Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Women in Academia are extremely vulnerable

[First published in Women's Web as St Xavier’s University Kolkata Allegedly Slut-Shames Woman Professor Over An Instagram Story]

A 30 year old Associate Professor at a well-known University, according to an FIR filed by her, was forced to resign because the father of one of her students complained that he found his son looking at photographs of her, which according to him were “objectionable” and “bordering on nudity”.

There are two aspects to this case, which are equally disturbing, and which together make me question where we are heading as a society.

When the father of an 18 year old finds his son looking at photographs of a lady in a swimsuit, he can do many things. What this parent does is to dash off a letter to the University which states:

“Recently, I was appalled to find my son looking at some pictures of Prof. [Guha*] where she has posed in a sexually explicit way causing deliberate public exposure. …[this] is utterly shameful for me as a parent, since I have tried to shield my son from this kind of gross indecency and objectification of the female body. It is obscene, vulgar and improper for a 18 year old student to see his professor dressed in scanty clothes exhibiting her body on a public platform.”

First, the photograph was not on a public platform. The photograph had been posted on a private account on Instagram where it was visible for 24 hours to a tightly controlled audience. The only way the son could have accessed the photographs was if he had sent the Professor a ‘follow’ request which she accepted, or by hacking into her account. If the former, he had reached out to her. If the latter, he is guilty of a cyber-crime. In either case, the Professor cannot be blamed for the fact that her student was ogling at her photographs.

Second, the father says that he has “tried to shield my son from this kind of gross indecency and objectification of the female body”. If we accept this statement at face value, then clearly the parent has failed in his stated duty, since the son had voluntarily sought out content that the parent deems objectionable. To shift the blame to the Professor is just an attempt to cover up what by his own admission is inadequate parenting.

Third, are these the only photographs of “scantily clad” women that the student has gawked at? Surely there must be other women who’s photographs have also come under scrutiny- why then single out the Professor? Don’t teachers have the right to living a personal life? As long as they are competent in their job, and adhere to the workplace code of conduct, how does it matter what clothes they wear and what photographs they post on their private Instagram account?

The reaction of the father smacks of a giant failure in parenting. The child is 18 years old, an adult. Ideally, the father should not be micro-policing what he chooses to do in his spare time. However, this is India, where even people much older are made to feel they are answerable to their parents, random family members and the entire neighbourhood!

The father has caught his child doing something he deems objectionable- instead of holding his son accountable, the father shifts the blame to someone who is not even directly involved in the incident. By writing to the University, and having the Professor removed, the father is sending out the message that his child can behave as irresponsibly as he likes, and the father will always be around to clean up the mess.

The attitude displayed by the University is equally wrong. Ideally, when a frivolous complaint like this was registered, the University should have stood by their staff, and told the father in no uncertain terms that the Professor was engaged to teach, and what she did in her personal life was nobody’s business. Even if the University has a code of conduct which does not permit its staff to put up photographs on their private Instagram accounts, knowing that the Professor had joined only two months earlier, the University should have first asked her when the photograph was uploaded before launching an investigation that ended in her dismissal. In this particular case, the photograph was put up on Instagram stories in June 2021, and the Professor joined the University only in August 2021. Since Instagram stories are visible only for 24 hours, at the time of joining, there were no photographs that could be deemed “objectionable” on the Internet, unless the account had been hacked into and photographs downloaded.

By proceeding with an investigation on photographs taken and uploaded before the Professor even joined the University, they have also set a precedent which leaves women vulnerable to blackmail. Now, any acquaintance who has photographs or videos which are even remotely compromising can threaten to use it to against women in similar positions.

The manner in which the investigation was conducted also exposes how vulnerable women are to harassment in the workplace. According to the FIR filed by the Professor, printouts of the photographs which the parent deemed objectionable were circulated among by the committee members, which included two men. When a woman posts a photograph online, particularly if it is in a tightly controlled private group, it does not mean she is giving consent to the photographs being printed and passed around in another setting. By doing so, the University was invading her privacy, and putting her in an extremely vulnerable position. As she says, “It is a mystery to me till date how the university accessed those pictures. I felt so distressed and humiliated at that moment that I couldn’t bear to examine the rest of the pictures. I was in a meeting where my private pictures were being circulated among people unknown to me, without my consent.”

The Professor also mentions in her FIR that she was repeatedly slut shamed by the members of the committee, most of whom were unknown to her. Though she was dressed in a swimsuit, the members of the committee repeatedly referred to them as “nude” photographs. She, a grown woman of 30 with two PhDs from foreign universities was infantized and asked if her parents knew about and approved of the photographs. There is a decorum to be maintained while carrying out investigations, so the dignity of the woman is maintained, but that was clearly not followed by the University.

More than anything else, this incident exposes how vulnerable women in Academia are. Students and researchers have made allegations of sexual harassment against male professors who were in a position of power over them. Yet, years later, despite those allegations not being properly investigated, those professors continue to hold their positions and are treated as respected professionals. Yes, a woman is slut shamed for sharing photographs of herself with a tightly controlled group of people for a 24 hour period, and is forced to resign because someone who shouldn’t even have access to the photographs made a complaint against her.

This case, if not properly investigated and resolved, can have wide reaching implications for Women, particularly Women in Academia, and each of us should be extremely concerned about it, and should keep raising our voice till the Professor gets justice.

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