#MeToo in academia: Survivors recount experiences with powerful men

TNM spoke to survivors in three separate incidents of sexual harassment at different colleges and universities, about how the authority harassers enjoy, along with the stigma around sexual harassment, forced them into silence.
Image of three young women hugging each other and looking into the sun set
Image of three young women hugging each other and looking into the sun set
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In October 2017, Raya Sarkar, then a law student, compiled and published a crowdsourced list of alleged sexual harassers in academia (LoSHA). Before the Me Too movement took India by storm in 2018, it was LoSHA that opened a can of worms and many women came out with their experiences, naming several well-known names in academia. More recently, scores of Me Too stories emerged from schools in Chennai, with multiple students and former students detailing the alleged predatory behaviour of many teachers. These stories demonstrate that sexual harassment in the academia is not a one-off issue, but a structural one. Almost four years later, and despite more awareness about the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (PoSH Act), has there been significant change?

TNM spoke to survivors in three separate incidents of sexual harassment at different colleges and universities. Apart from predatory behaviour that they were subjected to by their harassers, their accounts also reveal how the authority harassers enjoy over them, along with the stigma around sexual harassment, force them into silence.

Six students from Chempazhanthy SN College in Kerala's Thiruvananthapuram, recently accused an assistant professor of sexual harassment. While they submitted a complaint to Dr Anil Kumar, the principal of the college, they allege, it was not acted on properly. This prompted the women to approach the Kerala Governor, Ariff Mohammed Khan, with their complaint on August 11. The Governor is also the Chancellor of the university.

The women have accused Abhilash T, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, of sending them sexual innuendos and inappropriate messages. The students alleged that Abhilash would make video calls to the students during odd hours and would claim that the calls happened by mistake. Abhilash also allegedly had long phone calls with women students; would message them on WhatsApp with emojis which the students found inappropriate; and then would ask the students to delete those messages and send screenshots for him as proof. He had reportedly sent kiss emojis; and in another instance, asked one student to show up earlier for an event, called her 15 times when she refused, and later, got angry at her for not complying.

It wasn’t easy for the students to take up the matter formally, because the man accused enjoyed considerable support from his colleagues and even some other students. TNM spoke to one complainant and a witness in the case, who said that Abhilash had built a support system. They said that Abhilash had been using his political connections to intimidate the students and their family members in an attempt to make them withdraw the complaint. Notably, Abhilash was the SN College unit secretary of the CPI(M)-affiliated teachers’ organisation, All Kerala Private College Teachers’ Association. He is no longer in the position since the complaint was made against him.

“The teacher’s behaviour (of texting and calling) began right from the time I joined the college in 2019. I had promptly told him that this made me uncomfortable and I did not like him texting me like this. This had irked him,” the complainant told TNM. After the student told him off, Abhilash allegedly began targeting her in the class WhatsApp group, responded to her rudely for a week. “But even then, I thought it was my individual experience. It was only a year later, during an art festival, that I realised that other women students in the senior batch had similar experiences with him. The seniors asked me not to complain,” she said.

Eventually five other students also agreed to join the complaint and shared a similar experience from the teacher. When TNM contacted Abhilash, he claimed sexual harassment allegations against him are baseless and are part of a conspiracy of another professor against him.  

"I don't even know who the complainant students are; some students are from other departments. I am well aware of how to treat my students. The media reports [published] are aimed at tarnishing me. Whether the IC’s findings are in my favour or against me, I will fight legally,” Abhilash said. He added that another professor, who organised the Veyilpookkal session, has allegedly been “targeting” Abhilash. “I am the teachers' representative of the college and had raised my voice against him for making lapses in taking classes,” Abhilash said.

Meanwhile, SN College principal, Anil Kumar declined comment when contacted, as the matter is under investigation.

The pressure to remain silent

Students of another college that TNM spoke to said that students who have complained are facing considerable intimidation and pressure to withdraw the complaint. In this case, the accused professor himself also allegedly called one of the complainants after they reported the harassment. The students also alleged that after they raised the issue formally, they got threatening calls and messages from unknown numbers.

One student pointed out that the teacher had won over the trust of students by being liberal in evaluating exam papers and giving high marks. “Hence I knew people won’t believe me if I speak against him,” the student added.  

Students from different colleges TNM spoke to, also pointed out that victim shaming was rampant, in some cases women teachers also allegedly blamed the survivors, accusing them of “enjoying” the interactions. Another problem was the stigma associated with violence, and the tendency to encourage survivors to remain silent rather than speaking up. “Sometimes silencing happens at home too as parents would discourage the survivors from speaking about the sexual harassment, fearing that if the news gets out, it would prevent the women from getting good marriage alliances,” a student complainant said. The taboo around talking about sex and lack of sexuality education also meant that some victims don’t even realise something wrong is happening. “This teacher we complained agaisnt used to talk about sex with one of the students. She couldn’t discuss this at home, and she didn’t even realise how problematic his talk was,” the student added.

The pressure to remain mum about her ordeal was also something Avani*, a former PhD scholar at a university in Hyderabad, faced. Avani had allegedly been sexually harassed by a professor at the university who was also her guide. She started her PhD in 2012, and the alleged harassment began from 2016. She remembers one particular incident: One day in 2016 when he asked her to come to the department on a holiday on the pretext of discussing research related matters. “He then made obscene gestures at me,” she said.

