A former assistant professor at St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata, alleged that the institution forced her to quit in October 2021 for sharing her photographs in a swimsuit. This action was taken following a complaint by a father of an undergraduate student at the university who stated that it was obscene, objectionable and vulgar for a student to view the teacher in such clothes.
The professor was asked to justify her behaviour in front of a committee where printouts of her photo were circulated. Though she had issued an apology, she was asked to resign as the photo had been shared among the students. She lodged a formal complaint at Purba Jadavpur police station, and wrote to senior police officials, but no action was taken.
While scrolling through Twitter, there were exchanges on whether wearing a swimsuit and posting about it on social media can be controversial. Intrigued, I started reading more and found the cause of the dialogue.
In March 2022, she sent a legal notice to the university and asked to furnish a written copy of the letter. The university responded with a legal notice and demanded an unconditional apology and compensation of 99 crore rupees (990 million) for causing irreparable harm to its reputation and goodwill. The woman has decided to file a writ petition against the university in the Calcutta High Court. The university maintained that the resignation was voluntary in nature.
Moral policing of women is not a new phenomenon in the country. Instead of teaching boys how to behave, young girls are conditioned to dress, sit, and walk properly. In case of any societally-deviant behaviour, the blame is conveniently placed on girls for instigating.
By associating the female body with the honour of the family and society, restrictions are imposed under the name of modesty. Some examples of methods of control include commenting on the dressing choices of women, their laughter, and slut-shaming.
With online spaces taking over, this problematic perspective has been transferred there. In this case, the woman has been shamed and punished for expressing herself in her online space. We should be talking about how the pictures were shared in the first place.
A serious apprehension that arises out of the situation is the issue of privacy. The academic claimed that she had shared the picture as a story on her private Instagram account before she joined the university. There seem to be only two possible ways for the student to have access: hacking of her account or circulation of the screenshot of the story, both being serious violations of her privacy. It is unclear how the student or the university gained access to it.
While focusing on the kind of picture that was shared, there is no conversation about how the picture was retrieved in the first place. The parent who filed the complaint should be worried about the stalking potential of the student in this regard.
We come from a country where teachers are worshipped and revered. By doing so, we place them on a pedestal and associate them, especially female teachers, with purity and forget that they have personal lives of their own. Through this narrow viewpoint, the idea of a teacher owning her sexuality becomes unbearable. This outlook was shared by some of the Twitter users.
Trolls attacked ‘feminists’ on Twitter for not leaving any dignity in the teaching profession, for criticising family culture and thereby supporting the move by the university. How is wearing a swimsuit lowering the dignity of the profession? There is a clear lack of division between personal and professional spaces. There is a need in India to demarcate this boundary and set the personal apart from professional life. What an individual chooses to do in their personal space, both online and offline, should not be anyone’s prerogative.
This incident that took place last year came to light only recently. It has generated a debate and started a conversation about privacy, work culture in educational institutions, and freedom of engaging in social media. Netizens have labelled the move as misogynist and patriarchal. Alumni of the university have started an online petition seeking disciplinary action against Vice Chancellor Felix Raj. There has been no official communication from the university after the media highlighted the incident. Even as there were heated exchanges of words over Twitter, some were joking around about getting the link to the said picture. This is disappointing to read, but not surprising).
Also read: Tracing The History Of Pants, Gendered Clothing & Moral Policing Of Women
We will complete 75 years of independence from British rule this year. However, a woman posting a picture of herself in a swimsuit threatens our freedom and morality. Every time I wake up in the morning and read such news, I always ask myself this question: What century are we living in? This Independence Day, I have one wish — in the words of Rabindranath Tagore, “My father, let my country awake.”
Also read: Deconstructing The Gender Politics Around Clothing
Prarthana Puthran is a student at Sciences Po. She is currently pursuing her Masters’s in Political Science from the Research School and can be found on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Featured image source: AajTak