Sexual Harassment is Endemic in Academic Spaces: An Insider’s Perspective

This article is an attempt to look beyond the binaries of due process and naming and shaming, older and younger feminists, and Savarna and Dalit feminism.[1] It seeks to foreground certain concerns that emanate from my position as a feminist sociologist and also as someone who has been engaged in raising the consciousness of students on gender issues in my role as the convener of the Gender Issues Cell in a South Mumbai college. 

This article argues that a culture of misogyny and sexism is endemic in academic spaces. Most of these forms of sexism are so subtle and implicit that they are difficult to recognise and thus, easily pass off as innocuous statements, comments, or actions. These lend a picture of normalcy to an otherwise deeply humiliating subjective experience. The systemic/structural nature of subordination frustrates attempts to engage with institutional procedures for redressal of complaints. Asymmetries of power that are deeply embedded within academic spaces—between faculty and students, administrative staff and students or among students themselves—invisibilise and normalise the countless, numerous ways in which marginalised genders are denigrated, trivialised and belittled within college campuses. Somehow, the whole system exhales a patriarchal acceptance of sexual harassment. From this stems a certain reluctance, especially among students, to engage with formal procedures of complaint mechanisms. The presence of queer students on campus further complicates the debate and necessitates a nuanced understanding of sexual harassment. Initiatives and efforts to purge academic spaces of sexism must thus have an integrated and holistic approach that includes curricular reforms and pedagogic shifts.


If gender discrimination is systemic and afflicts all institutions, as we believe, then surely, education cannot remain immune from these pervasive gendered influences. However, educational institutions are also placed in a strategic position to be able to thwart, correct, and mitigate such influences by institutionalising a set of practices that respect diversity and differences and ensure equal opportunities for all across caste, class, community, and gender.  Campuses should provide enabling and emancipatory spaces both inside and outside the classroom for a truly critical engagement with ideas that seek to challenge status quo. Women’s Development Cells or Gender Issues Cells provide one such platform where these conversations can emerge. 

Women’s Development Cell/Gender Issues Cell

Most of the colleges in Mumbai have a Women's Development Cell or a Gender Issues Cell, which until 2014 existed as a statutory body to deal with complaints regarding sexual offences. The cell was also tasked with the responsibility of sensitising students on gender issues and organising several activities towards this end. However, with the constitution of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, redressal of sexual harassment complaints is now under the purview of the ICC. Very few colleges have committees functioning according to clear guidelines or face shortcomings in their functioning. There are some who do not even have an ICC.

Colleges affiliated to the University of Mumbai get students from diverse social, economic, caste, and community affiliations. Most of them come with rigid, stereotypical, and hardened notions of what it means to belong to a certain gender and to get them to have a nuanced understanding of gender issues requires a sustained process of engagement over three years of their undergraduate studies. Thus, the role of the cells remains crucial in promoting gender equality on campus. K C College has a very proactive Gender Issues Cell, which sees passionate involvement of students across genders. In the last 13 years of its existence, the cell has hosted several workshops, debates, elocutions, plays, and even a national conference, geared towards the explicit objective of subverting gender stereotypes and challenging long-standing beliefs about gender roles and identities. Collaborative projects and campaigns organised by the cell in collaboration with women’s rights and advocacy groups further strengthen students’ understanding of gender issues. 

However, somewhere along the way, some amongst us felt the need for a deeper level of engagement with students across streams so as to facilitate greater conversation and dialogue outside disciplinary fields of focus. Around the same time, the University Grants Commission (UGC)’s Saksham report was published and one of its key recommendations was short-term certificate courses for students and faculty. The cell introduced a certificate course in gender studies in order to build a critical feminist perspective among student participants. The course aims to draw students from across disciplines and engage them in an intensive two-month course. This course is unique in several ways. It seeks to break the systemic hierarchies and brings students on board to design the curriculum along with teachers. Based on experiential learning and participatory and dialogic approaches to teaching–learning, the course is completely administered by students. The introduction of the course in 2014 saw significant shifts in perceptions among students, openness to ideas, and greater conversation on gender and sexuality on campus. Additionally, there emerged a critique of sexist and homophobic campuses, curricula, and pedagogies across disciplines, and a realisation of the need for greater recognition of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI) concerns.

