant professor at the University of Engineering & Technology (UET) Lahore and a Fulbright fellow. The views they express are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of their institutions.