When Fathima Latheef, the first year IIT Madras student who killed herself on November 9, blamed her professor Sudarshan Padmanabhan for her death, she opened up a discussion on how some teachers and professors abuse their power and harass students, especially the women.
Opening up to the public three days after Fathima committed suicide, Gowri Yale, a veterinary doctor from Bangalore shared her experience of studying in a government-run veterinary and agricultural college in Karnataka.
For five years where she had to tolerate sexual harassment from the male students and sexist comments from professors.
Excerpts from her Facebook post shared on November 12:
“Veterinary college wasn’t a comfortable place for girls. Not because of anything else. It was only because the boys made sure they harassed us.
The first few weeks of college involved walking to class with 100s of senior class boys in the corridor hooting, grunting and moaning out our names. Some even threw paper and chalk at us. Between classes a bunch of them would come into the classroom and ask us lewd questions and leave with a remark “learn to respect us”.
Besides that, vulgar drawings were etched on the wall and our wooden desks with our names on it. There is one I will never forget. It was a drawing of a woman spreading her legs and a huge phallic object entering her, captioned “Gowri tullige bekkina tunne” meaning “A cat’s penis for Gowri’s vagina”.
I was hurt with these kinds of messages repeatedly like many other girls on our campus, but I didn’t understand this one fully. That evening I went to a final year, “Sudhakka, why a cat’s penis?” Her eyes welled up with tears and she said, “let it go”, “don’t bother about these things, you have to survive 5 more years, this is just the beginning of college”. I didn’t leave her room until she explained why a cat.
Once she did, I felt so helpless and miserable. I wanted to go home. I wanted to be somewhere safe. Cat penises are covered with spicules that hurt.”
Her Facebook post – which has gathered over 82 comments, liked by more than 1600 people and has been shared 678 times – was the product of the frustration Gowri felt when she heard of similar stories of harassment from fellow women veterinarians and some from those who are still being trained.
Speaking to The Lede, the 35-year-old veterinarian said, “Whatever I had faced in college between 2002 and 2007 left scars. But when I heard that girls in veterinary colleges still have to undergo such harassment, I thought I had to do something about it.”
She said that a major reason for girls to be mistreated at these colleges is the skewed sex ratio among students. “When I joined this college in Karnataka, there was only one girl in both the fourth and the fifth years. There were five girls in the third year, two in the second year and four in my batch of about 70 students. Also, there was no woman faculty on board. As such we were always kind of overpowered and many took to only tolerating the abuse in silence,” Gowri said.
“The boys would throw chalk and paper balls at us, call out our names lewdly in class, while we were walking from one class to the other and even while making or way to the mess,” she added.
She formulated this experience in her post:
“Our five years of under graduation was a constant battle. We would constantly hear hurtful remarks. It was not restricted to only lady parts, they took liberty to comment on our weight, colour, height, skin texture, caste, religion and where we came from.
They yelled from the hostel windows, commented in the corridors, shouted from the back of classrooms, threw chalk at us. If our braid was on our shoulder, they would hoot that we were in heat. If we wore a new dress, it was about what was underneath. We could hear them tell each other to look into our dress if we were bending over to look into a microscope, treating a patient, sitting at our desk.
If we scored well in our exams, it was because we have breasts and a vagina. We would get anonymous calls on the landline with ugly description of our body parts. Later, when we had cell phones, we started getting sick messages from countless phone numbers. So many that the phone memory would shut down. We had to also be vigilant from some of them touching or brushing against us in practical classes.
The library magazines and newspaper had collective squiggly commentary about us wherever there was a woman model in a print ad. Some masters students would explain in class how useless women are professionally. I can go on. If we complained and administration took action, the harassment increased.”
Also, the harassment was not always only verbal. “When I was in my third year, on Holi, my roommate and I were walking back from the library and the boys were playing on the playground. We knew this was not good news because they tend to get more rowdy on such days. Just before we reached our hostel a senior vet student from the fourth year threw colour on us,” said Gowri.
“Some of it got into my eyes, so I stood still for a second while my roommate fled. Taking this opportunity, he threw more colour on my face and groped me. I started yelling, I couldn’t see anything, and then I felt another pair of hands feel my waist. I started crying and that cleared my eyes enough to find my way to the hostel door. I felt dirty for so long it was unbearable. I wish I could remove all my female body parts and end this problem once and for all,” she added.
Gowri said that she wrote the post hoping to encourage a better atmosphere in veterinary and agricultural universities. “I am not saying every man from this university is a culprit. Senior students are known to force first year boys into such behaviour too. There were many kind and friendly boys from my class and college that I am still friends with. But their efforts to be nice to us got them into trouble in the boys’ hostel from seniors,” she said.
