An investigation is underway to uncover the incidents of sexual harassment faced by female students at Tishreen University, perpetrated by teaching staff in exchange for favorable grades. This inquiry also scrutinizes administrative corruption by interviewing female students who have been victims of sexual harassment within the university, particularly in the teachers’ offices.
She left his office in tears without closing the door behind her. His voice soon pierced through again, “Please close the door and take some time to think about it.” She was completely disoriented. It was the first time she had been subjected to sexual harassment in public, and this time it occurred at Tishreen University, with the teacher in question being the alleged perpetrator.
Prior to visiting his office, Rawaa Alias had failed the course for the second time, despite knowing that she deserved to pass. Rawaa had submitted a formal request for a reevaluation of her exam. This request involved a review of the course grades within a specific time frame following the release of the results.
According to the administration of Tishreen University, “There is no legal provision allowing the college to reevaluate an examination paper. Instead, they can only review the grading, ensuring that the examiner adheres to the grading criteria.”
With no alternative, she was left with two options: either to file a complaint with the university after the request for reevaluation yielded no change in her results or to seek an alternative means to pass the course, just like her male and female peers.
During her initial visit, Rawaa made her way to his office in hopes of finding a solution to her problem. She found herself in a room with three tables, resembling the standard office setup in government institutions, featuring light wooden furniture. She couldn’t voice her concerns immediately as he was occupied with other individuals, but she managed to secure an appointment for the following Thursday, which was in three days’ time.
Bribery Through Sexual Exploitation at Tishreen University
Sexual blackmail has emerged as a disturbing form of bribery within Syrian universities, with media outlets reporting numerous cases where female students have become victims of teachers seeking illicit favors in exchange for academic success. One such incident unfolded at Tishreen University, which boasts an extensive student body of approximately 80,000, according to information available on the university’s website.
While many female students chose to endure this injustice in silence, one brave individual, Rawaa, shared her harrowing experience with Syria Indicator under a pseudonym, expressing a desire to amplify the voices of female students who have faced similar challenges.
As Rawa’a prepared for her scheduled second visit to his office, she pondered the potential responses and questions that might arise during the meeting. She was well aware that the subject teacher might not entertain the idea of reevaluating her exam, but if he chose to assist her, it would secure her success in the upcoming exam session.
“I am aware that the process of reevaluating exams is often influenced by the teacher’s mood, and some instructors deliberately assign failing grades to students with the intention of later exploiting them through various means,” explains Rawaa.
The success rate for an Arabic literature course in the Faculty of Arts at Tishreen University plummeted to less than 2 percent, while no student managed to succeed in a course offered by the Faculty of Science. Disturbingly, similar incidents have been reported at the University of Damascus, Euphrates University, and the Veterinary Institute in Hama, as outlined by the National Union of Syrian Students, a student organization affiliated with the Baath Party.
The investigation delved into firsthand accounts from female students at Tishreen University who shared personal experiences related to administrative and teaching staff corruption. It also considered information disseminated by media outlets aligned with the Syrian government regarding widespread academic failures at Tishreen University. The testimonies were further complemented by statements from officials in the Student Union and content from various oppositional social media platforms.
Blackmail in Administrative Offices
At the scheduled time, Rawaa entered the office, noticing a subtle change in the room and its colors. It seemed as though the closed blue curtains were casting a different hue on the wooden furniture, according to Rawaa’s account.
The doctor’s warm reception and his humble demeanor as he sat across from her put Rawaa at ease, enabling her to discuss her problem. The initial inquiries revolved around her name and school year, followed by questions about her family and their political and financial status.
Rawaa anticipated the doctor’s inquiry about her region, particularly her town, which had seen protests against the government. This factor, she believed, would influence the doctor’s evaluation, given his known partisan support. Similarly, she expected questions about her family’s financial situation, given the prevalent discussions among students after exams regarding results, professorial injustices, and various bribery methods, whether through intermediaries or directly to teachers.
“The Faculty of Arts at Tishreen University mirrors Syria itself,” Rawaa asserts. “Corruption permeates every facet. Students, desperate for academic leniency, find themselves compelled to pay bribes for passing grades. Some female students resort to bribes for graduation.”
She adds, “I had prepared myself for the interview, ready to offer $100 or $200, but the reality was different. The demand was for a different kind of compensation, discreetly suggesting that the course professor sought sexual favors to resolve the issue and guarantee success.”
