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Women at KabulUniversity claim that they have been preyed on by their teachers, in some cases even being blackmailed into having sex with them
Miles Amoore in Kabul The Sunday Times
Published: 28 November 2010

Afghan students in class at Kabul University (Majid Saeedi/)The student did not tell anyone, least of all the authorities, when her professor at Kabul University blackmailed her into having sex with him. How could she?

Not only would such a disclosure have brought shame on her family, she was also petrified that the police would arrest her for prostitution or adultery if she reported an act that would be regarded in the West as tantamount to rape.

Looking back on what happened, 24-year-old “Asma” — her real name has been withheld to protect her — struggled last week to see how she could have prevented what happened.

It was December 2009 when she found out that she had failed her final examinations. The professor announced the results to the class, then asked Asma to his office to discuss her poor performance.

Seated across the desk from him, Asma heard the professor say she could still pass her exams and graduate — if she agreed to have sex with him.

“What choice did I have?” she said. “My father hated me going to university. He would beat me when I got bad grades and tell me that if I failed, then all the trouble I’d caused him would be for nothing. I desperately needed to pass.”

Stories such as Asma’s are far from isolated at Kabul University, according to women’s rights advocates and students. They believe the time has come to make a stand, even though to do so in such a conservative, male-dominated environment requires considerable courage.

Their allegation that certain professors have coerced female students into having sex has been tacitly corroborated by some staff. “Some of my colleagues often boast about having sex with girls in this way,” said a professor at the university, who refused to be named. “But nothing is ever done about it, even when it’s reported. The professors are all still in their posts.”

Asma’s instincts screamed at her to remain silent. One of the reasons she did not tell the university was that she was desperate to keep it hidden from her fiancé.

The next day, when asked by her classmates how she had turned her fail into a pass, Asma said that she had bribed the professor. But some of them guessed what had happened. Male students began to call her names. “It’s already hard enough for women to get a good education in this country,” she said. “All I want is for these men to stop doing this, but I feel powerless. I want the teachers to be brought to justice but I don’t know who to turn to.”

Other women at the university said they had been offered better grades for sex too. “Najiba” — not her real name — said she had fled her professor’s office when he told her to have sex with him. “I remember running out of the office in floods of tears,” she said. “I was so embarrassed and frightened.”

She immediately reported the professor to the university’s authorities and he was suspended from his post, according to two of his colleagues. But 10 weeks later, he returned to take up a post in a different faculty.

“They can do whatever they like,” Najiba said. “Most of them are well-connected men. They’ll never be punished because women are powerless to do anything in this country. No one believes us and the law doesn’t even protect us.”

Najiba, who failed to graduate, said she knew of at least five other professors who were abusing female students at Kabul University, which is the largest and oldest in Afghanistan. Professors there said at least three colleagues had been suspended for sexually abusing female pupils. But all three had returned to their posts, they said.

The Ministry of Higher Education refused to comment on the allegations. A spokesman for the university said the women’s claims were baseless and it observed Islamic practices.

Women’s groups said they were aware of other cases in which female students had been coerced into sex. A deeply flawed judicial system and a lifelong stigma attached to the victims of sexual abuse prevented many Afghan women from speaking about it, they said.

A report due to be released next month by Integrity Watch Afghanistan, the advocacy group, documents dozens of cases of sexual harassment among female students.

The professors, who are treated almost like gods because of the moral authority they command in society, operate in “gangs” that are above the law, according to Yana Toradi, the group’s co-director.

He described one case in which four professors joined together to bully one of their female students into providing all of them with sexual favours.

“If you fail in one subject then that might be enough to get an overall pass, but if you fail in three or four then you’ll fail the whole year. So the practice of sexual extortion has become institutionalised at the university,” Toradi said.

In Afghanistan, shame tends to be attached to the woman who has been abused or raped. Victims are often imprisoned for adultery, disgraced for life or forced to marry the rapist.

Rights groups warn that the progress made in areas such as female education and literacy since the US-led invasion in 2001 is coming under threat.

Increasing attacks against girls’ schools deprive thousands of education. In one of the most notorious incidents, Taliban militants sprayed acid on a group of schoolgirls in Kandahar in 2008.
Early and forced marriages, so-called honour killings and attacks on high-profile women continue despite the repeated pledges of the international community and the Afghan government to improve conditions for women.

Asma holds out little hope for the future of women in Afghanistan. She believes there are hundreds in universities across the country who will never speak out about the abuses they suffer.

“The criminals who do this will never be brought to justice,” she said. “It is our duty to tell the world but what’s the point if even our own countrymen won’t listen?