An investigation carried out by The Guardian has uncovered what it calls ‘epidemic levels’ of sexual harassment at UK universities. It reports almost 300 claims against staff being made in six years, which victims and lawyers have called just “the tip of the iceberg”.
Freedom of information (FoI) requests were sent to 120 universities, and it was found that at least 169 allegations of sexual harassment, misconduct and gender violence were made by students against staff, and at least another 127 allegations by staff against other staff, from the years 2011-2017.
The investigation also learned that “scores of alleged victims” were dissuaded from making official complaints, withdrawing the allegations or settling for informal resolutions. This is in addition to many others saying they never reported their harassment for fear of the impact on them.
Dr Ann Olivarius, a senior partner at law firm McAllister Olivarius told the newspaper,
“These numbers are shocking, but sadly, from our experience, are just the tip of the iceberg. Sexual harassment of students by staff members has reached epidemic levels in British universities. Most universities have no effective mechanism to stop staff from pressuring students into sexual relationships, and when it happens, any sort of disciplinary action is pretty much non-existent. Those in charge are often colleagues who have many incentives not to intervene.
“Young women are often terrified about the consequences if they make a complaint about a staff member. So often, when they do, the university’s chief concern is to downplay any wrongdoing and protect its own reputation by keeping the whole thing quiet.”
One junior female member of staff at a university in southern England who has been trying to raise concerns about sexual harassment in her department for years told the Guardian,
“The worst thing is that there are many people who are suffering under this professor. Simply putting in a formal complaint will not do anything but make life hell for me and other women. He will never be fired. Everyone I have spoken to confirms this.”
A female graduate student who was sexually assaulted by a senior academic said,
“They offered me a settlement on the condition that I drop out of the programme and accept that no internal investigation on the member of staff would take place.”
“When I refused, they were forced to conduct an independent investigation; however, the investigation didn’t feel independent at all. In the end, none of my complaints were upheld, despite all the evidence of the member of staff’s behaviour towards me. The investigator concluded that the senior member of staff and I were ‘friends’, and that he had simply tried to ‘help’ me. The member of staff still has his post in the institution, he is still teaching and supervising students, whereas I am not even attending the campus, and I am completing my studies remotely.”
The most highly regulated interaction in the Shari’a
Cases like these and others highlight a very important wisdom for which the interaction between the two sexes has been described as the most highly regulated one in the whole of the Shari’a. The vices that occur when people are not careful to maintain a professional working distance between strangers of the opposite sex in public spaces are too numerous to treat with cures, so they are prevented as much as possible.
Furthermore, if there is a case of accusations of sexual harassment or otherwise unacceptable behaviour between two parties, this presents an extremely difficult scenario for those trying to administer justice. Judges or other disciplinary bodies face a debilitating dilemma: on the one hand they face the danger of letting someone who may be harming people continue to do so; on the other they face the danger of ruining an innocent person’s life based on false accusations.
This is due to the fact that most disputes about sexual harassment will be one person’s testimony against another, without the possibility of establishing guilt or innocence with certainty. Due to this danger, many wise institutions, organisations, societies and even cultures practice the safeguarding that the Shari’a and other wisdom traditions call for – the restriction of private correspondence or meetings between two individuals of the opposite sex.
The Prophet sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam said,
“No man should be alone with a woman unless there is a mahram with her.”
“No [unrelated/unmarried] man and woman are alone together except that Satan is the third present.”
Universities as well as all other social spaces would do well to pay heed to such wisdom, not only to protect women from harassment but to also protect men from false accusations. We are reminded of a number of young men who have committed suicide due to false accusations of rape from upset female “friends”.
Of course, some people will stubbornly reject wisdom and intelligent practices from outside of what is popular in their current cultural milieu, let alone something from “foreign”, routinely demonised Islamic culture and practices. Such people should try and reflect on the simple fact of what brings benefit and repels harm, and reflect upon what would have happened had their ancestors been as stubborn when faced with beneficial aspects of other cultures (including Islamic) that have been incorporated into “British” culture today.
“And We have not sent you [O Muhammad] except as a mercy to the worlds.”
Be it something as ‘trivial’ as personal hygiene or as serious as the presumption of innocence or as world-changing as the scientific method; had Britain refused to incorporate “foreign” Islamic concepts and practices in the past, the present would have turned out very differently. Likewise, those concepts and practices of Islam that are yet to be appreciated and incorporated – such as the protection of society from vices that arise from laxity in male/female interaction – should also be considered in order to fashion a better future for all.
 Part of a hadith reported by Abdullāh b. ‘Abbās (may Allāh be pleased with him) and recorded in Sahīh al-Bukhāri and Sahīh Muslim.
 Narrated by Ahmad, Tirmidhi and Hakim.
 Al-Qur’ān 21:107