The subject teacher proposed a third meeting at a different location, but Rawaa declined, unwilling to risk her university reputation by meeting the teacher publicly. She felt it would be embarrassing in front of other students. The doctor, however, insisted on a private setting, suggesting they agree on the grade in exchange for their presence at a mutually decided location. If she accepted, he assured her favoritism and assistance in passing grades from other teachers.
Despite ignoring the offer, Rawaa remains in shock from the incident of sexual blackmail. She is now apprehensive about retaking the exam for fear of a recurrence or being haunted by the memories of what transpired.
Lina, a student in the Faculty of Arts at Tishreen University, shared with Syria Indicator that certain professors exploit the financial struggles of students, preying on their vulnerabilities. These individuals take advantage of societal gender norms and the prevailing fear of honor-related issues. Notably, the majority of female students subjected to harassment or blackmail hail from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and their reluctance to speak out stems from societal judgment and a desire to safeguard their educational future.
Conversely, teachers tend to avoid exposing themselves to scrutiny from female students who are daughters of officials or have ties to government or security personnel. Instead, they seek to establish connections with state officials, emphasizing the selective nature of their interactions.
The prevalence of stories involving harassment, sexual blackmail, and the purchase of academic success from university professors prompted the National Union of Syrian Students in 2013 to address the university president. Through the union’s official website, they submitted a letter titled “Concerns of the President of Tishreen University,” urging an end to the corruption and the “assault on the dignity of female students.”
In August 2021, a video scandal surfaced involving a doctor at Tishreen University. The video depicted him in a compromising situation, engaging in inappropriate behavior and uttering obscene language to a student. This disturbing incident was tied to the doctor’s promise to assist the student in passing his course at the university.
Sextortion: Exploiting Vulnerability, a Crime Unleashed
The International Association of Judges (IAWJ) categorizes sextortion as the misuse of authority to gain a sexual benefit or advantage. In essence, it represents a form of corruption wherein the currency of the bribe is not money, but rather sexual favors. This egregious act is not confined to specific countries or sectors; rather, it can manifest wherever individuals in positions of power lack integrity and seek to sexually exploit those who are vulnerable and dependent on their authority.
Resolving Problems with a Day in the Chalet: A Troubling Tale
Since enrolling in the Department of History at Tishreen University in 2016, Basma (a pseudonym) has had encounters with a fellow student, “Ru’a,” (also a pseudonym). Ru’a happens to be the daughter of a prominent intelligence officer in Latakia, Syria. Basma’s familiarity with Ru’a played a significant role in expediting her administrative procedures throughout her academic journey. However, Basma describes this as a “double-edged sword” for a student from the working class in the country.
Basma shared with Syria Indicator, “I personally met the head of the department during one of the partisan educational lectures at the university with my colleague, Ru’a.” Following this encounter, Basma and her friend exchanged contact numbers with the doctor, who concluded the lecture by stating, “If you need anything, my office is always open.”
During the second-year exams, Basma was caught with a cheat sheet, prompting the exam supervisor to initiate cheating allegations against her. Such accusations could result in a penalty of being barred from taking exams for two sessions. According to the Ministry of Higher Education’s Directorate of Student Affairs, the penalty for cheating ranges from a zero grade to expulsion from the university.
The day after the exam, Basma visited the office of the department head, hoping to leverage the promised assistance to reduce the punishment to zero. However, the meeting took an unexpected turn. Basma describes the encounter as a “partisan lecture,” with the doctor providing no help and leaving her in despair.
Several days later, Basma received a call from the doctor, requesting her presence in his office on the day of the “History of the Arabian Peninsula” exam. Anticipating a discussion about the alleged fraud, she arrived at the office as scheduled, only to face severe accusations that could lead to the cancellation of exams for the semester and a ban from future sessions.
In a state of shock, Basma recounts the department head’s shocking proposal: to “spend a day together in one of the chalets overlooking the sea” as the solution to all her problems. This proposition left Basma torn between the potential end of her university life, the burden of revealing the situation to her family, and the doctor exploiting her vulnerable state. Seeking advice, she confided in her colleague Ru’a, hoping to uncover any details about a potential sexual blackmail offer. Ru’a, however, praised the doctor’s moral character and vouched for his professionalism.
In the face of this dilemma, Basma made the difficult decision to disclose the incident to her family and pursue her studies at the University of Aleppo. With the help of her colleague Ru’a, she successfully initiated the transfer process.