The student body of the cell works as a network that has been sensitised to being alert and to pick up visible signs of distress in cases of sexual harassment among peers. They have initiated feminist conversations not just on campus, but also within families, in the neighbourhood, and in communities. Presence on social media has also generated a lot of visibility for the cell. An active and vigilant gender cell has ensured that there are no overt or explicit cases of sexual harassment. 

However, despite sustained efforts at disseminating feminist messages across classes and streams, several challenges remain. While students from the humanities section enrol in large numbers for this course as well as for other programmes of the cell, there is negligible presence of science students with almost no participation from the commerce stream. This can largely be attributed to the general structure and timings of the science stream. While the humanities/arts classes end by noon, the science section has long class timings (8 am to 3 pm). This leaves little time for their participation in programmes organised by the gender cell. The administration, in the past, has sought to address this issue by requesting the science faculty to adjust their lecture hours so as to enable the science students to enrol for the course. However, while theory classes could be adjusted, the practical batches invariably posed a problem.


Considering the students' interest and inclination towards this course, the gender cell is now considering a separate batch for science students with flexible timings that do not interfere with their mainstream courses. A certain section of students, especially those from the commerce stream and the professional courses like Bachelor of Mass Media or Bachelor of Finance and Management, feels that they have entered a post-feminist stage where all contradictions have been resolved and the feminist question is no longer relevant. They feel that there is no need for conversations around gender. “What is this feminism? Do we even need it today?” they ask. As visiting faculty in sociology for the mass media course some time ago, I saw a visible difference in students' perceptions of gender issues between the government-aided sections and the self-financed courses. In fact, one of the visiting faculty members in a self-financed course in commerce had commented, “When women are now present everywhere, why do we need to talk about gender equality?” Apparently capital, market, and state of the economy are serious issues to be deliberated upon and gender is too trivial to even merit a discussion! Perhaps the class privileges of this section of students and faculty produce a blinkered attitude to issues of social justice and equality. 

While there are no overt instances of sexual harassment, covert and implicit forms of sexism continue unabated. These are manifested most commonly as loaded comments, offensive stares, demeaning jokes centred on women, stereotypical observations about gender roles and performances, unwelcome comments on how students dress, and sounds or displays of a derogatory nature, which create an intimidating and hostile environment. Cultural festivals are rife with sexual innuendos and when some students protest, they are told that they lack a sense of humour. Songs, dances, and comedy during cultural festivals reek of sexism and rampant misogyny. The subtext of everyday conversations among colleagues across colleges is so Brahmanical and gendered that it is mind-numbing at times. 

Notwithstanding the above, we continue our engagement with students and faculty. The faculty members against whom verbal complaints have been made for their offensive remarks (inside or outside the classroom) are called by the principal and warned against such conduct. Most of these complaints are in the nature of whispers and the core body of student volunteers brings them to the cell. We do speak to the faculty and student coordinators of all cultural festivals to ensure that participating students act with restraint and erring students are counselled wherever possible. However, I strongly believe that the onus of spearheading changes to ensure a gender-sensitive campus cannot rest on the cells alone. A sustained attack must be mounted at different levels and in multiple forums if we are to make a difference. This includes curricular reforms and pedagogic shifts across disciplines and integration of gender concerns within different committees, cells and associations on campuses. 

Curriculum and Pedagogy

If we are to make our campuses gender-just and enabling, then we have to seriously think through questions of pedagogy and curriculum development. I say this because I see a perceptible difference in the way students from the arts and science stream engage in classroom discussions on gender. While students from the social sciences background seem to be more informed about gender issues and are willing to speak and share their experiences, their counterparts from the sciences, save a few, are “disciplined” and passive listeners who are rather reluctant to participate. Conversations with colleagues and interactions with students across disciplines reveal that while the social sciences, primarily sociology, history, political science and English literature do address gender in their respective curricula, gender concerns are largely absent in the course modules of science and commerce streams.


