AMMAN—Mona is in her third year at a Jordanian university where she studies medicine. She is a hard-working woman, but that doesn’t always protect her from harm. “I am a superior student academically,” she said, “but unfortunately there is a professor bothering me, following me with his eyes so that I feel his gaze penetrate my body.”
The professor would ask her to go to his office, she said, on the third floor of a medical school building after 8 p.m. when nobody else was around. “Of course I refused,” she said, “so he threatened that he would give me an F on the final exam. Right now I’m very afraid. I don’t know what I should do.”
Ola Shahin, a lawyer at the Jordanian Women’s Union, said that Mona’s case is not unusual. “From the beginning of this year I have dealt with 180 sexual harassment cases at universities,” said Shahin. “Girls come to me feeling ashamed and thinking they have done something wrong.”
An informal poll carried out by this reporter included 200 female students selected randomly from six universities, namely: University of Jordan, Hashemite University, Jordan University of Science and Technology, Zarqa Private University, Irbid National University and Tafila Technical University. The poll found that 67 percent of the women surveyed said they were exposed to one or more episodes of sexual harassment. Thirty percent of them said they had been both harassed and threatened with failing a class.
The poll found that 40 percent were harassed verbally, while 30 percent had experienced physical harassment, and 4 percent said they had been victims of actual or attempted rape. Eighty percent kept silent about their harassment because of fear of scandal or a rejection of their complaints. Sixteen percent considered filing a complaint, while only 4 percent actually complained.
By comparison, a study released this week by the Association of American Universities of students at 27 institutions found that 23 percent of female undergraduates said they had been subject to sexual assault or misconduct “due to physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation” [such as drugging].
In Jordan, “the problem is not only in the act of harassment, or non-submission of complaints,” says Ola Shahin, the lawyer, “but the problem is that some of the institutions that should be concerned with sexual harassment, such as organizations that claim to be protecting the family, or protecting public security, or even some that claim to be protecting women’s rights, do not take it seriously when teachers harass their students. They only care about incidents of sexual assault and rape.”
Huda Hiasat, a professor of comparative literature at the Hashemite University, said, “In the previous semester, about 80 girls came to my office complaining about some professors treating them in ways that are unprofessional. I have encouraged many women to complain, but they fear failure [in pressing their complaints], or scandal.”
She says she helped 10 girls to lodge complaints with her university’s president, but he refused to hear them. Abdul Ilah AL Zayon, a spokesman for Hashemite University, denied the lack of interest in the women’s issues, and said the university was investigating them privately.
Riham, a third-year economics student at Zarqa Private University, complained through a lawyer to the president of a university that a professor harassed her and threatened to fail her unless she did what he wanted.
“I didn’t deny that I was scared at the beginning of the scandal,” Riham said. But, she says, the harassment “increased and reached the stage that he extended his hand in an inappropriate manner on my body, which led me to contact a lawyer and ask him to raise the issue about this professor, who is a disrespectful person.” The university administration responded that Riham’s behavior was the reason the professor did not respect her. “Because they thought I was wearing improper clothes,” she said, with tears in her eyes.
Jordanian laws do not explicitly criminalize sexual harassment of women, says Shahin, the lawyer. The courts focus on rape and seek material evidence of it, but in harassment cases, both physical evidence and witnesses are usually missing.
Ayman Tahan, a sociology professor at the University of Jordan, believes that “harassment has become a phenomenon in Jordan” and requires study. “Cases are on the rise, but are not taken into account, for social reasons, because the subject is very sensitive and the person doing the harassing is a university professor.”
Women aren’t reporting professors, he said, because sexual acts generally aren’t openly discussed. Also, to successfully press their accusations, he said, women need witnesses and usually don’t have any because harassers pick out-of-sight places for their acts.
The Ministry of Higher Education says that it does not condone university professors molesting female students. If a student who complains is not satisfied with the response from her university’s president, she should go to the ministry, said the spokesman of the Ministry of Higher Education, Zakaria al-Ghoul, in a statement.