#MeToo: In Institutions of Higher Education

 
 

The courage of these women, part of the #MeToo movement, in media, in the movies and in the corporate sector, is admirable. They are coming out and talking about how they were humiliated, intimidated and told that their fledgling careers would be squashed. However, there have been a few criticisms of the #MeToo movement on the grounds of its being a movement of the urban elite women. Poor women, in rural areas and smalls town in India are routinely intimidated, molested, raped and much more. While this is true it does not make the #MeToo movement of the ‘urban’ women any less important. This is a historic moment in the women’s movement in India.

In this post we bring to light a case of sexual harassment in an institution of higher education where a lone woman fought against a predator who happened to be none other than the head of the institution[1]. This occurred shortly before the #MeToo movement got underway in India. This incident is noteworthy because many women in academic settings do not report on sexual harassment they may have faced. Why? In a recent interview on television with faculty and students in a university in Gwalior, a medium sized town in Central India, women brought out the torment they faced in the workplace. These women pointed out that they had struggled and fought with their families and society to be allowed to come from small towns and rural areas to study and work in the big town. They dared not tell their parents, brothers, or sisters if they were faced with this situation as the immediate reaction would have been to give up the study or job and return home. So they suffered and managed the situation as best they could. Hopefully, over time these women will also have the courage to call out such behavior and will be supported by the #MeToo movement.
The case we discuss is that of the woman staff member who chose to call out harassment in an educational institution. The predator had been engaging in inappropriate behavior with the staff and students of the institute, but he faced his Waterloo when he targeted a lady staff member, who unfortunately for him, had been a journalist in her previous avatar and did not intend to take it lying down. Institutions of higher education are places where the academic and personal freedom of members of the faculty and staff are protected. This predator had started to intervene in the personal freedom of the employees. For instance he issued a dictum that no employee could leave town on weekends without his permission! But the worst was still to come.
Once, while attending the valedictory function of an executive programme conducted by professors at the institution, experts in quantitative methods, the predator remarked “So these professors have been raping you with quantitative techniques?” The professors, other members of the faculty present and participants of the programme were stunned! The women participating in the programme were, to say the least, embarrassed. The professors conducting the programme should have called it out and objected. But they did not. Another such incident was at an official meeting attended by a number of women staff members where he commented “There are only two kinds of people in the world, either a virgin or not a virgin!” Again no one called this out. Even worse were his inappropriate posts and videos of young girls participating in sports events on the official website of the institution. The mother of the girl, a staff member, whose video had been posted, did not think there was anything wrong with the video. This is how the predator becomes bold and assumes he can get away with anything as no one is willing to take the call. It also reflects on the socialization of women in the country who do not see anything inappropriate in such behaviour. This is a good reason to commend the women who are calling out big names in various industries under the #MeToo movement. After the survivor filed the sexual harassment charge, the post was removed. However, the internet and social media technology is such that most of these posts, messages, emails etc. can be retrieved even if deleted. All power to the technology, media and women!
There are formal mechanisms for addressing such unwelcome behaviour. The Vishaka Guidelines were formulated in 1997 in response to a PIL filed by a women’s rights group Vishaka, following the Bhanwari Devi gang rape case. She was gang raped apparently because she had prevented a child marriage in Rajasthan while performing her duty as a social worker. It took many years before this became an Act, The Sexual Harassment of Women in the Workplace Act, 2013. Following the Vishaka Guidelines and later the Act of 2013 the UGC and AICTE, regulatory bodies of Universities and technical institutions, had formulated strict rules for educational institutions regarding setting up an Internal Complaints Committees (ICC) to which complaints of harassment or discrimination can be addressed. According to the Handbook of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, 2015 any unwelcome acts or behaviour such as physical contact/advances, demand/request for sexual favours, making sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography, any other unwelcome, physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment https://www.ugc.ac.in/pdfnews/3284424_Handbook.pdf.
Most institutions do have such functioning and active committees. This is unlike what we are hearing now about political parties and the movie industry which does not have such institutions that people can rely on. While ICCs exist in educational institutions, the women who work in them obviously belong to the same social milieu and are not very anxious to file a complaint often fearing for their jobs or grades in their courses. In an interview to the Indian Express (Indian Express, October 19, 2018) retired Justice Sujata Manohar, who was part of the three-judge bench that formulated the Vishaka Guidelines, said that the Vishaka Guidelines were recommended for someone who was harassed in the present. They had not considered what to do in incidents that took place in the past. She felt there was a need to reexamine many things in the Indian Penal Code and also grade the kinds of sexual harassment. Interestingly, she suggested that judges alone could not do that, and perhaps it required the opinion of a Sociologist.