The only exposure to gender that students from these streams have is through the compulsory foundation courses. Even here, topics on women/gender are pushed to the margins. A preliminary analysis of the foundation course[2] syllabi shows the presence of just two topics on women/gender (“Gender Disparity” and “Constitutional and Legal Rights of Women and Children: Forms of Violations and Redressal”) spread over four semesters across arts, science, and commerce streams. Similarly, a study conducted by the gender cell of the college on gender sensitivity and inclusivity revealed how courses and modules on gender are largely absent in the Bachelor of Mass Media courses offered at the undergraduate level in the University of Mumbai. We found a small component on gender in four courses out of a total of 36 courses offered in the three-year undergraduate mass media course.[3] 

However, even as I argue for an integration of feminist concerns across disciplines, I am also aware of the dangers of the proliferation of women-related topics. The dangers of oversimplification, depoliticisation of the feminist agenda, and tokenism are real, and feminist scholars have time and again expressed such apprehensions (Pandhe 1988; Balasubrahmanyan 1993; Poonacha 2003). Mere inclusion of gender-related topics would not by itself generate a feminist consciousness. What is also required is a pedagogical shift and the necessary feminist insights in each course. A pedagogy that sees students as mere recipients of accumulated wisdom does not encourage production of knowledge in the classroom and can seriously hamper the growth of a reflexive and critical inquiry among students. As pointed out by several scholars, pedagogic practices in the sciences are largely governed by ideas of binaries, absolute truths, and truth as given (Chadha 2015; Krishna 2015). That knowledge is not given but is rather constructed, is not neutral but positional, is partial and ideologically committed, are ideas that are largely absent in science classrooms and this perhaps explains the differences in approach of science and arts students to questions of gender or for that matter any kind of intersectional analysis involving caste, class, and ethnicity.

The guide-books and text-books prescribed for foundation courses (Shinde et al 2017; Vaz and Vaz 2017) leave much to be desired. A cursory reading of these books reveals the casteist, misogynist, and communal content inherent in the readings. Chapters on women are all about descriptive statistics with facts and figures about how women are physically and sexually violated. There is no attempt whatsoever to do an intersectional analysis or to explore the idea of diversity and differences among women. Cultural prescriptions about appropriate gender roles inform the chapter contents. For instance, in a section on causes of gender violence, one of the factors listed includes “victim-perpetrated violence” with a description of how “indecent behaviour of the victim or victim's provocation such as nagging behaviour of a wife” may trigger male violence (Vaz et al 2016: 51). Single, divorced and widowed women are described in patronising terms. Divorce is described as a “permanent stigma in the life of a woman.” It is also said that “young and beautiful divorced women find it difficult to suppress their sex urge which often finds expression in non-institutionalised relationships” (Parveen 2009). Similarly, in a book that describes the social problems of Indian women in the patriarchal system, “sex urge and single woman” has been listed as one of the problems that women have. The author writes that “career women are likely to marry late, thus it is unrealistic to expect them to control their sexual urge till they marry” (Basantani 2016). The description of rape is abhorrent to say the least. Most of the books describe it as “a fate worse than death” or as a “heinous crime.” A section on “woes of widows” explains how widow remarriage is very difficult in most of the cases as “men do not want to marry widows” and “even a widower does not prefer to marry a widow” (Vaz et al 2016: 59). In the absence of a nuanced analysis, most of these statements produce and reproduce patriarchal mindsets. 


Challenges of Due Process

There is most certainly a reluctance to engage with due process and both students as well as teachers express reservations about submitting a written complaint. Instead of having to face a committee, they would rather have the ICC issue a warning to or reprimand the sexual predators. One of the final year students echoed similar thoughts in one of our recent conversations on the list-statement controversy. 


