For over a year now, an Indian woman who was enrolled at the Aix Marseille University in France, and her husband who is currently a PhD student, have allegedly been targeted by the administration for daring to raise their voice against sexual harassment.
Speaking to TNM, Yamuna* says that professors at the university asked her for sexual favours in return for an internship under them.
âI have to test if you are asexualâ
It all began on December 1, 2016, when Yamuna went for a meeting with Dr Bruno Ventelou, who is currently research professor with The National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) at the university. Yamuna, who was a Mastersâ student at the time, requested a meeting with Dr Ventelou, who is also her husband's PhD supervisor, to discuss future academic prospects.
Yamuna says that they corresponded over email before Dr Ventelou agreed to meet her for an interview.
In a copy of the complaint that Yamuna filed with the sexual harassment committee of the university on April 3, 2017, she details a harrowing account of what allegedly happened when they met.
âWhile presenting the research idea, he (Dr Ventelou) suddenly praised me and asked me if I like him. I avoided the question and continued with my project presentation,â she says.
However, Dr Ventelou allegedly persisted and asked her the same question again. At this point, Yamuna told him that she considered him to be a âfather and guideâ. Yamuna goes on to say that her reply upset Dr Ventelou and he turned hostile, allegedly telling Yamuna that heâd admitted her to the course and invited the couple to a restaurant for lunch expecting some âreturnsâ.
Yamuna adds that Dr Ventelou made her hold her ears, a gesture reminiscent of the humiliation that slaves were subjected to in the past. She initially refused but gave in when he turned aggressive. The humiliation did not stop with this. Dr Ventelou made personal comments on her appearance, asking her to fix the discoloration in her teeth and the pimples on her face. He then allegedly went on to ask her if she was asexual since heâd heard many Hindus say that they were so.
âHe told me that he was conducting an experiment over âsexual preferences of human beingsâ and several Hindus lied to him that they are asexual. He asked me for my preferences for which I replied that even I am asexual (since I felt that he was hitting on me),â she says.
Yamuna was then asked if she preferred him or Dr Sylvie Boyer, a woman professor, and told her to comment on the latterâs body. When a flustered Yamuna refused, Dr Ventelou allegedly told her to âcheck her outâ and tell him about her.
In the same meeting, Dr Ventelou also allegedly asked Yamuna to strip (she refused to) and made racist comments. In another letter sent to the sexual harassment committee, Yamuna adds more details about the meeting, alleging that Dr Ventelou said he wished to test if she was really asexual and would find out by penetrating her.
âHe said that I have to prove it. He would like to check if I would release fluid while having sex with a man and for which I must permit him to,â she says.
The nightmarish meeting came to an end with Dr Ventelou telling Yamuna that she wouldnât be eligible for an internship she was interested in applying for since she wasnât fluent in French but that he would write recommendation letters for her. Yamuna told him that she would apply to D. Paraponaris Alainâs internship and Dr Ventelou agreed to recommend her for it.
âThis is how female students show respectâ
However, Yamunaâs ordeal only became worse. In their second meeting which took place in February, Yamuna asked Dr Paraponaris if it was common for professors to expect sexual favours from research interns since a few of her friends had warned her about it. To her shock, Dr Paraponaris allegedly told her that if Dr Ventelou expected it from her, sheâd have to agree to it.
âMoreover, he said, âThis is the way by which a female student shows respect to a male professor. In fact, Bruno deserves to hear a sorry from youâ,â claims Yamuna. According to Yamuna, Dr Paraponaris also claimed that Dr Ventelou would help her until she reached a good position âif you give him what he wantsâ.
Dr Paraponaris allegedly tried to shake Yamunaâs confidence by suggesting that she might fail Dr Ventelouâs subject. When Yamuna remained non-compliant and stated that she would not provide any sexual favours although Dr Paraponaris offered to pay for her internship, he allegedly said that professors provide research internships to international students expecting sexual favours from them.
In her complaint, Yamuna also names a woman colleague and Dr Olivier Chanel for trying to coerce her into providing sexual favours to professors. The woman colleague reportedly told Yamuna that Dr Paraponaris was âvery upsetâ about her actions and that she must know this is how women students were expected to show ârespectâ to male professors.
She further allegedly told Yamuna to apologise to Dr Ventelou.
Dr Chanel, whom Yamuna approached for an internship and met with in March 2017, allegedly told her that he expected her to visit him once a week in person. When she asked him if this was about work, he allegedly told her curtly that all work issues could be done over email. She received an offer for a paid internship with Dr. Chanel, which she refused.
âHe also asked me to call or email Dr Ventelou an apology and said that Bruno would definitely reply/respond,â she says.
During the same meeting, Dr Olivier allegedly asked her openly why she wished to take efforts to study when she wasnât ready to offer sexual favours.
Consequences for complaining
Speaking to TNM, Yamunaâs husband, Krishna*, says that once the couple filed the sexual harassment complaint, things became very difficult for them.
Following the complaint, the committee called the couple for two meetings. However, they say that the committee was far from being supportive. They were then asked to meet with the universityâs legal officer who asked them to sign a document in French. The couple refused to do so.
Although many other students agreed to stand by them, admitting that they too had faced harassment, they backtracked, fearing for their future at the university. There are other professors, too, who have been accused of sexual harassment at the university and have come under the scanner.
It was a result of the fall-out with the university administration that the couple believes, a part of Krishnaâs funding for his PhD was cut off. His contract was not renewed. It was only after Krishna took the issue up with the SNPTES, the union for employees, that Dr Nicolas Gravel, Director, Aix-Marseille School of Economics, assured him that his funding would continue.
In emails accessed by TNM, Dr Gravel says the funding was discontinued because of an error made by the administrative secretary. However, Krishna claims that Dr Gravel threatened to ruin his future career prospects because of the row with the university. Dr Gravel is currently the Director of Centre for Social Sciences and Humanities, Delhi.
Due to the harassment they were subjected to and the lack of action by the sexual harassment committee, Yamuna filed a complaint with the French police in June, 2017. The police, Krishna, says has promised to act on the complaint.
After a long struggle, Yamuna managed to complete her internship under a woman professor. However, Krishna continues to be a PhD student at the university. Meanwhile, he has also approached the Indian consulate for help.
âThey said that they have raised the issue with the French foreign affairs ministry. I am unable to tweet this to the minister but I am hoping someone will, after the news comes out in India,â he says.
TNM attempted to contact Dr Virginie Mercier, the head of the sexual harassment committee, for a response but is yet to get a reply. Emails were also sent to Dr Ventelou, Dr Paraponaris and Dr Chanel about the complaint filed against them.
In response, Dr Ventelou said, âI reject the accusation, which is totally unfounded. There was an investigation from the university in June 2017, made seriously by my superiors; the result was negative. I filed a complaint for slander in December to protect me, my colleagues, and my institution, against the diffusion of false rumours. This is all I can say on this affair, which is for me inconceivable.â
The other two professors have not responded at the time of writing this story.
*Names changed to protect privacy