On July 14, Maha Hasan Alshawi, a graduate student at Dartmouth College, stopped eating.
The computer science student said she began a hunger strike after months of frustration over the way the Ivy League school handled allegations that her supervisor, Alberto Quattrini Li, sexually harassed her on two occasions and entered her private office without permission. She alleged in a letter to the university that the department’s chair retaliated against her when she spoke out, failing her on an exam and giving her a “low pass” as a teaching assistant.
“As I said before when I complained to the Guarini School about this, they told me that there aren’t enough proofs about the harassment and there should be consistency in the harassment (They told me, there should be more harassment reports from me and from different people against the same person to take action against him), and they closed the case,” the first-year PhD student wrote on June 9.
In a June 12 letter to the Graduate Student Council, computer science faculty, and members of the administration, Alshawi stated she went to the school’s Title IX office with her allegations. But instead of helping her, Alshawi said the Title IX office “refused” to take action since “no other complaints had been filed against [Quattrini Li].”
A month later, Alshawi stopped eating, urging Dartmouth to open up an external investigation into how her allegations were handled.
“I started this hunger strike to stop this injustice and because I want to be treated equally,” she wrote in a Facebook post announcing her decision, noting that she went to the emergency room prior to her strike and reported she was “a 100% healthy person mentally and physically.” “This hunger strike will cause a permanent disorder to my health especially to my internal organs and my brain cells, and I will have to live with these disorders through my whole life if I didn’t die. The responsibility of these permanent disorders and probably my death lie on the Title IX office coordinators and Dartmouth administration because they can stop this injustice but they decided not to.”
Over the last 22 days, Alshawi’s hunger strike has prompted a social media campaign, and her supporters have taken to the campus’ mostly empty streets in protest. This week, the graduate student upped the stakes, announcing to her supporters she is no longer drinking water, stating: “I don’t know how long people can live without drinking water after hunger striking for 3 weeks, but we will all find this out soon.”
Amid growing pressure from supporters and Alshawi’s rapidly deteriorating health, the school caved on Tuesday—abandoning its protocols to agree to an external investigation they once deemed “unnecessary.”
In a Tuesday statement, Dartmouth wrote that “in the interest of [Alshawi’s] safety and in keeping our commitment to Ms. Alshawi,” an external investigation would be opened “in addition to the extensive assessment and multiple reviews Dartmouth has previously undertaken.” On July 27, the New Hampshire school offered to open an external investigation into Alshawi’s allegations—a request the graduate student declined because of its mandate to end her strike and seek medical attention.
The decision to open an external investigation comes after Alshawi has spent months fighting for justice. According to the Boston Globe, the first-year PhD student in computer science alleged that in the winter, Quattrini Li “overtly touched his genitals in my presence on several occasions.”
When she told her professor that she planned to report his harassment, she alleged computer science department chair Prasad Jayanti retaliated—undermining her work in front of undergraduates, failing her on at least one exam, and giving her a “low pass” for her work as a teaching assistant. She said that after a preliminary review, the university declined to investigate further.
“When I reported this to the school, they told me that this is not against Dartmouth policy! Yeah they told me this! I have their email! And they told me that they took the decision and the decision is final and they are not gonna discuss it with me anymore,” she wrote in a June 9 Facebook post about Jayanti’s alleged retaliation. “They didn’t even give me any explanations to how this is not against Dartmouth Policies and not abuse of power. They just decided on their own without even giving me a chance to defend myself.”
In a July 16 statement, Dartmouth said it had followed procedure in regards to the graduate student’s complaint. Four days later, in response to the attention around Alshawi’s Facebook posts about her health, the Ivy league changed course, stating it would take “the extraordinary measure of engaging an external investigator to conduct another review of her allegations.”
Professor Jayanti did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment. Quattrini Li, who thanked The Daily Beast for providing “the opportunity to comment on this story,” referred questions to Dartmouth’s office of communications.
While the campaign forced Dartmouth’s hand on Tuesday, it also exposed the distrust between students and the administration, prompting dozens to protest against the school. Among her supporters is a student-run Instagram and Twitter account titled “Justice for Maha Hasan” that has garnered more than 1,700 followers, and an online petition demanding that the school open an investigation. To date, that petition has garnered over 22,000 signatures.
Sirajum Sandhi, a rising senior majoring in gender and sexuality who also served on the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault, told The Daily Beast that this campaign shows how “Dartmouth as an institution has failed Maha and other survivors” and that “Title IX is sometimes inadequate.”
“This points to the fact that students don’t feel like a stakeholder at Dartmouth and this extreme form of protest goes to show how students and community members don’t trust the school as a institution and their handling of these instances of sexual harassment and gender-based violence on campus, Sandhi said. “It just shows we have to go to such lengths to even be heard.”
“I honestly don’t know what took Dartmouth this long to act this issue—it’s almost going to be a month that she started her hunger strike,” she added.
Although Alshawi has been communicating with the media and supporters, she did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment. Sandhi, who spoke to her this morning, said that the graduate student is “doing ok” despite her “suffering physically.”
Alshawi, who has not appeared at any public rallies since July 14, last posted on Facebook Wednesday afternoon that despite sending six emails to Dartmouth to confirm they opened an investigation, she has not received a reply.
“I weigh 35 kg (77 pound) now and this is my last post!” she wrote.