It takes immense courage to stand in front of a panel chaired by those in authority and tell them that you've been harassed or that you don't feel comfortable around a particular professor. There is so much baggage that we carry to even approach a familiar face in authority, thinking that probably this will strain your relationship with them or that you will be seen in a defamed frame if you go and "complain." We need to learn to distinguish between doing the good thing and doing the right thing. And it can only be achieved once we stop judging and putting these labels on each other; since what happened to her (Raya Sarkar) can happen to you, me, or anyone at all.

Experience of sexual harassment is intensely personal and private. It is a systematic, intrusive, and pervasive form of violence that is often implicit in its manifestations (Roy 2010). Trying to read objectivity into it can be highly misleading. Even though the Saksham Committee recommendations clearly stipulate that the ICC is a civil redressal mechanism whose objective is to provide immediate relief to the student/employee and that the principle of “beyond reasonable doubt” should not be applied, this is not honoured in observance. Somehow, the tone and tenor or language of “due process” takes after the universalist and homogeneous legal system which can be problematic. Being asked for evidence or having to recount the experience of violation is akin to revisiting the trauma. Even worse is to then have people not believe you! A final year student of sociology put it succinctly when asked about due process:


One of my eleventh standard teachers did stare at us in offensive ways, almost judging our character by our appearances. He perhaps thought that he was our teacher and he had a right to pass such comments. Hardly anybody spoke against his behaviour because we thought: "It is okay, after all he is our teacher.” I still remember him asking one of my friends, “Why are you so well-dressed today? Is it because of my lecture?” While I took offence to it, others seemed okay. How then do we talk about this before a committee? What if some committee members had thought of it the same way as some of my classmates did (harmless fun and not sexual harassment). So, we let it pass.

Students do not constitute a homogeneous community. Their caste, class, gender, and religious locations privilege or disempower them in complex ways and determine whether they speak up or choose to remain silent. Justice for complainants is often contingent upon their “appropriate” behaviour in the public place. Statements like “if a girl is dressed in shorts, a boy is bound to get attracted towards her,” or “men cannot control their sexual urges, so let’s not provoke them” or “that it is natural male behaviour” or "if you are hugging and being friendly with a boy, don't come complaining to us later" are often heard. The first reaction to a complaint is; “What did she do? Did she ask for it?” Students who complain are invariably judged by their past reputation and conduct in college, including their caste, community, regional, and class locations. There is also constant suspicion that girls will misuse the laws, that those who complain are too sensitive, or are overreacting. Accusations and counter-accusations fly thick and fast making things murkier. In one case where a student accused her classmate of creating a hostile environment through his sexist statements and comments, other students stepped in to defend him and proclaimed that the girl was being too sensitive and judgmental. These are circumstances that deter students from lodging a formal complaint. It is imperative that the ICC guard against discourses of moral policing without penalising consensual interactions between adult men and women, sexual or otherwise. 

The presence of queer students on campus complicates the scenario. The harassment faced by queer students in academic spaces has been pushed to the margins in this debate and has not received adequate attention. Body shaming of the queer student population on campuses is a common phenomenon. A student whose gender expression is at variance with normative gender identities recounts the following:


I was told by one of the professors that I should stand and speak confidently like a man (while he pulled my falling shoulders back). I have been mocked for my voice too. My voice range is not really masculine for the educators.


Or as another echoed poignantly,


I have been angry and frustrated to be taught that homosexuality and asexuality are diseases that are a result of something having "gone wrong in a developmental process." I have refuted and argued against such "theories" only to be given more justifications of how homosexuality is a form of deviance.

While the sexual harassment act only addresses the issue of protection of women employees and men, if subjected to sexual harassment, cannot claim protection or relief under the law,  some universities have taken the next step to becoming gender plural. They recognise that men can be subjected to sexual harassment beyond ragging incidents, especially if they are identified as belonging to a sexual minority. It is important to break the silence surrounding same-sex harassment since many queer students believe that same-sex harassment does not come under the purview of ICC (UGC 2013).


