Controversy in Jordan over film on sexual harassment

Students at Jordan university outraged over the firing of a professor that approved a film on sexual harassment.

Students at UNRWA school in Jordan 370 (photo credit: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)
Students at UNRWA school in Jordan 370
(photo credit: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)
AMMAN - "When I walk in the streets of Amman, I begin to wonder if I’m naked because of the depraved gazes I get," says Rula Assaf, one of dozens of students at the University of Jordan campaigning for the reinstatement of a university professor dismissed for approving a film on sexual harassment.
The film, "This Is My Privacy," provoked debate in the conservative society due to its daring contents, and especially after the professor, Rula Quawas, who supervised the short documentary, was fired.
"It’s not only young students who harass girls. This problem is rampant across the kingdom and hushed by the conservative society. Even policemen harass girls as they pass by," Assaf tells The Media Line.
Produced by students at the university’s Faculty of Foreign Languages, the film dares to show the dark side of the kingdom's conservative society and sheds light on a daily plight that young girls face as they seek education.
In the two-and-a-half-minute film, girls are shown carrying placards that expose some of the provocative phrases they often hear from their male counterparts.
In one scene, a veiled girl holds a hand-written paper that reads: "Let’s go to my home, for $70."  Another says: "Can I take a ride, strawberry lips, good for kissing."
The video goes on to expose the most common phrases whispered in the ears of female students as they pass through the university’s corridors. It also shows young men sitting on benches, watching girls swaying their hips as they move between classes.
The film was part of a class project at the faculty and not intended for the public, said Quawas, who was unceremoniously fired after the clip was posted on YouTube in June. She challenged her dismissal and accused the university’s management of prejudice.
"I believe there is a strong connection between the film and my dismissal. I teach about freedom of education. The students wanted to make a film about harassment and I agreed," she told The Media Line, insisting her act was within the educational objectives of instilling critical thinking.
"I received a telephone call from the dean. He spoke to me in a very tough language and told me ‘You tarnished the image of the university,’ but I replied that I am a responsible person," she said.
"Why do we have to bury our heads in the sand? I don’t understand why they are offended by the language used in the film, instead of dealing with the problem in society," she said.
Some of Quawas’s male colleagues said she was seeking publicity and accused her of damaging the image of the kingdom's leading educational institution.
"Yes, we might have a sexual harassment issue, but that hardly means we should expose this problem to the world in such a provocative manner," one professor from the languages faculty told The Media Line. He asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Supporters of Quawas were angered by her dismissal, and moved to drum up support for their professor. But officials from the university deny her allegations and say she was laid off as part of a restructuring scheme.
Meanwhile, several female students at the university held a rally in the campus’ central square to protest against the film, saying it had tarnished the university’s image.
One of the protesters, who introduced herself as Rania Salti, said the demonstration was an expression of anger by girls over the manner in which the issue of harassment was exposed, insisting that the contents of the film were offensive.
"They have summed up the experience of this historic university in a film about harassment. This is not acceptable," she said as she held aloft a placard calling for the students behind the documentary to be suspended.
Yet sexual harassment is not just a campus phenomenon. Ghada, a 29-year-old bank employee, is one of the victims. She says she regularly hears taunting, vulgar language about her body, let alone the touching of her private parts.
"I would be walking in a crowded part of the market and suddenly someone grabs my breast or bottom. But when I confront the person, they play innocent," she says.
Ghada insists harassment has little to do with a woman’s beauty or what she wears.
"A pregnant friend of mine in her eighth month was harassed and a car pulled over, asking her to jump in," she adds.
Layla, a school teacher from Amman, says she has to watch where she stands in a bus due to the frequent groping by other passengers.
"It’s a nightmare to leave the house. I feel like a target every time I leave home, either through words whispered in my ears about my body or people pushing themselves against my bottom while standing in a bus," she tells The Media Line. "I think harassment has to do with the fact that men think they own women and can do what they want, but it’s a cowardly act. They are only frustrated and take it out on strangers," she said.
Quawas' removal from office was viewed by women’s rights activists as a slap in the face and a setback for efforts to free women from the shackles of male dominance.
"Sexual harassment is a regular practice in Jordan. In this male-dominated society, women have to endure this torture in silence - or pay the price," said Layla Khalaf, from the Jordanian Association for Women’s Rights.
"Sexual harassment is the looks, not only the words or touching. You could feel raped by the lustful gazes," Khalaf told The Media Line.
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