Cases of sexual blackmail mount in Syrian universities: “Sex for Success”

Students taking exams at Damascus University - 18 July 2022 (Damascus University)

Students taking exams at Damascus University - 18 July 2022 (Damascus University)

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Enab Baladi – Ghossoun Abou Dahab

Certain members of the educational and administrative staff in Syrian universities take advantage of their scientific status and functional authority to harass their female students in exchange for facilitating their success in academic courses.

This opens the door to questions regarding the lack of accountability, deterrent penalties, and mechanisms for protecting victims’ rights, especially since the responsible authorities are covering up these cases, while professors who perpetrate such violations keep their jobs despite condemning video-documented proof of the incidents.

Numerous scandals

Scandals related to corruption, extortion, and sexual harassment in Syrian universities continue to surface publicly through photos and videos of university professors in immoral situations with female students who preferred to expose these practices rather than submit to blackmail. At the end of 2016, for example, a group of female students published WhatsApp messages they received from a university professor in the Department of Sociology threatening female students with dismissal from the college or failing his class if they did not agree to his sexual requests.

In August of 2021, there was a spread of a video scandal of a doctor at Tishreen University, in which he appeared naked while uttering indecent words to a student in exchange for him helping her pass his class at the university.

Recently, specifically at the end of last August, a video clip of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts at al-Baath University with a female student in an immoral situation in his official office at the university was published, followed in less than a month by a new scandal of a doctor at the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Damascus blackmailing female students in exchange for passing his class.

The above incidents have raised numerous questions about the mechanism for dealing with cases of sexual harassment and extortion on campus, especially since most cases are covered up by the university administration. The harassing professor remains at his job without accountability or oversight, which confirms the rampant corruption and nepotism in Syrian universities and the grave violation of the rights of the harassed female students.

These scandals are followed by social media posts and comments, some of which confirm the existence of many of these cases.

The “Sawt Wa Soura Madinat Halab” Facebook page said in part of its post, commenting on the Aleppo University incident in 2021, “The accused doctor may be blackmailing. He should be tried. It is not a unique case, though; there are many like him spread in Syrian universities. Therefore, the university campus must be cleansed of all the likes of him”.

The “Tankeet Jamei” Facebook page dealt with the issue of harassment involving the Dean of the Faculty of Arts at al-Baath University under the title, “Another sad day in the history of Syrian universities, a day shamefully marked by sexual harassment.” The said page noted that corruption in Syrian universities was no longer limited to mismanagement, curricula, and examination corruption but has now passed to the sexual exploitation of female students.

A female commentator under the name “Suha Rabea” said, “Just because you have hidden many stories before, you are no longer entitled to complain or wait for someone to solve or fix it. Enough is enough; get used to it!”

Zina Anoud wrote in a comment on the post, “Whoever defends the doctor is just like him because there are people who defend him and forget that he is in a position of power and that he controls the students’ fate. He asked this girl for that, and he could probably ask others for money. He will ask each person what they are capable of offering him. My heart aches for the students who live in a country where there is no law”.

Harassment from a legal point of view

As stated by the Istanbul-based Syrian lawyer, Mohammad Tammo, during an interview with Enab Baladi, the law did not explicitly criminalize harassment but rather criminalized it under other designations and acts, such as the indecent act and the violation of public morality standards, and it did not mention harassment by its name and its generally accepted connotations. The reason for this may be its entry into a more comprehensive and general concept that criminalizes what is less than harassment, and the punishment extends to harassment, as it is more appropriate for punishment than what is less than it. This is due to the lack of a common notion of harassment as a recognized separate offense and that it is associated with other concepts, such as the notion of personal freedoms, their limitations, and their effects.

Syrian law does not differentiate between victims of sexual harassment on a gender basis; they are victims, whether they are male or female.

According to Tammo, sexual harassment is summarized as groping or caressing if it occurs in a particular way or on certain places of the victim’s body and in certain places that are often public so that the act is public.

Syrian law differentiates in terms of punishment between the occurrence of these acts on an adult or a minor. If it is an adult, the penalty extends to a maximum of three years, which is a misdemeanor penalty.

If, in certain cases, a minor, or one with special needs or have disabilities that prevent or limit their ability to defend themselves, is subject to such violations, the offense is a criminal offense and may be punishable by more than 10 or 15 years imprisonment.

Some laws later included multiple forms of harassment, particularly verbal harassment offenses beginning with a short-term penalty of fewer than ten days’ imprisonment, up to more than one year.

The law strictly punishes certain persons with jurisdiction over others, such as university teaching and administrative staff, as they have jurisdiction and power over the victim, which may force them to bow to extortion and harassment.