Fault Lines in the Academic World

Though there are some very conscientious teachers who engage with students in meaningful ways both inside and outside the classroom to kindle a feminist consciousness among them, the teaching fraternity, by and large, remains impervious to gender issues despite lofty claims of being equal rights scholars and activists. Regressive and stereotypical attitudes among faculty members and their refusal to acknowledge the same remain persisting challenges. Gender sensitisation is not a matter for students alone but is required for all stakeholders:  students, faculty, and administration. While the gender cells organise a series of activities for students, similar programmes for faculty and administrative staff are rare. Any suggestion to this effect is met with a recalcitrant and dismissive tone. Similar concerns exist about faculty members who hold positions in gender cells. While I do not wish to undermine the activities of the gender cells of colleges in Mumbai, my interaction with cell members from some colleges compels me to raise questions about the efficacy of the programmes being organised. Is the constitution of a gender cell simply an exercise in tokenism? Activities and programmes of the cells must reflect how a complex set of cultural, social, and institutional factors intersect to sustain multiple patriarchies and how one might disrupt/destabilise these hegemonic ideas. This in turn will engage students in a meaningful process of self-reflection and introspection. The faculty members should in no way perpetuate and reinforce gendered identities and roles, or engage in essentialism by extolling “ideal” feminine or masculine virtues. The examples below demonstrate my apprehensions in this regard.  

A Women's Studies Centre in a college in Mumbai organises an intercollegiate competition called “Best Out of Waste” on the theme “Eco-friendly Home Decor.” One is pushed to ask how this helps in disseminating any feminist ideas? Does it in any way subvert/pose a challenge to established gender roles or does it simply reproduce the existing hierarchies and perpetuate a distorted understanding of gender roles? Another college organises a debate competition on “Gender Disparity” with the following scenarios: “Who is the more complicated gender: men or women;” “are there advantages of being men over women;” and “advantages of dress code for women.”

Attempts to frame the gender discourse within binaries/dichotomies is misleading and highly reductionist, imputing simplified meanings to a complicated terrain. Competitions like the above clearly indicate how ideas of gender fluidity and gender spectrum have barely entered the discourse around gender at the undergraduate level. 


The Way Forward

Mere institution of ICCs may not serve the purpose. What is required is a campus sensitive to questions of gender and committed to an environment of equity and equanimity for multiple genders. The first concrete step in this direction would be to strengthen the university women development cells so that they can play a larger and more meaningful role and establish collaborations with affiliated colleges. Second, the student members on the college gender issues cells/women development cells and the ICCs must be empowered to report instances of sexual harassment among their peers. Most often these complaints are in the nature of whispers among students and do not reach the committee members. Third, the teaching community should open itself up to scrutiny and confront its prejudices. Fourth, we need to call out not just the sexual predators, but also their allies and collaborators (these may be persons in positions of power) who collude to cover up their acts of misdemeanour or seek to legitimise such transgressions. New entrants to the system such as new faculty members and non-teaching members (especially those in professional courses who are visiting faculty) must be oriented right at the beginning about gender-appropriate conduct both inside and outside the classrooms. 

What we need is a system that is inclined to take a firm, non-negotiable stand on sexual harassment in order to combat the culture of silence and impunity that is inimical to gender justice in institutions of learning. The publication of the list of alleged sexual harassers affords an opportunity to turn the gaze inwards and introspect where we might have even failed to see the gaps, before addressing them. This is a moment that we must seize and ponder over the systemic lapses that may have contributed to the rage among the young feminists. and perhaps reflect upon what a pioneer of Women's Studies had commented years ago, that we must desist from creating hierarchies “between those who claim longer experience and theoretical rigor and new entrants who have the concern but not the experience” (Mazumdar 1994:50). 


This article is a part of the Special Feature Power and Relationships in Academia. To read other articles in this feature, click here. 

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