By Douglas Anele
As I stated last week, Ovie Omo-Agege and his colleagues in the Senate currently debating the so-called sexual harassment bill do not have the moral authority to do so. To begin with, most Nigerian politicians, including senators, are extremely selfish and hypocritical moral Lilliputians who habitually play to the gallery instead of focusing on good legislation and oversight functions that can contribute to national development. Second, collectively the federal lawmakers are victims of taboo morality derived from religion which, as we have seen, constitutes a formidable impediment towards the cultivation of healthy rational attitude towards sex. Therefore, any bill from them on the subject will be infected ab initio by the irrational fears and superstitious prohibitions contained in religious scriptures packaged as divine revelation. Finally, there are provisions in existing laws that adequately deal with sexual harassment, and virtually all tertiary institutions in Nigeria have anti-sexual harassment policies that address the issue even before the recent misnamed sex-for-grades scandal. In this connection, given the media spotlight on sexual misconduct triggered by the BBC documentary, even the few that lack explicitly formulated regulations on it are now doing something in that direction, which for most people is a positive development. So, the bill before the Senate is an unnecessary duplication.
Now, if care is not taken, authorities of tertiary institutions, particularly faith-based universities, would take things to outlandish level by prescribing absurd regulations on amative relationships in their campuses. I have already alluded to one or two problems associated with the policy of dress code and its enforcement, but it is important to draw attention to some points usually neglected concerning it. Based on my interactions with students from faith-based universities, rigid application of conservative dress codes tend to engender in students and lecturers a toxic blend of hypocrisy and boring blind conformity to rules that lead to cognitive dissonance, lack of creativity and spontaneity, which are inimical to effective teaching and learning in the long run. As a corollary, because Nigeria is a religion-intoxicated society, no university would have the courage to discourage Muslim female students from wearing complete hijab, especially the black one that covers everything from head to toe, especially during hot afternoons when it is advisable to allow air circulate around the body. Although Muslim bigots will vehemently disagree, wearing hijab is bad for the following reasons. One, Nigeria falls within the tropics characterised by hot weather; therefore, any item of clothing like the hijab that covers the entire body should be avoided. Two, it is cumbersome: I have seen students dressed in hijab struggling to adjust it during lectures either because the cloth was interfering with their note-taking or because they were sweating profusely and needed some fresh air. Finally, hijab makes most women wearing it appear dowdy and aesthetically unappealing; it is emblematic of the subjugation of women in ancient Arabian peninsula, and tends to present them as objects of sexual temptation for men that must be covered up to preserve chastity or sexual purity. Unfortunately, due to dogmatic adherence to antiquated religious teachings, even those with highfalutin academic titles are blind to the obvious disadvantages of wearing hijab, particularly given our climatic conditions. Also keep in mind that if the so-called indecent dressing by some female students is a major cause of sexual misconduct, why does the ugly phenomenon rear its ugly head in seminaries, convents, and madrasas where ultra-conservative dressing is the norm?
The policies adopted by tertiary institutions on sexual harassment and romantic relationships tend to contain ambiguous and vague provisions that can generate confusion and conflicting interpretations. For example, several universities include “unwelcome touching” and “sexually suggestive comments or jokes” which may occur in a single incident or repeatedly over a period of time as instances of sexual harassment. In puritanical faith-based universities, winking at a female student or staff and bodily contact by a male lecturer with her no matter how fleeting is deemed to be sexual harassment as well. Yet, a little reflection would reveal the potential for deniability, mischief, and misunderstanding embedded in that categorisation. The question arises: who determines what a sexually suggestive comment or joke is? If a lecturer touches a female colleague or student gently on the side and says, “Hello, I admire your sexy curves,” would that qualify as sexual harassment? What about the policy that requires a lecturer to write to the Vice-Chancellor or any officer he or she may designate for exemption if he is married to a female student, or is already in a serious or committed romantic relationship with one before the policy came into effect, or intends to start and continue that kind of relationship with a student after the policy had come into force? Superficially, the regulation appears reasonable since it acknowledges the legitimacy of consensual amative relationships amongst staff and students, as the case may be. It is also intended to cover situations in which there may be in-balance of power relations vis-a-vis a staff and student that might occasion conflict of interest between the parties and their obligations to the university. Nevertheless, there are genuine concerns about this requirement also. Take for instance a Professor in his fifties or sixties who is in a mutually fulfilling romantic relationship with a student in his class, or intends to enter into such relationship with the possibility of marriage. It is a clear demonstration of ignorance about the unpredictability of human eros to think that love can be regimented or straitjacketed simply because of sexual misconduct by few individuals. Furthermore, it is somewhat disrespectful and awkward to insist that a man of that age at the peak of his academic career must write to another adult for exemption, as if he were a teenager seeking permission from his parents to go on his first date. And who says a Vice-Chancellor or whomsoever he might delegate to process the letter is immune from eroticism? – after all there are no angels anywhere. Let us tell ourselves the plain truth: universities are not seminaries, convents or madrasas where prospective priests, nuns and imams are expected to live a highly regimented life. Moreover, there is no evidence that writing for permission before entering into a consensual romantic relationship can help reduce the incidence of sexual harassment in universities. Even so, the related idea of a lecturer recusing himself from grading the answer script of a female student he is romantically involved with is unnecessary and pretentious. It presumes that such a lecturer cannot grade the paper objectively, a presumption which has been refuted severally by instances of wives and girlfriends who failed or performed poorly in courses taught by their husbands and lovers respectively. From another angle, supposing that the other lecturer chosen to grade the script was rejected by the female student in the past, or has been waiting for an opportunity to approach the girl for a relationship, what then? Again, assuming that the second lecturer was mentored by the senior colleague who recused himself, as his teacher and supervisor at the undergraduate and post-graduate levels, chances are that the junior lecturer who probably knew that the script belongs to the wife or girlfriend of his teacher and mentor would be generous in grading the script. In other words, asking a lecturer not to mark the answer script of his wife or girlfriend does not guarantee objectivity.
