The recent allegations of sexual harassment that have emerged at schools and universities in Lahore should surprise no one. We have been here before and we will be back here again. Without institutions taking responsibility for putting policies and trainings in place, and without wider society reflecting on our unwillingness to talk about harassment, we are bound to repeat these patterns.

In late 2019, students at University of Balochistan spoke up about being recorded by CCTV cameras at private spaces across campus and being blackmailed over it. The FIA carried out an investigation, and while it appears no one was charged, the university’s Vice Chancellor stepped down. However, he was promptly hired by a private university in Lahore.

Just this month, students at LUMS in Lahore have bravely spoken up against the behaviours by men on campus that they have been unable to take up before the university’s sexual harassment committee.

What is it about sexual harassment that refuses to go away? It crops up in educational institutions, public and private, in every part of the country. It crops up in workplaces and sports clubs alike. Sexual harassment, it appears, is everywhere. The mind panics, and, one leans towards gender segregation and surveillance across campuses as a solution to this menace. But these solutions are already part of campus life and have not ameliorated the problem.

The Punjab Education Minister, Dr. Murad Raas, has been among many to suggest that men not be allowed to teach at women’s campuses to curb this problem. But this is hardly the solution. Inherently, it implies that men are incapable of controlling themselves around women and girls, an implication we should all find offensive. It is also an imperfect solution for a world where all genders intermingle at offices and public spaces alike. The suggestion also ignores the fact that sexual harassment and sexual assault are common at boys’ educational institutions. An approach that teaches all of us to respect difference and personal space would serve us better.

Another knee-jerk solution adopted by schools and backed by parents is of increasing the use of cameras on campus. This is an expensive solution that cannot be replicated at public schools. Security footage is highly susceptible to being copied or leaked, as has been the case at Lahore’s Safe City Authority in the past. Our privacy and the ownership of our own body is important to us, and we should be careful about normalising the idea of sacrificing it for the illusion of safety.

Some suggestions of dress codes on university campuses and schools have also been put forward. Proponents of this approach forget that dress codes and distancing between the sexes are already mandated at public and private university campuses alike. No amount of covering protects women from being assaulted and harassed in public, as women are acutely aware.

All these solutions are short-sighted and misguided. Their proponents forget that what breeds sexual harassment is power, supported by a culture of silence. Decades of feminist research has established that sexual harassment counts on the victim being cornered into compliance because of the power the harasser holds over her—he is her teacher who grades her papers, a professor who supervises her thesis, a department chair who signs off on her academic documents, the campus security supervisor who no one can question and who has access to all security cameras. At the very least, the harasser is a man whose word will always be believed over that of a woman. A woman’s credibility depends on her moral character being absolutely beyond doubt.

This power difference is worsened by a culture of silence. Our ideas of shame make it hard to talk about anything sexual in nature, including unwelcome sexual advances. All educators understand that the word ‘sex’ even as part of ‘sexual harassment awareness’ is not welcome in Pakistan society. School girls, women at university and working women alike would always prefer to handle sexual harassment on their own, or ignore it altogether, rather than have their parents find out about it. They worry that they will be blamed for inviting this behaviour, or at the very least, have their mobility curbed on the pretext of better security for them. Our cultural silence around private affairs cannot distinguish between welcome and unwelcome sexual interaction.

To address this power differential, we need to introduce curriculum in schools that educates children about overcoming this shame, how to spot and address sexual harassment. We need robust, well-trained and independent sexual harassment committees in schools and universities, efforts for which are already underway. Institutions need to ensure that their committees are transparent and independent, not just populated by the very administration that students cannot trust.

Students, in turn, need to be empowered to speak up. Trainings on harassment are one way to do that. But they will fall short until students feel safe in numbers in being able to complain against a popular teacher. This comes with robust and independent student government and student unions on campus. Censoring students’ activities online, as some schools have begun doing, has the opposite effect and will only silence reports of sexual harassment further.

As a society, we need to have honest conversations about how we perpetuate this culture of silence. The taboo of sex must be overcome, ideas of consent and ownership, control and protection of one’s body need to be strengthened. In post-Kasur Pakistan, we have become exhausted from hearing of sexual crimes despite increased punishment and introduction of new laws. Now, it is our duty to turn to social rather than purely legal solutions, or we are bound to repeat these mistakes again.

Hiba Akbar

The writer is a Teaching Fellow at the Shaikh Ahmad Hassan School of Law, LUMS.