Arun (name changed), one of the few male friends that Gowri had in college, supported this view. He did not want his identity to be revealed as he works with the men who once harassed the girls in college. “In my first year, there were only two girls in my batch and I had seniors come to my hostel room, demanding I get the girls’ ‘biodata’ but I managed to decline diplomatically,” said Arun.
“I came from a convent background and most of the boys there were from rural areas and so they would stare at the girls like they were aliens or something. It was almost like they have never seen girls. I felt odd, but had to keep to myself and maintain distance from the girls to not invite trouble,” he added.
But it was in their third year that Gowri and Arun finally broke the ice and became friends.
It was during an all-India training tour that both interacted and realised that they had something in common. “Gowri was also convent educated and we clicked. Obviously, the boys in college assumed we were dating and would tease me about it, but by then I had learned how to ignore it,” Arun said.
Amid this disturbing trend in college, the only person in power that the girls could approach was their dean.
“I must say that our dean did try to bring things under control. There were announcements made during assembly that nobody should mistreat female students and that action would be taken against those who do so, but it did not have much impact,” said Gowri.
She added that at times when the girls complained to the dean about certain boys, they would be punished or told off, but their friends would take up the baton and seek revenge.
“That’s why most girls would not take it up with the authorities as it would only increase the harassment,” said Gowri.
The absence of women faculty also worsened matters as most of the professors at the college were sexist and inherently took to encouraging harassment, said Gowri. This was supported by Suchitra (named changed) who was Gowri’s junior and underwent similar abuse.
The 33-year-old veterinarian did not want her name to be revealed as she is currently working in an institute with the same people who used to harass her in college.
Speaking about the attitude of the professors at the veterinary college, Suchitra said, “I had topped the class in my second year and instead of congratulating me, one of professors said: ‘What was the need for you to top? As it is you guys enjoy a reservation. You will either get a job through that or get married and eat off your husband’s income. So why not let the boys win the medal? It’ll help them get good jobs and marriage prospects.’ With such professors around, what could deter the boys from picking on us?”
Women in Karnataka get a 33% reservation in government institutes and offices.
Suchitra has studied in a co-education school and this kind of behaviour from the boys at the college shocked her. “Some of the professors were worse. Once in class, while explaining about venom found in poisonous bugs, the professors said: ‘The female bugs are more venomous than the males. This is exactly how we see among humans.’ Casual sexist remarks such as this were almost a routine in college. We felt that we were never taken seriously,” said Suchitra.
The college did not have a counselor or even a professor that they could seek help from. The dean, although, helpful could do little without inciting the friends of any of the boys who were hauled up for misbehaviour.
There were 10 girls in Suchitra’s batch and with the increased number, the girls found courage in each other. “The hostel was about 500 metres away from the college and the 10 of us would always stick together while walking to and fro because then the cat calls were more generic and the boys we came across would not make too personal remarks,” she said.
Here, Gowri added, “None of us looked forward to class. We gritted our teeth and held back our tears. Many of us suffered depression, low self-image, anxiety from fear of going to class, psychosomatic disorders, eating disorders, insomnia, poor health and poor life choices.”
For Suchitra, five years at the institute made her believe that this is the behaviour that she should always expect from her male peers. That was until she moved to Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh for higher education between 2013 and 2016.
“I was the only girl among seven students in the course and I expected things to get worse for me, but my batchmates surprised me. They went the extra mile to make sure that I felt safe and comfortable. They treated me like they treated their friends. I really was taken aback,” Suchitra said.
Things, however, seem to have taken a turn for the better as on a recent visit to her college recently and found that the number of girls taking up the course has increased considerably. “I saw 22 girls in one of the batches. And they seem feisty. The catcalls and harassment continue, but it does not seem so potent anymore as the girls tend to fight back now,” the veterinarian said.
“They even have a woman on the faculty now. Hope with these changes, the administration is able to bring an end to the harassment within the campus. Sometimes, I wonder if things could have been different if we had the same kind of courage that these girls have,” Suchitra said with a smile.
In 2018, then Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development in New Delhi Satya Pal Singh had stated in the Lok Sabha that universities and colleges across the country reported a 50% increase in sexual harassment cases in 2017 compared to previous year. Data on such cases this year was not available.
Quoting data from the University Grants Commission (UGC), Singh had said 149 cases of sexual harassment were reported from universities and 39 cases from colleges and other institutions in 2017.
In 2016, 94 such cases were reported from universities and 18 from colleges and institutions. This data was collected only from New Delhi and there is no system in place yet to collect information on such harassment cases from different states.
The minister had also said that UGC had set up a task force in 2013 to review the existing arrangements for the safety and security of girls and women on campuses of higher educational institutions.
Here are its recommendations: