- Afzal Mehmood was accused of harassment of a student who later retracted her statement.
- The college harassment committee cleared him of the accusation.
- A series of incidents was triggered.
- Mehmood’s wife left him.
Speaking up does not guarantee justice.
Even death does not guarantee justice.
In our world marked with cruelty, crime, violence and lawlessness, the absence of justice stands bewildered like a misplaced question mark on the collective conscience of humanity. In fatality-less cases justice becomes more of a struggle. Pain is quantifiable if it is tangible. Emotional trauma is brushed aside as an irritant that is of negligible consequence. A bleeding head is worrisome, a nervous breakdown is mere weakness of mind that was preventable.
I see it all around me. Apathy to pain that is of mind, of heart, of soul. There are those who walk around with so much un-verbalised pain their smiles are permanent as if drawn by an indelible paint. There are the dead outside graves.
Even when buried, they are not allowed to rest in peace. Even when buried, they are questioned. The living does not leave them alone even when they decide they have had enough, and they end their life encapsulating their agony in terseness: “I leave this matter in the court of Allah.”
The tragedy of Afzal Mehmood, the MAO professor who committed suicide. If he had not killed himself, it would have been just another case of a college professor indulging in harassment of those he should have kept himself at a respectable distance from: his students. His suicide note opened a door to a rabbit hole of more innuendos, allegations and conspiracy theories, all of which I find unworthy of mention in the story of a man who sought justice and died looking for it. In the wake of the news of the removal of the MAO principal, Dr Farhan Ebadat Khan, for having proven to be ‘negligent’ and showing of ‘very rude and lethargic’ attitude, when I think of Mehmood’s case, four tiny big words appear in their stark honesty: too little too late.
Afzal Mehmood was accused of harassment of a student who later retracted her statement. The college harassment committee cleared him of the accusation. A series of incidents was triggered. Mehmood’s wife left him. His reputation took a blow that was nearly fatal. Was the college authorities’ refusal, reluctance or slowness–who is to say–despite Mehmood’s consistent requests for an official notification of his exoneration the final blow? Who knows. The real story died with Afzal Mehmood. What he left behind besides that brief suicide note was a two-word plea: me too.
There is never a time when the world is devoid of countless stories of women who are harassed, abused, beaten, raped and even killed. Last night, a photograph of a crying father hugging his ten-year-old daughter devastated me. The little girl had been reportedly raped in the neighbourhood mosque. The rapist was her Quran-teaching maulvi. Will they get justice is a question hovering like a huge open palm to the legal system and societal mores that make dispensation of justice to a victim of rape, even a ten-year-old raped in a mosque, a sordid business of wrong questions, a shoddy investigation, and creation of loopholes for the perpetrator to go free.
Society silent on abuse
In a society where a survivor of a gang rape is made to go through an investigation that questions her credibility and her character, the idea of a fair and an even trial is not a given but a utopia. Sexual crimes are dealt with the whispered it’s-no-big-deal, and a code of silence where the female victim is questioned to be shamed. Me Too has strengthened women to come forward on a global platform, a little reassured they are not alone. Not much happens when a female opens up about her pain of sexual abuse, but the importance of that disclosure is immense. It is an empathetic message to other victims and survivors you are not alone.
Afzal Mehmood was alone. He died.
Sexual crimes harm. Sometimes, for life. Sexual accusations harm too. Sometimes, beyond death. Afzal Mehmood is merely one of the many who became the victim of a convoluted system in which the truth is the first and the last casualty. The effects are beyond gender. In any civilised society, the rule of law is supreme, free of any obstacles of class, status and background. In an educational institution, the same system is applicable in a different mode. A student is to be provided an environment where her accusation of sexual impropriety must be given immediate attention. Beyond the administration, all educational institutions should focus on the establishment of an internal complaints committee or a sexual harassment board.
The most important aspect of any informal or a formal hearing on an allegation of sexual impropriety must be to give both sides an even opportunity for presentation of their side of the story without any fear of discrimination, judgement, bias and inequality of genders.
According to the HR policy of an American college, the “Informal Resolution process often provides an effective means of resolving most disputes.” In this process, “the Complainant may choose to discuss the concerns directly with the Respondent. The Respondent may not realise that his or her conduct is offensive or unwelcome. Many disputes can be resolved quickly and effectively with such direct communication.”
If that doesn’t work and a complaint has been filed, the accused–a faculty or other staff member–must be provided fundamental safeguards of a due process, two of which are the provision of hearing of record and the right to call witnesses to testify in his defence. During a formal hearing both sides must be given an equal chance of presentation of complaint and defence. A proper hearing of the committee, which could include members of administration, faculty and student council, “affords both parties an opportunity to offer evidence, to answer questions from the hearing ccommittee, and to confront adverse witnesses.”
In the case of Mehmood, the committee in his college, after their due process–the details of which are unavailable to me–was cleared of the accusation. The complainant who accused him of ogling retracted her statement. A student of MAO college said: “The student [complainant] changed her statement during the inquiry and said that the professor used to deduct students’ marks because of low attendance.”
In Pakistan where countless women live to relate the hell of sexual harassment, abuse and rape, not much changes. Even their death do not humanise their tragedy. Not much changes. The 2014 suicide of the teenaged cricketer Haleema Rafique did not change anything. Haleema “appeared on a TV talk show and made allegations of sexual harassment against the chairman of [a cricket] club, Maulvi Alam, a former judge.” While fasting, she ingested a bottle of toilet cleaner.
Nothing much changed in Pakistan for females who, very bravely, breaking the taboos and red lines of silence and ‘shame’, talked about their trauma, challenging society and the law to break its shameful silence about harassment and abuse.
In Afzal Mehmood’s death, not much will change. Only the gender of the victim has been reversed. His deadness would not be a certificate of his innocence. More unsubstantiated theories would be unfurled to convolute the truth. Coming forward with an allegation of sexual harassment unleashes a series of events that takes a female teenager’s life. After being cleared of an allegation of sexual harassment, the absence of a proper system pushes a college professor to take his life. There is something rotten in the system that engineers a set of circumstances where death seems like the last option. Who is to be blamed?
Read more from Mehr Tarar
If Afzal Mehmood had not died, he would have lived with the label of a sexual harasser for the rest of his life. His clarifications, his pleas, his story, and his pain went unheard. His death became the voice of his innocence. He did what many females have done since humanity started to record its actions. He took his own life when he thought no one believed him, that he was shamed, that he was alone.
The silence about sexual harassment, abuse and rape must end for ours to be a more humane, a more empathetic, a kinder world.
The silence about false accusations of sexual harassment, abuse and rape must end for ours to be a more humane, a more empathetic, a kinder world.
We owe that to the Haleemas and the Afzals of this world of ours.