Sexual Blackmail and Societal Inheritance
The pervasive issue of gender-based violence in Syria unfolds along two interconnected pathways, as revealed by a study conducted by the Global Protection Cluster. The first trajectory involves systematic violence, employed by conflicting parties and de facto authorities within their respective spheres of influence. This method aims to intimidate, humiliate, and punish adversaries. The second route, however, is automatic and accrues over time due to the enduring crisis and the ingrained customs, structures, and legacies upon which Syrian society is built. These elements work collectively to normalize such violence.
The extended duration of the crisis and the deeply rooted societal norms contribute to a reluctance in reporting cases of violence or sexual harassment. Local communities adhere to traditions that discourage the reporting of such violations, fostering a culture of concealment. This reticence stems from the fear of offending the collective conscience of the community, thereby explaining the underreported nature of such incidents.
Sexual Gender-Based Violence
Sexual gender-based violence encompasses any sexual act or attempt to obtain such an act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, coercion, or any form of action directed towards a person’s sexuality. This can occur irrespective of the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, and in any location, including but not limited to home and workplace. Examples of such violence include rape, molestation, marital rape, assault or exploitation, sexual abuse of children, incest, forced but seemingly “willing” prostitution, child prostitution, and sex trafficking (UNICEF, 2003).
Relocating to Other Universities as a Solution
Opting for a move to a different governorate entails additional challenges in terms of transportation, housing, and daily living. However, female students have found themselves compelled to choose this alternative as a means to escape the sexual blackmail prevalent in educational institutions. Whether originating from teachers, administrative staff, or even security personnel, these students, sharing their experiences with Syria Indicator, highlight the difficulty of altering their circumstances. They are left with the choice of enduring the harassment until the completion of their studies and graduation.
The reluctance to file an official complaint with the authorities stems from the fear of potential repercussions from teachers and the accompanying social stigma. This fear is a significant barrier, deterring female students from seeking official intervention while navigating their university education alongside male and female peers.
A Pervasive Phenomenon
While moving to another university might be perceived as a solution for female students, it does not shield them from the looming threat of sexual blackmail. This is particularly evident in the proliferation of sex scandals exposed on social media, implicating university professors and shedding light on the pervasive corruption within all Syrian universities.
Opposition media websites have reported instances of corrupt practices within the corridors of Syrian universities, ranging from administrative errors victimizing students to cases of corruption, bribery, and sexual blackmail influencing academic outcomes.
As of 2024, Tishreen University holds the global ranking of 7596 among universities worldwide and is the second-ranked university in Syria, trailing behind the University of Damascus, which holds the 7454th position globally. Notably, Tishreen University’s ranking dropped by 51 places from the previous year when it held the 7645th position globally in 2023, according to the “Scientific Index.”
Syria Indicator made attempts to reach out to the presidency of Tishreen University via the official email listed on the university’s website, seeking information about the prevalence of complaints against teachers, their percentage, and the measures implemented by the university. However, no response was received as of the time of publishing this investigation.
No One Was Spared
Since the onset of the Syrian war in 2011, the incidence of violence, exploitation, and sexual harassment has notably increased, particularly affecting women and girls. The report titled “I Lost My Dignity” by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, released on March 28, 2018, reveals that the repercussions of the conflict extend beyond the physical devastation of cities and the harsh living conditions experienced by Syrians within the country.
The report highlights that the impact encompasses “sexual violence, including abuse, genital torture, and rape.” According to a report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the warring parties and controlling forces in Syria have been implicated in a minimum of 11,526 incidents of sexual violence targeting females, including girls under the age of 18, from March 2011 to November 25, 2022.
Syria Indicator delved into the penalties imposed on teachers for harassing female students. Majesty News website documented a case where a faculty member at the University of Damascus was suspended from work for three months, with the possibility of renewal, due to his harassment of a female student.
Another disturbing incident unfolded at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Damascus involving the teacher of the “National Culture” subject, Dr. Ali Barakat. Despite facing a sexual scandal, he returned to teach at the University of Damascus several months later, as per a ministerial decision reported by media outlets. A similar sequence of events occurred with the head of the History Department at Tishreen University, the focus of this investigation, who was promoted to serve as the Vice Dean of the College of Arts in 2021.
Investigation: Ahmed Murad – Supervision: Ali Eid
Translated by: Nabil Nabo