An incident of slut-shaming and sexism that took place in a Kolkata institution almost a year ago recently came to light in the press, and has now even made international headlines. In October 2021, a young professor at St. Xavier’s University was summoned to meet the management. She alleges that she was subject to a “witch trial”, during which she was condemned for photographs of herself in swimwear. The parent of an undergraduate student who had been caught viewing them had lodged a complaint against the professor, alleging that her photographs were “sexually explicit”.

            The photos had been uploaded to her private Instagram account, were not taken on university premises, and were posted months before she joined the faculty. The professor says they were put up as IG Stories, which disappear after 24 hours. She was forced to resign, and has written in the press about the serious consequences this had for her and her family financially and health-wise. In the meanwhile, the institution has reportedly sued her for defamation, to the tune of a whopping 99 crore rupees.

Father Felix Raj, the university’s Vice-Chancellor, claimed in an interview that the professor had admitted that she had given her students access to her Instagram. If the institution’s version is correct, the professor’s choice to accept follow requests from students, thus blurring certain professional boundaries, would certainly have been wrong. But that doesn’t resolve the logical issue: if the IG Stories had been posted months before she joined the university, how could she or why would she have granted access to students she had not even met?

What is uncontested is that the account was private. It is unclear whether any action has been taken against the student who may have cyberstalked the professor, using means that could have included hacking or fake accounts. At the very least, they had access to circulated screenshots, a possibility that then takes this entire situation into the terrain of stolen images. The disgusting underbelly of photographic phishing in India – when photos of a person are stolen, circulated, given false captions, morphed and more –  is the reason why many women have private accounts. Evidently, even those do not provide enough safeguards.

There is some amount of misogyny at the core of this issue, no matter how you look at it. The professor has every right to dress as she wants to in her personal time, and to document and even to share this – even on a public account, if she so wishes. Her wardrobe has no bearing on her work, and neither does any aspect of her private life. The student’s intrusion, and then the parent’s intrusion (with the expectation that authorities punish the professor), into her private life is categorically unscrupulous behaviour. The institution has been more than heavy-handed, and tarnished its own reputation in the process.

The professor has written anonymously that she has “settled for being a cautionary tale for the time being”. But the caution, one hopes, will not be for others like her. It should, when the dust settles, only be for creepy individuals and conservative institutions who do not respect the rights of others.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in September 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.