The incidents we describe fit into what constitutes sexual harassment as discussed earlier. After making several innuendos of a sexual nature, the predator finally made some remarks targeting the survivor in an official meeting. She had had enough and the brave lady survivor first lodged a sexual harassment complaint against him to the Internal Complaints Committee. He had not bargained for this. It had escaped him that she was previously a journalist by training and profession.
There are many positive and negative features in this case that need to be highlighted. It was more than a month and the discussions of the ICC were going nowhere. One of the members refused to be a part of the ICC proceedings as a close relative was a witness to the incident. The Governing Board of the institution declared the committee would be reconstituted, but did not do so for long enough to make the survivor anxious. She wrote to the Chairman of the institution. She received a terse and unhelpful response from him because she had hinted that the Board was responsible for the appointment of the predator on an unsuspecting community of the institution. It later emerged that the Board and Selection Committee had indeed not done due diligence on this appointment, and had failed to consider his somewhat sketchy past record.
The news broke out in the newspapers, some even naming the predator. A number of persons and institutions played a positive role and some miracles happened. Many journalists approached the survivor and offered to help. She held back hoping the Board of the institution would take appropriate action. Some academic members on the Board were sympathetic to her case and willing to support her.
As the investigation of the ICC was not moving forward, the survivor reached out to an eminent lady in the region for help. Fortunately this lady gave her sound advice! She told the survivor to file an FIR and a complaint at the Local Complaints Committee (LCC) at the District Collector’s office[2]. And she did. The District Collector turned out to be a decent person, who took the case seriously.  The sympathetic academic Board members got in touch with the Government nominees on the Board and explained the situation. These government nominees took their roles seriously as well and instructed their nominees to the Board meeting to question the Chairman. At the Board meeting, called to discuss this issue, the government nominees stood their ground and questioned the Chairman on his role in this situation. After much questioning, the Chairman agreed to resign, of course on personal grounds. This was the first miracle!
The LCC did its work well and held a series of meetings with the survivor, staff and faculty members of the institution, and the head of the institution. The predator made every effort to thwart the process. He threatened the members of the staff. The staff members were not willing to speak against him to the LCC. The social environment for the survivor deteriorated as people were afraid to speak to her. She faced scary incidents of people randomly running into her with their cycles and motorbikes. This predator was an alumnus of the institution.  The local alumni as well as those on the Board tried to protect the predator! Attempts were made to pressurize the local police and LCC. Shocking, though probably not uncommon, this displayed the ‘Old Boys Club’ syndrome. The District Collector stood steadfast, however.
Fortunately members of the faculty, who were present at the meeting in which he had made direct sexual innuendos against the survivor, spoke up to the LCC. In some sense a second miracle, given that they were all young colleagues looking to forward their academic careers. And the final miracle! The LCC did its job and all the allegations were corroborated. The District Collector issued a notice to the predator to leave the premises. The survivor and members of the faculty who spoke up were vindicated and the institution, members of the staff and students were saved of any further inappropriate behaviour.  The whole process from filing the complaint to the ICC till the District Collector issued the notice to the predator took a little more than six months.
We need to reemphasize a few important points arising from this incident of sexual harassment, particularly as the complaint was successfully resolved. This, we believe, will help young women faced with a similar situation. First, when a charge is made against powerful people in an institution the survivor is under tremendous pressure and personal risk. She requires support. Second, the survivor has to file an FIR at the local police station. Third, if the powerful predator tries to thwart the process in the ICC constituted by the institution or if the institution does not have an ICC, the victim can resort to filing a complaint with the Local Complaints Committee at the District Collector’s office. The LCC is a mandatory institution available in every district. External help is essential in such circumstances. Finally, while the decision to file a complaint is difficult, once done, no stone should be left unturned to pursue the matter to its very end. One never knows where the best advice and help could come from.


[1]This is a true incident written with the permission of the survivor, to whom I extend my gratitude for letting me share her story. The identity of the survivor and institution are deliberately not disclosed. However, if there is any mistake in representation of the story, the fault is entirely mine and I apologize in advance for the same. The intention is to focus on the positive issues and impact of the case.
[2] According to the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2013, the District Officer is required to constitute a Local Complaints Committee (LCC) at each district in the country, and if required at the block level. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_Harassment_of_Women_at_Workplace_(Prevention,_Prohibition_and_Redressal)_Act,_2013
 
 

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