Broken Trust: harassment and academic safety in Iraqi institutions

Broken Trust: harassment and academic safety in Iraqi institutions

Shafaq News/ In recent years, the issue of harassment within Iraqi educational institutions has garnered increasing attention; from subtle hints to direct verbal and physical assaults, harassment has been voiced in Iraqi universities with silence still occurring, and victims remain scared of a "societal scandal" due to societal norms and traditions.

There are no official statistics related to harassment or sexual abuse in Iraq, as these cases lie in secrecy, and most of them end in reconciliation or are not pursued due to a lack of evidence.

Professors Arrested for Sexual Charges

This May, the University of Sumer confirmed the arrest of a professor.

A security source in Dhi Qar governorate reported the arrest of the head of the Computer Science Department at Sumer University's College of Computer Science on sexual charges.

Considering the arrest, the University pointed out that it is a "natural procedure within judicial regulations, based on a complaint and the existence of a prior dispute."

The University emphasized its support for judicial authority, stating, "We support the judiciary in all its decisions, reaffirming that the accused is innocent until proven guilty." It also announced the formation of an internal committee to investigate the charges and determine their validity, with appropriate actions to be taken based on the findings.

Last March, the Basrah Court of Appeal sentenced Emad al-Shawi, Dean of the College of Computer Science at the University of Basrah, to 15 years in prison for committing an obscene act.

Images allegedly showing al-Shawi engaging in a sexual act with a female student circulated on social media.

The harassment within Iraqi society, whether in public spaces like streets, schools, workplaces or even within homes among relatives, has been on the rise in recent years.

Varied Faces of Harassment

Harassment can rear its head in many forms; it can be verbal, with taunts and insults meant to demean or belittle, or physically involves unwanted touching, shoving, or even threats of violence.

Sexual harassment specifically targets someone based on their sexuality, often with unwelcome advances or offensive comments.

Amira Al-Jaberi, an advocate for social affairs, attributes the surge in harassment cases within both public and private educational settings in Iraq to multiple factors, with two key factors standing out.

Firstly, she points to a decline in "educational standards" in choosing teachers and professors, leading to the emergence of" inadequate teaching or administrative practices that exert undue influence over female students, resulting in instances of harassment and coercion."

Secondly, Al-Jaberi highlights the "detrimental impact of social media misuse, which has fostered negative behaviors in many individuals, fostering the misconception that actions permissible on social platforms can be replicated anywhere."

Cyber extortion, a prevalent cybercrime, is currently a major concern for Iraqi families, disproportionately affecting women at 70% compared to men at 30%, as reported by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior.

However, the critical issue surrounding harassment and extortion lies in the underreporting of these crimes, perpetuating their recurrence, according to lawyer Marwa Abdul Rida.

"The legal framework governing relationships between professors and students is skewed towards protecting professors, leaving students without adequate legal safeguards within universities. This approach reflects the government's prioritization of self-protection over citizen welfare." She said.

Abdul Rida underscores the challenges faced by some female students in universities due to pressure from professors.

"In such scenarios, students are often compelled to report within university channels despite encountering obstacles, highlighting the importance of reporting over silence in addressing these crimes."

Persistence of Harassment

Israa Tariq, the head of the "She (Hiya)" Foundation for Cultural and Media Development, observes that the spread of harassment in universities follows its prevalence in workplaces and public spaces, prompting the initiation of the 'Expose the Harasser' campaign last year.

Tariq, speaking to Shafaq News Agency, points out the increasing cases of harassment due to "inadequate government measures and societal norms that exacerbate the severity of the crime and its psychological impact on victims."

According to a study by the foundation across six governorates (Baghdad, Basra, Nineveh, Karbala, Diyala, and Al-Anbar), Tariq notes that 60% of women face harassment at work. In response, an app was developed for reporting harassment, including cases of same-sex harassment.

Tariq emphasizes the necessity of imposing "stricter penalties" to combat this phenomenon, which may lead some families to withdraw their daughters from university studies due to apprehensions about potential harassment.

This concern is shared by a mother in Karbala, who reveals to Shafaq News Agency that "some families are hesitating to enroll their daughters in colleges following the incidents in Basrah and Sumer universities. Personally, my daughter is completing her final year of high school, and I am actively seeking a college with an all-female teaching staff for her post-baccalaureate studies."

Expressing disbelief, the mother tells Shafaq News Agency, "Professors were once like fathers to students, but we are now witnessing exploitation of students for sexual purposes, disrupting their academic journey and causing psychological distress like depression."

However, psychiatrist Haitham Al-Zubaidi notes that cases of harassment and extortion in higher education institutions are "infrequent and do not fundamentally challenge personal modesty." He cautions against generalizing individual cases, stressing the need for positive discourse to foster peaceful coexistence amid societal challenges.

Harassment Penalties

Legal expert Ali Al-Tamimi clarifies the penalties for harassment in the Iraqi constitution, stating that "the first type of harassment, involving coercion, threats, or deceit against either gender or attempts thereof, is punishable under Article 396 of the Penal Code with a maximum of 7 years in prison. This penalty increases to 10 years if the victim is under 18 years old."

Al-Tamimi elaborates that the second type of harassment, which includes solicitation, is punishable under Article 402 of the Penal Code "with up to 3 months in prison or a fine. The penalty escalates to 6 months if the offense is repeated."

Under Article 394, a 7-year prison sentence or imprisonment is prescribed for consensual intercourse with individuals aged 15 to 18, with the penalty increasing to 10 years if the victim is under 15 years old.

Article 400 specifies that "engaging in indecent acts without consent is punishable by up to one year in prison, a fine not exceeding 100 dinars, or either of these penalties. Making indecent requests to another person, regardless of gender, is punishable by up to three months in prison, a fine not exceeding 30 dinars, or either of these penalties."

Amid the proliferation of harassment, Al-Tamimi stresses the necessity of "enacting legislation that consolidates these disparate articles and offers psychological and social remedies, particularly given the prevalence of such crimes in the digital age."

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