Tammo noted that Syrian law recently addressed the subject of harassment with a variety of cybercrimes after the advent and spread of informatics and in light of the ever-growing popularity of a large number of social media apps and websites. However, it did not address it comprehensively and adequately, and a number of articles of the Cybercrime Law remained in need of amendment and control.

According to Tammo, Syrian law still falls short in adopting video and audio recordings as evidence of conviction, as they require careful technical expertise due to the proliferation of complex “montage” programs that can manipulate graphic clips as well as sounds.

He explained that the law deals with screenshots of conversations via social media programs such as WhatsApp, or text messages, in a different way because phone companies have records that can be verified.

Tammo pointed out that the law considers the publication of videos in cases of sexual harassment or extortion, as in the recently published university professors’ story, as an offense in itself, and its publisher would be prosecuted.

Powerful professors

Pr. “M.A” (who chose not to reveal her name for social considerations), a former professor at a Syrian university, said, “during my employment at the university, I heard about several cases of sexual harassment of female students. This sort of news is prevalent among students and the university’s teaching and administrative staff.” The matter was often contained in the event of a complaint, and “the offender is punished only if the case becomes a matter of public opinion.” But if the doctor (the harasser) has power and influence, and if he is “backed,” then he has wide powers that would make him immune to punishment.

Pr. “M.A” affirmed that “There is no immunity for faculty members in such cases, noting that decisions to dismiss faculty members are made by the Prime Minister in the event of any legal wrongdoing. The appointment or dismissal of the rector is carried out exclusively by means of a presidential decision.

Pr. M.A explained that “some of the sanctions imposed by the faculty’s administration prevent university professors from holding higher executive positions and stop their professional promotions.

Leniency in applying penalties, covering up harassers, and failing to bring cases to justice, all of which contribute to the sexual exploitation of female university students.

On 10 September, the Noor Halab Facebook page posted a WhatsApp correspondence between the head of the Resources Department at Damascus University’s Faculty of Agriculture and one of the female students.

According to the publication, “Our case today is to bring to the attention of Mr. President, First Lady, all of those worthy of respect, and the president of the University of Damascus and Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, the need to restrain the zombie Pr. (…), the head of the Resources Department at Damascus University’s Faculty of Agriculture; This petty creature and infatuated lover had bad luck when he was spotted and when he fell in a trap set by one of his unidentified female students”.

Harassment is a voluntary act

Dynamic Psychology expert, Firas al-Gendy, defines sexual harassment as verbal or physical behavior with uncomfortable manifestations or qualities of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment is an act of a sexual nature that violates an individual’s dignity and is a form of arbitrary discrimination.

The harasser suffers from psychiatric disorders related to fracture and repression. Therefore, perpetrating harassment gives the aggressor temporary psychological pleasure. In addition, many men take advantage of positions and power in order to commit such violations, as explained by al-Gendy.

He added that the harasser is a “psychopath” who does not suffer from mental disorder or hallucinations but that his disorder is no less serious than other types of disorders because it touches the depths of the personality. A “psychopath” is a person who suffers from a behavioral disorder and, in general, has a disturbed attitude towards their repressed childhood, exploiting positions of power to hide their psychological disorder and sadistic complexes, so they exercise this act in conformity with the authority that protects and condones them.

As explained by al-Gendy, the victim’s sexual harassment causes psychological and physiological changes related to indigestion, shame sensation, anxiety, insomnia, stress, appetite and sleep disorders, feelings of vulnerability and disability, and lack of self-confidence and low self-esteem.

These disorders may lead ladies to skip college or work. Therefore, it is necessary to enact legislation that punishes this act because harassers experience psychological pleasure when they commit such an atrocious violation, which is a voluntary criminal act and not a subconscious one, as the specialist Al-Gendy had said.

The silence of female victims of sexual harassment reflects their fear of blame and societal rejection that befalls them, especially as there is previous evidence of female students exposing immoral practices to which they have been subjected, believing that defamation and shaming of the aggressor will be a sufficient deterrent for harassers and blackmailers, and will put pressure on the university administration to develop strict laws that prevent harassment and provide a safe environment to protect female students. However, they have come across a system of corruption that would protect and cover up for the harasser on the pretext of protecting the educational institution’s reputation.

Sexual harassment in Syrian universities reflects the level of corruption and insecurity in the Syrian state. This was confirmed by the Women Peace and Security Index (WPS Index) issued by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security and the UN’s PRIO Center on Gender, Peace, and Security in 2021, which classified Syria as one of the most dangerous countries for women in relation to organized violence, ranking it second worst in the world.

 

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