This article has been possible thanks to the deposition of two of the victims of the harassment case herewith disclosed, as well as the contributions of a professor who provided them his support and a classmate of theirs who explained to us this case through his experience.
The two female students who wished to share their experience explain to the DF that in the academic year 2012-2013 they were starting a Masters’ degree at the University of Barcelona. In this Masters’ course, according to them, from the first presentation session they noticed there was a kind of tension in the room. The teaching staff was introduced in said session. The girls said that, “something strange was happening there, we saw peculiar relationships between the faculty team, one of the professors accompanied by a boy who did not take his eye off us during the whole session. We left the hall with a very bittersweet feeling”.
The days passed by and the student’s attitude towards them became more and more intimidating. “He would look at us intensely the whole afternoon, fortuitously appear in the toilets area, in the library, even on the subway, in class he would place a large knife on the desk while he clearly drew naked girls”. The first reaction of the three girls who were harassed was to keep silent and feeling guilty about what was going on: “We started to think that our analysis regarding this issue was wrongly tackled, that it was something to do with us, or that we were imagining things, yet we felt that we were becoming more and more frightened”.
One of the girls said that “the thrill with which I started the Masters’ course seemed to vanish, while my nervousness was increasingly growing, as did my discomfort. I remember October 31st 2012, because I felt very bad, even the teacher saw me and convinced me that I had to go home, they had to pick me up at the University, I could not stand-up, I could not catch the metro, I felt hopeless. We had been sharing the class with him for a month, but I couldn’t take it anymore.
A Professor said in class that if a student was bullied or harassed, she could ask for support from a teacher member of the Faculty’s equality commission that had always supported the victims. The victims went to said professor and then to that particular teacher, thus obtaining valuable assistance and comfort. The victims started talking to each other. That brought them together and empowered them, and as they mentioned, this was something that without that solidarity, would have been impossible.
Meetings began then with the head of the Faculty’s equality committee who, as one of them says, “always asked us to say nothing, to keep quiet, to remain silent, both her and the Masters’ coordinator told us that we were too nervous and that didn’t help us, that the whole thing was not a big deal and that if we relaxed we would see that there was no danger. How odd it was altogether when she told us that when the head of the equality commission had to meet with the harasser, she was accompanied in the office by another teacher while outside the room security guards were standing. What a cheek! Meantime they made us think that we were exaggerating!”
The large Masters’ faculty (except for three teachers) and the student body (with the exception of a colleague we talked to) did not support the victims; on the contrary, they supported the harasser. According to our classmate, “he chased female students through the corridors, made obscene drawings in class and used an aggressive tone of voice as he spoke. He noticed the group felt unease with him; I even thought that they did nothing because they were scared, they were not active at all, although there were people who from the beginning justified his behaviour with arguments such as the need to integrate this person”.
All this happened while the teachers carried on with their classes as usual, pretending nothing happened, as our classmate states: “Everything changed for me when some of the teachers waited for us to leave the classroom to justify their attitude, then I realised that it was neither fear nor pity. Unfortunately, it became clear to me when a campaign of academic and psychological sabotage was launched against the colleagues who denounced the facts, under the support of the group. They did so because they denounced the facts and yes, also because they were women themselves. At that particular moment I was very close to them, we were together as much as we possibly could, we went together across the faculty and they did absolutely nothing to me. (…) But it is true that on a particular occasion a female teacher urged me to sabotage a class of one of them”.
Attacks by the rest of the class against the girls, and by the teachers, were added to the attacks to the teachers who had stood in solidarity with the harassed girls. As one of the teachers, who supported them, states: “The person responsible for the Masters’ course, rather than congratulating me for my support to the victims, said that I had been unfair to the Faculty. The Dean increased her aggressiveness against me, even more than she was addressing to me from the very moment I officially complained against the Professor in our University, whom she protected and went on protecting him while he carried on attacking their victims”.
According to the girls, the whole process of denouncing that unbearable situation was accompanied by a great variety of inconsistencies: “It was absolutely unbelievable, as we had teachers who talked about feminism and social movements in their classes, they pretended to be progressive thinking people who stood close to the student-body, just like the equality commission or even the dean of the faculty who did nothing to help us. They were well known so-called progressive thinkers in Barcelona and in the University, and what in fact happened was that they treated us badly as they did with those who gave us their support. That was how they showed their real face of what they did for years and years to avoid facing cases of violence”.
In spite of the reprisals, the two girls, with the collaboration of those people that supported them, started a fight to get the University to protect them from harassment. This is how they began to organise and meet with the Solidary Network of Victims of Gender Violence in University. This collective solidarity was crucial for them to denounce the case internally through the University. In the end, the case was favourably resolved, with the expulsion of the student from the Masters’ program and the prohibition to ever be back to the faculty.
There were horrendous months for them, not only because what they got from the student, but also because the reactions in the environment. At the same time, they found themselves in the middle of a lot of misunderstandings, where hypocrisy was clear regarding the case: “When we had to enter the Masters’ class, we had a meeting with the coordinator, as well as an interview, all participants did the same. A few months later we got to know that this student had already harassed a student during his bachelors’ and he had been taken to court for it, everybody in the University was aware of it. That was the icing of the cake, we were interviewed and everything… and he, even knowing that he was a declared harasser, was allowed to enrol, risking our lives and our professional careers. What a shameful and awful situation!”
After much struggle and support from outside the university, the victims managed to win the case thanks in part to a law professor who issued a very clear report. However, the victims consider a scandal that the only teacher on the equality commission who had supported them was excluded from the commission, whereas those who did not, stayed in. Sources from Spanish Universities which DF has managed to contact tell us that this is a frequent practice: to exclude professors from equality commissions who support the victims of harassers linked to powerful groups.
The message of the girls today is encouraging, as they not only managed to overcome the case of harassment and the barriers that the institution and a large part of the environment placed on them, but they also wanted to organise themselves to show solidarity with every victim of harassment in the University giving them comfort. Victims say that it was the first case of sexual harassment won in our University, where fortunately other harassment cases have been recently won. As one of them states, “the key lies in creating support and solidarity networks. Whatever the institution (University) does not do for us, we must do it ourselves. Always thinking of the most vulnerable girls, those who join the first grade now and who are lost in such a huge area in the UB. We have to be there, denouncing these situations and supporting them so that no girl suffers harassment and no one in the whole University suffers reprisals for positioning themselves and showing solidarity with the victims of harassment.