“This man is known internationally and is considered a scholar. So, my belief was that someone of his stature won’t do anything of this kind. He was also much older to me,” said Avani. “When the sexual harassment began, he would make inappropriate gestures and talk to me in dirty ways, even when I was attending conferences or academic sessions. There was a sexual tone to these actions, and a threat too, because he had authority over me.”

Though Avani wanted to flag these issues at the university, she was allegedly discouraged by a female faculty member of the same department, whom she confided in. “She told me to give up [on the sexual harassment case] so that I could progress in my career. It was shocking for me because she is someone who is even more senior than him. I was crying when I spoke to her. I stopped going to the department after her reaction; and he started sending me emails to pressurise me to come to the department,” Avani said. She also alleged that other women faculty and her peers in the same department also discouraged her from filing a complaint against her guide.

“While he still enjoys the status of a scholar, I have trust issues, and fear getting close to anyone… The clout such people enjoy is so huge that no one can touch them. They leverage all the reputation they earned to cover up their misdeeds and discredit survivors,” she said. 

The pressure to remain silent is not just on the victims, but on those who support them too. “One former teacher who spoke up for the students had been subjected to mudslinging. If some teachers would speak up for the students, they would be derogated as ‘feminists’ or someone who had previous enmity towards the accused,” one teacher to whom the students disclosed sexual harassment in a college in Kerala told TNM. While being a feminist is no cause for shame, it has often been used to question women’s credibility, wrongly painting them as misandrists. “All these things would twist the focus from the harassment to the character assassination of the supporters, and white-wash the predator,” said the teacher.

Lack of awareness around PoSH and IC

For the SN College students, that the college was supposed to have an Internal Committee to deal with sexual harassment complaints under the PoSH Act was a revelation in itself. They first disclosed the alleged sexual harassment to a former guest lecturer at the college. It was during one of the sessions of ‘Veyilpookkal’, an online interactive session for students of all departments, that the students realised that there was an Internal Committee and the powers it has.

“We came to know (through Veyilpookkal) what the IC was and what powers it has much later. If I knew that my privacy would be protected, I would have complained to the IC earlier. We began to discuss it with other students then to take the matter up with the IC,” the complainant TNM spoke to said.

By this time, the students had sent the complaint to Dr Anil Kumar as they weren’t aware of the IC. And the identity of the six students were allegedly leaked by someone to other teachers. “Our teachers and HoDs contacted us after we sent the mail to the principal, and letters were sent to the students’ home addresses, addressed to their parents,” a student said.

After they learnt about the IC, the students found that it had become non-functional. So, a new one was constituted after they demanded one. However, it allegedly had an external member who the students saw as friendly to the alleged perpetrator. Despite expressing their reservations about the same, this member was not removed from the committee. A police inquiry was initiated following the complaint to the Governor, and statements of the witnesses and complainants have been recorded.

Impact on learning, wellbeing and opportunities

Perpetrators targeting students who were among the complainants, creating a hostile environment for them is a common experience that several survivors report. In academia, where professors and teachers hold considerable power over their students’ grades and progress, it becomes even harder to speak up. Regardless of the outcome of a complaint, the process becomes the punishment for many.

“Academia is a place where there is so much hierarchy. When you do research work, you are so dependent on one person, the guide,” Avani pointed out. She was only 23 when she began doing her PhD. However, it took her seven years to finish it because the unsolicited sexual advances she was facing from her guide took such a heavy toll that she was forced to discontinue, and return later to finish the PhD.

For Neema*, now a research scholar, the sexual harassment she faced from a professor prevented her from pursuing research at the Thiruvananthapuram college she was a postgraduate student at in 2018. “I really want to warn other students, but still I am not able to call him out publicly, though the trauma of the experience remains with me to this day,” Neema told TNM.

Like Abhilash, this alleged harasser presented himself as liberal and progressive, targeting only people who were vulnerable. “He would present himself to the students as an intellectual, a free thinker. For most students, he was just a teacher, but for students who read a lot and thought differently, he was even an inspiring figure. His attention would boost our ego. But gradually, I realised that for him, the definition of liberal women was that they would sleep with any random man. He made several sexual advances towards me,” Neema recalls.

At one point, Neema gathered the courage to reject him. “The emotional violence that followed [my rejection] was traumatic. He would target me and my friends in the class, telling us we were good for nothing. I eventually found out that he had behaved this way with many students. He had spoken about me to students in other classes, giving them the impression that I was very close to him. After I rejected his advances, he cast aspersions on my character too. It was like he had already been preparing to discredit me if I was ever to speak out against him,” Neema said.

The perpetrator also allegedly spoke about her to other professors, painting her as someone whom any man can approach. “One of them had told me by mistake that it was this professor who told him about me. Then I realised they even had a group where they would discuss which women were ‘easy’, whom they could approach,” she said.  

Later, he got transferred to the college where she was pursuing her MPhil, under the same university. “Once he even asked me to ‘arrange’ someone ‘liberal’ like me for him if I wasn’t interested, when I was alone with him in a classroom. It was scary, I feared he would attack me in some way,” Neema added. She could only breathe a sigh of relief once she finished her MPhil and left the college to pursue a PhD elsewhere. 

*Names changed


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