Jordan university sexual harassment sparks national conversation

Allegations against a university professor have led to a growing movement to tackle the issue.

Inappropriate messages, flirtatious comments, and physical sexual harassment – the allegations against a professor at the Jordan University of Science and Technology (JUST) began as a trickle, but quickly turned into a deluge, first online, and then on national media.

#TechnoHarrasser – as the case became known – went viral at the start of June and eventually led to the physics professor’s suspension from work, and a referral to Jordan’s prosecutor general’s office for further investigation.

The case has shocked Jordanians, both because of the number of students who decided to share their accounts of alleged sexual harassment by the professor, but also because it has led to a wider debate about the prevalence of sexual harassment in Jordanian society.

Seba Al-Taamari, a 21-year-old second-year student at JUST, has released multiple students’ accounts of alleged harassment from the professor on her Twitter account.

Al-Taamari told Al Jazeera that she had received accounts from former students going back as far as 2006, highlighting how long the alleged actions had been taking place.

JUST spokesperson Raed Tal said the university was unable to speak on the matter, due to an ongoing ‘active investigation’

The professor, according to the posts, would require female students to meet him privately in his office where he would often attempt to sexually harass them.

An anonymous student told Jordan’s Roya television the professor had “insisted” she come to his office and that she was “verbally harassed”, noting she had text messages as proof of the incident.

In a live conversation with Roya on June 5, another anonymous JUST student told how one day after a lecture, the professor touched a student who waiting to ask questions “in the most sensitive areas of her body”.

The accused professor also spoke to Roya, denying the allegations, saying he had been “subjected to a fierce campaign by the students”, that the videos and posts that had been shared were “fabricated” and that he had “never touched anyone”.

‘Breaking the silence’

The campaign is the first time Jordan has seen a movement against sexual harassment at this scale, said Salma Nims, the secretary-general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW).

It is “breaking the silence”, Nims told Al Jazeera.

Nims noted that past incidents that have led to discussions about harassment have either involved clear physical abuse or were “very anonymous” stories where you could “not pinpoint” who had been accused, unlike in the JUST case.

Since the hashtag went viral, students have shared testimonies of sexual harassment with a committee the university created to investigate the case, including testimonies of harassment committed by other faculty members.

A 22-year-old JUST student, who requested that her name be withheld, told Al Jazeera she had shared her case of physical sexual harassment with the committee. The student said a professor, during her first year at the university in February 2020, had “put his hand in a sensitive place”, but that she had not reacted at the time because she “was shocked and afraid at the same time”.

The student said she had been warned by her peers to not tell the university – a decision she changed her mind about after she saw the accused professor on television.

“I told myself, why do I have to keep silent?’ the student said. “If I didn’t speak up, I will regret it for the rest of my life.”

She added that JUST had supported her and that “many students” also recently come to the committee with stories of harassment.

“This [harassment] is not something rare in universities or in the streets, but this is the first time people are talking about it in Jordan, in this way – in a really strong way,” the student added.

In response to a request for comment from Al Jazeera, JUST spokesperson Raed Tal said the university was unable to speak on the matter, due to the ongoing “active investigation”.

Fear of speaking up

A 2017 JNCW study (PDF) on harassment in Jordan found that 68.7 percent of respondents had experienced physical sexual harassment and that nearly 90 percent had experienced nonverbal and verbal sexual harassment.

However, the “vast majority” of respondents had not submitted a formal complaint against the perpetrator and for those who did, “in most cases” the authorities had refused to follow through on the complaints due to a lack of evidence, according to the study.

“It is very difficult for women to go forward and speak up,” said Nims.

The term “sexual harassment” is not included in Jordan’s penal code, which leaves the process “complicated” and the legal definition of sexual harassment unclear in Jordan’s laws, she said.

Nims also noted that there are seldom efforts to educate students about harassment in Jordan’s universities, contributing to a lack of knowledge as to what actually constitutes sexual harassment.

Al-Taamari said all the students who sent her their accounts of harassment asked to remain anonymous. “They are scared of their families and of their professor and of university culture, everything…” she said.

The accused JUST professor has filed complaints to the police department about the allegations made against him. Al-Taamari said she is one of 13 students with defamation complaints against them for their social media posts targeting the professor.

The professor argued that some students may have been angry after failing exams, which led them to launch a campaign against him “in revenge”.

However, Nims said, “in a country like Jordan where mostly the victim is blamed for being harassed, it’s really rare for a student to do this for blackmail. Few students would expose themselves”.

The anonymous 22-year-old student noted her concerns over how society would view her if she decided to publicly talk about her case.

“Yes, many people will stand by me, but the majority will blame me,” the student said. “I hope it will be better for later generations.”