A note on academic hazing in Portugal

Hazing is abuse and bullying

Hazing is abuse and bullying! Praxe é abuso!

This morning I woke up to an opinion piece, by the writer Teolinda Gersão, in the Portuguese newspaper “Público”. This piece was about academic hazing among university students in Portugal. I have been living out of Portugal since 2000 but my network of friends and colleagues – plus what I get from the media – keep me more or less informed about how things work (or don’t work). Last year the whole country was taken aback  by the death of  6 university students while undergoing some sort of ritualistic hazing activities. The tragedy made the international news, including the New York Times, and has not been dealt with properly in the courts. But this post is not about that case. This post is about the “Open Letter” (Carta Aberta) that Ms Gersão wrote to the students – and especially to this year’s freshers – most of whom are now being abused on a daily basis in an attempt to try to “fit in” in their new academic environment. Ms Gersão’s piece can be seen hereIt is in Portuguese and, somehow, the link has been broken most of the day, so I am adding here the snapshot  – just in case it ‘disappears’ again.  I am also providing the text in English so that my students in the UK can learn about other university realities. 

Before I do that let me just make sure the non-Portuguese readers understand that the first year students – “freshers” (caloiros)  – who undergo hazing stop being called by their birth  names and start being addressed as “animals” or “beasts” by their senior colleagues, called Duxes (who were hazed when they were freshers). Most of the freshers accept this as the only way to move forward academically. And this is tragic.

Ms Gersão’s letter is probably upsetting many people who still think that hazing – like bullfights – is part of the Portuguese culture and therefore we should preserve the culture and blah blah blah, and so on and so forth…

She puts the responsibility of not being hazed on the freshers who should denounce the abuse but, in most cases, just accept it  without questioning it. The freshers need, indeed, to start  playing a much  more active role in denouncing the abusers and in protecting themselves. But anyone who knows a bit about bullying realises that it is extremely difficult to break the cycle of violence and abuse, especially when one is for the first time away from home and desperately trying to fit in a new and daunting environment. The Senior Management of the Universities need to stop talking about “the culture of the academic life” and all that nonsense of “preserving traditions”and do something about the hazing epidemic. Even if once upon a time systematic abuse was part of the academic tradition, progress and advancement of knowledge has shown that hazing damages people – physically and psychologically – and, under some very horrid circumstances, even kills.

So, without further ado, here it is in Portuguese and in English!

Capture1 Capture2 Capture3

 English translation (not a perfect translation but I think it makes the point)

Dear Freshers: You certainly know that in the Coimbra hazing tradition, mother of all hazing, the freshers are traditionally “the animal”. I think you know as well, according to Law No. 69/2014, of 29 August that, in our country, animals began to be protected from maltreatment, which includes any kind of physical coercion: pain, suffering, deprivation of food, abandonment, mutilation or death. The heaviest penalty can go up to two years’ imprisonment.

Referring to people, legally protected by universally accepted human rights, the concept of abuse also includes, obviously, any coercion or psychological violence.

This leads me to wonder: What would you do if a teacher sent you crawling on the floor? Certainly  you would not obey, and the teacher would have problems, and a well deserved law suit.

However, as we saw on TV, hazing may mean crawling on the floor and much more than that. Thousands of viewers watched, as I did, footage recorded at the courtyard of the University of Coimbra, in which a large group of freshmen, surrounded by an equally large group of non-freshmen, was ordered to kneel on the floor, leaning forward and drop their trousers. I will abstain myself to describe the scene of humiliation and sadism that happened next, and  that was recorded in the images. However, for many of you, apparently nothing is too violent or excessive. The practice (praxe) is considered untouchable, above the teachers, deans, universities, institutions and even the law, which provides citizens with rights, freedoms and guarantees, preventing any kind of violence and humiliation. Strangely, to you,  hazing seems to have an undeniable power – although it has no legal validity, and does not even follow rational principles. For starters, the Duxes are the ones who are registered as University students the longest, they are the ones who have more enrolment registrations. You just have to have money to pay tuition (although I leave the question of whether, in some cases, fees are actually paid, or by whom). Since there are numerus clausus this also leaves open the question if these Duxes take the places that could have been occupied by other students, with more ability to graduate.  Another basic question pops into my mind: Is it possible that there is no limit of registrations at university? Are there limitless chances to register, when university attendance, like everything else, depends on the taxes we pay? At least until last year, there was a dux who had been registered at the University for 24 years, a gloriously heroic feat that kept him in office. And I also ask what happens with all the other duxes because the public purse, is of course, a public issue.

But what most upsets me is that, in practice, you have come to be much less protected than animals, in the proper sense. And the responsibility, ultimately, is yours, because you consent and keep silent, rejecting or ignoring the law of the country in which you live.

In situations of danger or disaster and if hazing ends up in tragedy, do not be surprised if the institutions do not work and if universities, deans, teachers, police and courts defend you badly since you are the first to not want to be defended. You think that no one has to know and should not interfere with hazing; you swear that hazing is irrelevant banter (which is only sometimes true, but it is far from being always only that), you emphasise that you are adults, as if this allows you to escape the law that applies to everyone.

That being your position, public opinion can do little more than leave you alone. However, I leave here a warning: in case anything goes wrong, it will be said that you you shouldn’t have been there, but that you were there of your own volition.

But it hurts me to think that you allow yourselves to be discarded this way. If you want to be “animals”, with or without quotation marks, then be. Good luck. Any dog or cat is much more protected than you.

 The writer




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