In Conversation: On the Professor Forced to Resign Over Bikini Pictures
The team discusses pressing events that say something about our culture, and why it matters. Today, we talk women in academia and how their bodies become stand-ins for moral education.
A professor at St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata, was allegedly forced to quit her job because of “inappropriate” social media pictures. These pictures — in which the professor wore a bikini — resided on her private Instagram, but were accessed by an 18-year-old student without consent. A parent later filed a complaint, troubled over the prospect of his son seeing his professor “in scanty clothes exhibiting her body.” The university found the professor to have “besmirched” the reputation of the institute too.
The misogyny and culture of shaming within the education space is striking. The Swaddle’s editorial team discusses unheeding parental control, Indian conservatism, and what it means for women in academia.
SK: I’ll take a minute to wrap my head around this: an 18-year-old makes the conscious decision to look at his professor’s pictures, and it’s her body that occupies the center of the fuss? Misogyny in academia comes dressed in different robes: professors are policed for the clothes they wear, the “impolite” ways they behave, or the structural ways their knowledge is devalued by virtue of their gender. The former Xavier professor’s instance seems to wear all of these. At one level this shows how women are tasked with the additional burden of being beacons of moral education through their conduct. Education in its didactic ways conflates women in academia’s competence with gendered morality; this is a red herring that applies both to students and academics, with universities asking people to dress “appropriately” and “modestly,” lest the repute and credence of an education space would come tumbling down. Their competence can be measured by their knowledge and kindness, but must always be contextualized by how “proper” they are inside and outside these spaces. Education then places the burden of prestige and dignity on the woman, all while it measures its true legacy in terms of achievements and awards and research papers that celebrated male academics go on to claim.
The landscape thus is one of routinely and audaciously questioning the competence of women in academia. The insistence is on a blinkered measure of their qualification — in terms of how polite they are, what they wear, and how they behave. Mind you these faux boundaries of respectability apply exclusively to female academics in a way they don’t to others; women are then always subjected to moral scrutiny that subsumes their professional competence under ambiguously defined “values.” The result is stark: women have to do disproportionate emotional labor in education spaces to remain relevant, valued, and justify their access to knowledge.
DR: There is also a collective disregard for boundaries that vexes me. A parent might have some say in commenting on a professor’s teaching methods or even their conduct in a classroom. But I cannot fathom why a parent — or even an institution — deemed it fit to police what a professor does in their personal lives, as long as they’re not going around committing hate crimes. Maybe, one of the reasons why the parent was so outraged is because they struggle to come to terms with the reality of a “guru” having a life beyond their profession.
This seems to be a classic case of dissonance, perhaps, caused by society attaching moral values to certain professions more than others, and then, wanting to see those values reflected in every action of the professional — logic be damned. At the end of the day, we’re not defined by our profession. Lawyers don’t lounge in black jackets. Journalists don’t have to wear kurtas and walk about with jholas round the clock – or, you know, at all. Also, why do we think we can go about imposing our moralities on others? It’s a strange sense of entitlement and moral grandstanding that, ironically, believes intangible values matter more than a tangible entity’s freedom, personhood, and consent.
AS: This is a stark reminder of how overarching parental control in the subcontinent is, and arguably, everything wrong with Indian parenting. Indian parents rarely bring up their children, especially their sons, with lessons on accountability. The whole incident happened because the father of an adult, a college-going man, felt that it was the professor who was spoiling his child by posting photographs on her private Instagram account.
Parental authority here is functioning on multiple levels. Firstly, the father had no business snooping on his adult son’s online activity, but he did it nonetheless because there is little regard for boundaries in South Asian households. After that, the father – not the son – lashes out at the university administration, asking for the professor’s dismissal because she — the professor — outraged his son’s modesty. The father here is not only denying agency to his son – his adult, a college-going son who fished out this private account of the professor by himself – but also removes all expectations of accountability from his child. Finally, the father, like any Indian parent, is bold enough to push forward the bizarre demand of the professor’s dismissal. Ideally, he should have zero say in this matter, but then expecting a parent who sees no wrong in snooping on their adult children to have a sense of boundaries might be a little far-fetched.
The parent refuses to ever stop making decisions for their child, even when they are adults fully capable of being responsible for themselves. This is a weird mix of conservatism and collectivism; the parents are obsessed with having a grip over their children, and thus want to prevent them from growing up, even when they physically have.
RN: To me, one disturbing detail emerges as crucial to unpacking the institutional misogyny here: the fact that the bikini pictures in question were allegedly posted on the professor’s Instagram stories, months before she joined the university, and on her private account where only her trusted circle was privy to them. Reports say that in her letter to the Vice Chancellor, the professor amounted what happened to her as sexual harassment and pointed out how she was not offered an explanation for how the photos were accessible by anyone involved in this series of events.
In the absence of any investigation, it’s hard to say how, indeed, the photos began to be circulated well past their life-span on her personal social media account. Instagram stories disappear after 24 hours; how were they the subject of an investigation and unofficial firing months later? There’s a few things at play here. One, how gendered power dynamics intersect with the teacher-student relationship, wherein students may ostensibly disempower their women professors in subtle forms: violating their consent, gazing upon their bodies without invitation, and from the looks of it, consuming their images as a collective with little regard for the sanctity of the intellectual relationship that is supposed to be shared.
Second, the focus of the investigation should have been on finding out how the images were circulated. Instead, by the academic’s own account, the process was replete with sexually-colored remarks from the university administrators themselves. It’s clear that the whole series of events was a thinly veiled attempt to exert institutional power to punish a woman for straying from unspoken gender norms. The violation of her boundaries was less tangible on account of the incident playing out on digital media, but it remains a violation nonetheless. We’ve known for a while that sexual harassment laws exist but continue to be imperfect redressal mechanisms for those who need them — this case then points to the urgency for discussing and expanding the scope of harassment itself.