Sometimes I wonder why Kiki Mordi did not disclose the name of the university she claimed to have dropped out from because of sexual harassment, or why she did not begin her sting operation from there. If the university in question was not the University of Lagos or University of Ghana, what informed her decision to target just these two universities? Moreover, she would have had a stronger case if she had targeted the lecturer that allegedly harassed her, instead of using crooked means to entrap Dr. Igbeneghu and others. Or does she have something to hide? If her intention for putting together the documentary is genuine, she will not experience guilt feelings associated with deceit and treacherous conduct. But if it was primarily motivated by selfish considerations, such as the craving for higher rating and awards, she should be prepared for the consequences of the cosmic law of sowing and reaping.
An effective means for dealing with sexual misconduct of all kinds in the long run, aside from punishing severely predators that regularly harass female students sexually over long periods, is to jettison antiquated taboo morality and begin as early as practicable to teach children what is known scientifically about human sexuality. Young adults must be taught to see sex as a natural phenomenon which transcends mere copulation and requires emotional bonding to be enriching and fulfilling. Mystification of the human genitals must be replaced with the more sensible idea that erotogenous parts of the human body have their own functions just like the eyes, ears nose and so on. As part of rational sex education based on scientific knowledge, the silly idea that all sex outside marriage is a sin must be jettisoned completely. Instead, emphasis should be placed on the conviction that sex without its emotional corollaries like care, respect, companionship and mutual tenderness is unworthy of mature human beings. Overall, there must be a paradigm-shift in the way children and teenagers learn about sexuality. Depending on their ages, of course, information about sex must be presented to them prosaically without mystification or creating the impression that sex is dirty, a subject that decent people usually avoid discussing openly. Continuous enlightenment programmes on issues connected with sex must be a recurrent feature of life in the universities for both staff and students. The University of Lagos occupies a unique position among other tertiary institutions in this regard, given that it has unrivalled capacity to broadcast such programmes continuously through Unilag Radio and Unilag Television.
Obviously, Prof. Oluwatoyin Ogundipe, the amiable Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos, and other well-meaning members of the university community were disappointed by the BBC sex-for-grades documentary featuring two academic staff of the institution, considering that he and his team have been working so hard to reposition the university as a top brand and foremost citadel of learning in Africa. I still remember vividly the pain in his countenance and voice as he was interviewed by the veteran reporter, Adesua Onyenukwe, about the documentary. He should not worry too much for too long because our great university, the university of first choice and the nation’s pride, has what it takes to emerge from the negative publicity much better and reenergised to meet the challenges of an increasingly uncertain world. In my opinion, there is no need for any university to overreact by instituting hasty regulations which, to be candid, might not withstand ratiocinative scrutiny. Implementing policies against sexual harassment requires an experimental mind-set, with feedback mechanisms to ascertain the effectiveness or weaknesses in the strategy deployed. There is also the need to work with open-minded experts in the relevant fields, particularly sexology, psychology, philosophy and counselling, whose beliefs and attitudes towards human sexuality have not been seriously disfigured by religious superstition, rather than rely solely on menopausal senior academics whose opinions on the issue are shaped by rigid adherence to revealed scriptures. This is easier said than done, no doubt, but at least it brings the complexities of dealing with sexual misconduct into bold relief. Lecturers who use their academic positions to harass female students for sex should remember that sex is not food, and that demanding sex for academic favour is foolish, demeaning and shows lack of respect for oneself and the student in question. It is prudent to avoid having an affair with a student. But if a lecturer decides to do so and the girl rejects his advances, he should see it as a blessing in disguise because that rejection might have saved him from serious trouble. The major thing is to cultivate self-control and capacity for regular critical self-examination, which requires discipline, determination, and self-belief, so that one can channel one’s energies to productive work rather than towards useless preoccupation with sex. Regarding consensual romantic relationship, it should be based on mutual respect, emotional connectedness, responsible companionship, and care in order to be rewarding, and needs time and perseverance to bear good fruits. So, as a lecturer if you are not ready to put in the time and effort, concentrate on your work. Do not transfer your frustrations and lack of amative fulfilment to others. Having said that, to outlaw or proscribe romantic relationship between lecturers and students is unrealistic and unenforceable because, by and large, human beings are inescapably sexual beings irrespective of who they are and where they might be at any point in time. But in acting on our sexuality, we must exhibit class, dignity, reasonableness, respect for the other person, tenderness, and considerateness. Concluded.